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Thomas recalls time with Stargell fondly

April 21, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

When Pittsburgh Pirate Hall of Famer Willie Stargell died April 9, many people lost a hero, some lost a teammate and others lost a friend.

For Imperial's Stan Thomas, the loss of Stargell was a combination of all three.

For six years starting in 1963, Thomas played in the Pittsburgh Pirate minor league system and was a teammate of the late Hall of Famer. For those six seasons Stargell and fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente looked after Thomas and a few other players.

"Will was just that type of guy," said the 55-year-old Thomas. "When we were playing he and Clemente would keep me and a few of the other rookies after practice and teach us how to play the outfield. For someone to take some guys who play the same position and help them get better is something you just don't see. They just took us under their wing because that's just the type of guys they were.

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"At the time I didn't really think about why they tried to help us out. I just figured maybe some of the coaches put them up to it, but I found out later that not everyone does that type of thing. I guess they just saw the potential in us and that's one of the reasons why they helped us."

Stargell also provided some important off-field advice. During the 1960s racism against African-Americans was still strong, especially in the South, where Thomas and some of his teammates spent their off- seasons. Having been there and established relationships in certain areas, Stargell advised Thomas on where to go and where to stay away.

"At that time, especially down in the South, racism was really bad. And he taught me a few things about where to go and who to stay with and just maintain myself down there," said Thomas. "If he wouldn't have taught me the things he did, I probably would have been shot."

Thomas got through his time in the South without incident and played alongside other Pirate greats such as Al Oliver, Doc Ellis and Bill Mazeroski.

Thomas last got together with Stargell during the 1993 baseball season when both were in Seattle for an old-timers game. It was there that Thomas met future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Thomas' career was cut short in 1969 when he was injured attempting to slide into a base, but he has competed in various old-timers games since then. Every now and then, though, he said he'll get flashbacks about his playing days and his time spent with Stargell.

"When I found out he died I just couldn't believe it because he meant so much to me. I mean, he took care of me like a dad. I guess that's why they called him Pops," said Thomas. "When we were with him he would take us out to church with him and just made us feel comfortable. Everything he did was more than special. He was like my pop. And all I can say is, thank you Pops."

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