Willie Stargell

March 7, 2007

If one’s employment experiences could be transposed into baseball card statistics, the back of my own card could serve as a polar opposite to the back of Willie Stargell’s. The roots of this difference (which would open into full bloom in the disparity between Stargell’s majestic numbers and the spotty data produced from my mostly half-assed participation in the American workforce) would be found in the litany of transience along the left-hand margin. On the back of this Willie Stargell card, on the left-hand margin, there is one word repeated again and again. Pirates. Willie Stargell signed with the Pirates in 1958, and he retired from baseball as a Pirate in 1982: 24 years with one organization. In my own 24 years of employment (I’m pretty sure I got my first job, stuffing inserts into a woodstove company newsletter, at age 15, and I’m 39 now), I’ve held 24 different jobs. A few of them lasted a day, many for a few months, some for a couple years, and one, my liquor store job, for a period of time that generally seemed no more substantial than a span of aimless weeks but which turned out to be the better part of a decade.

I’ve had a lot of people who were the boss of me, and I guess I’ve been fairly lucky, all in all. No tyrants, a few oddballs, the occasional would-be mentor. There was the ice cream store manager who played bass in a band that sounded, as he once told me while passing me a joint of his pot in the basement, “just like Grand Funk Railroad”; the college maintenance worker who I was assigned to as a helper whose motto for every task was “fuck it; good enough”; the leather store owner with a divot in his arm where a concentration camp tattoo had been who hired me to watch out for shoplifters and who told me, repeatedly, to “be a mensch.”

“You know what a mensch is?” this boss would ask. Oskar Adler was his name. His wife had been in the camps, too.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. You’ve already told me a million times, I’d think. I thought he had a bad memory.

I was bored out of my mind that summer, 19 years old, leaning on a broom for eight unending hours in the small, hot warehouse amid towering stacks of completely uninteresting cowhide. I ended up quitting before I’d said I was going to, making up some preposterous lie that I was needed early back at college, as if there was some emergency at my obscure state school that only I could solve. This left him short-handed for the last weeks of the summer. Fuck it, I was thinking. Good enough.

Oskar Adler didn’t complain. He even drove me home from the Spring Street warehouse to my Mom’s apartment in Brooklyn on my last day. Before I got out of the car he firmly shook my hand with his Nazi-surviving grip. He held the grip and looked me in the eye.

“Josh, be a mensch,” he said. “You know what a mensch is?”

“I know, I know.” He gave my hand one last squeeze.

“Be a mensch,” he said.

I really thought I knew what a mensch was, too. I mean, he had explained it to me a hundred times. But of course you can’t simply say you know what a mensch is. You have to be a mensch, which is not easy. You have to be solid, stable, reliable. A pillar for others, a constant in a changing world. Someone to lean on and to draw strength from.

You have to be Willie Stargell. Or at least try.


One comment

  1. 1.  11 comments from the old CG site:

    Anonymous said…
    All the more a good reason to keep including Wille Stargell cards in every new Topps set each year…..


    9:37 AM

    Michael said…
    You’re so fucking good you make my head hurt.


    11:55 AM

    Gus and Fer said…
    Josh, don’t be too hard on yourself. Very few of us measure up to Willie Stargell, a mensch’s mensch.

    Also, the Pirates never had to worry about losing Pops to free agency The team and city treated Clemente like shit pretty much until he died; you gotta think if leaving were a genuine option, Stargell would have considered it. I suspect there were friendlier and more lucrative settings where he could have mensch-ed up (any number of California teams come to mind).

    He’s no less and no more a Hall of Famer for staying in Pittsburgh. You’re no less and no more Wilkerized for having multiple employers, and maybe you appreciate Mr Adler more. More than Chuck Tanner or Bill Virdon? Too bad Pops isn’t still around for you and he to have that conversation.

    1:06 PM

    pm said…

    He was a mensch AND a macher…

    5:12 PM

    Jon said…
    11 employers in 23 years; but one of the years had a Kingmanesque stretch of 3 in 3 months.

    That’s a wild Pirates uniform.

    5:20 PM

    Josh Wilker said…
    Michael, thanks for the encouraging praise. I appreciate it.

    Jon: That is a wild Pirates uniform, but not quite as wild as the Pirates uniforms got as the ’70s drew even near to their cocaine-addled close. (I hope to soon attempt to at least begin to address the Pirates “mix and match gone insane” late-late ’70s style in a forthcoming essay on Grant Jackson.) One of the things I like about this particular Stargell card (besides the man’s undeniably soulful expression) is that it displays the “regular hat under batting helmet” look that has completely vanished from the face of the earth. I know, as Gus and Fehr suggested, that Pops probably could have cashed in if his time in the bigs coincided more with the wide-open player movement we see now, but I’m personally glad I never had to see the great Pittsburgh macher/mensch jammed into a San Diego Padres uniform, for (a particularly horrifying) example.

    6:20 PM

    Jon said…
    Appropos of nothing, I decided to create a Cardboard Gods All-Star team of the Gods profiled so far:

    C- Johnny Bench
    1B – Willie McCovey
    2B – Rich Dauer(?)
    that’s a weak position
    3B – Ron Santo
    SS – Ozzie Smith
    LF – Jim Rice
    CF – Fred Lynn
    RF – Henry Aaron
    P – Tommy John
    RP – Quiz

    I need a spot for Killebrew. Can he DH?

    7:00 PM

    Josh Wilker said…

    Great list! Very fitting too: Sorting guys into various all-star teams was probably the most time-consuming way I had of “spending quality time” with these cards.

    Now I’ll have to work on expanding the pool of 2nd basemen. As of right now, I might take Dave Cash over Dauer; also, I think Toby Harrah had a good season there late in his career.

    Also, If I just had to win one game I’d be tempted to go with Mr. J.R. Richard over Tommy John.

    I wonder if anybody else feels like chiming in on this, maybe round out a 25-man roster….

    8:56 PM

    Anonymous said…
    According to Ogilvie of the Bad News Bears, Henry Aaron “played quite a few games on second base.” That’s good enough for me.

    12:46 PM

    Ellen said…
    I must point out not a single position is filled by a Yankee.

    Tortured by the knowledge that it is most probably my Yankee fan status that compelled me to make this stunningly “DUH” observation, to kick this out like a knee at a reflex hammer, to squeal like a rat at the cocaine bottle — knowing that, I refrained for days. Til now.

    There are no Yankees on your all star team.

    There are no Mets, either.

    10:10 AM

    Josh Wilker said…

    Consider the Yankee exclusion from the CG all-stars a complement to the balance of those Yankee championship teams of the 1970s. They had a slew of very good players (Bill Lee has spoken of the Yankees of that era as a swarm of “samurai”), but I think only Reggie could be considered a Great, and he’s blocked by Hammerin’ Hank in right.

    Fear not, for a near future post I’ll present a 25-man all-star roster culled from the first hundred (or so) Cardboard Gods, and there should be a couple Yanks on it.

    12:25 PM

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