The National League MVP vote in 1973 was the closest of the decade, as Cincinnati’s Pete Rose edged Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell, 274-250. Rose received 12 1st place votes to Stargell’s 10. The finish was considered controversial by Pirate fans and Rose haters alike, so I thought a closer look was in order.
Stargell- Willie had a dominant year by any standards. He was only 2 years removed from another outstanding season, in 1971, when he had blasted 48 homers with 125 RBI, only to finish second in MVP voting to St Louis’ Joe Torre, who took the honors on the strength of a .363 batting average and 137 RBI. I think sometimes the ‘shock effect’ of a player performing so far above their career norms captures the writer’s attention, and certainly helped Torre’s cause. While it’s debatable which man had better numbers, what was surprising was the voting landslide (318-222) in Torre’s favor. Anyway, Stargell topped himself in 1973 with 90 extra base hits (43 doubles, 3 triples, and 44 homers), the most for any player during the decade, while slugging .646, the ’70s second highest mark. He batted .299 with 80 walks, good for a .392 on-base %, and drove in 119 runs. Willie added 14 outfield assists, 13 from left field.
Rose- The major league all-time hits leader notched his only MVP in 1973 by leading the majors with 230 hits, most in the National League during the ’70s. The durable Rose led baseball with 680 at-bats, 181 singles, and 301 times reaching base. He won the NL batting title with a .338 average to go with a .402 on-base %, 36 doubles, and 115 runs scored. Less talked about was Pete’s defense – he led all leftfielders in range factor and in putouts (345) and assists (15), while finishing second in fielding %. Batting leadoff, he was a catalyst for the NL West Champions, who had an MLB best 99 wins. While the Reds were upset by the Mets in the NLCS, it was no fault of Rose, who went 8-21 (.381) with 2 home runs, one an 8th inning game-tying shot off Tom Seaver in Game 1, and the other a 12th inning game winner in Game 4.
Others- I have heard it argued that the #3 finisher, San Francisco’s Bobby Bonds, and #4 finisher Cincinnati second baseman Joe Morgan were also more deserving than Rose. Bonds won a Gold Glove for his play in right field, and led the league with 341 total bases and 131 runs scored for the Giants, who finished in 3rd place with 88 wins. He hit .283 with 39 homers, 43 stolen bases, and drove in 96 runs. Morgan led all position players with 9.2 WAR (wins above replacement), plus won a Gold Glove at second and had a .406 on base %, 67 steals, 26 home runs, 35 doubles, and 116 runs scored.
Conclusion- Rose’s hard nosed play and clutch performances transcended even his lofty statistics, and he gets my vote as the most deserving choice. A strong argument could be made that Stargell was only the fourth most valuable player in the league behind not only Rose, but also Bonds and Morgan. Those three players could beat you in a different way every day, while Willie’s game, while awe-inspiring, was much more one-dimensional, based almost exclusively on sheer power. It was not nearly enough to prevent the Pirates from losing their grip on the NL East with a disappointing 80-82 3rd place finish. Morgan would go on to win the award twice, in 1975, and 1976, as Reds players won the award in 6 of the decade’s first 8 seasons. Bonds, who had perhaps the most raw talent of all four players, and was one of the greatest power-speed men the game ever saw, was never an MVP. Stargell was a co-winner with St Louis first baseman Keith Hernandez, in 1979.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His most recent book, 1970s All-Star Baseball: A History of the Decade’s All-Star Games can be found on Amazon:
His bestselling 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: