St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 36: OF Willie McGee

The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50

Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.
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Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 36: WILLIE MCGEE

The St. Louis Cardinals lay claim a total of 37 former players, coaches, executives and associated media members who are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Willie McGee is not one of them and likely never will be.

But, with the exception of Stan Musial — whose bronze likeness greets fans outside the main gate at Busch Stadium — it’s hard to identify another former Cardinals player who is as universally adored in St. Louis. When team ownership put induction to the franchise’s hall of fame up to a vote of the fans in 2014, McGee was the first player they selected.

McGee has authored many great moments, like that autumn evening in Milwaukee, when Willie the Rookie practically won Game 3 of the 1982 World Series all by himself by hitting a pair of home runs and taking another away from Gorman Thomas. But this love affair between city and ballplayer is more profound even than a .295 lifetime batting average, two batting titles and an MVP award in 1985.

Though born and raised in Oakland, California, McGee embodied humble, blue-collar values that made him relatable to fans in the Midwest.

“That’s just how I was raised,” he said. “My dad would take us after his first job, we would do janitorial work, help him clean up buildings in the evening. I’m glad he did to this day, that we could get that experience and learn a good work ethic. It helps you learn to appreciate opportunity.

“I wanted to make sure when I got out of the game that I wouldn’t have any regrets in the end.”

McGee was the first pick of the New York Yankees in the January 1977 Secondary Draft out of Diablo Valley College. But with an all-star outfield of Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Oscar Gamble already entrenched in the Bronx, he found himself stranded in double-A Nashville four years into his professional career.

Whitey Herzog, who was both the Cardinals’ manager and general manager, had a passing interest in McGee, even though he thought he’d already found his new center fielder in rookie David Green. It was during a chance meeting with New York GM Gene Michael in October of 1981 that Herzog offered the Yankees their choice of any left-handed pitcher the Cardinals had in their system in exchange for their speedy switch hitter. Michael picked Bob Sykes, who never pitched another inning in the major leagues.

McGee, meanwhile, started the 1982 season at triple-A Louisville, but got the early call to the majors in May when Green pulled a hamstring in a collision with Atlanta pitcher Steve Bedrosian. Center field was his for next eight seasons.

Los Angeles Dodgers’ second baseman Steve Sax was the National League’s Rookie of the Year, but McGee, who finished third, batted .296 to help St. Louis reach the World Series for the first time in 14 years. In the National League Championship Series against Atlanta, he batted .308, including a home run and a pair of triples in the pennant-clinching win.

The Cardinals went into Game 3 of the World Series in Milwaukee tied with the Brewers at a game apiece. The national television audience couldn’t help but take notice of the St. Louis rookie, who belted a three-run homer in the fifth and another solo shot in the seventh, both off American League Cy Young winner Pete Vuckovich. Then, with one on and one out in the ninth, McGee scaled the center field wall to retrieve a would-be Thomas home run from the first row of the bleachers.

Ever the innocent, McGee didn’t understand the crush of attention that followed his performance.

“I came into the locker room ... and I turned around from my locker and I have have rows of reporters probably three wide and all the way back probably halfway to the opposite wall,” he recalled in a 2016 interview. “It’s like you stand up on the seat, and you’re like ‘wow.’ It wasn’t until then that I started to feel the impact of what I was into.”

St. Louis went on to win the series in seven games.

AP_99100301854.jpg
Willie McGee waves to the crowd as he comes to bat as a pinch hitter in the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs, Sunday, Oct. 3, 1999, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. McGee, a fan favorite, was given a standing ovation by the crowd. MARY BUTKUS ASSOCIATED PRESS

McGee was incrementally better each of the next two seasons, batting .286 in 1983 and .291 with 43 stolen bases and 83 runs scored in ‘84. In 1985, he was the best player on one of St. Louis’ most exciting teams.

The Cardinals won 101 games mixing speed and defense with a dash of power provided by newly-acquired slugger Jack Clark and rookie third baseman Terry Pendleton. A controversial call and a Game 7 meltdown cost them their second World Series championship of the decade. Nevertheless, McGee had given them a career year by leading the NL with a .353 batting average, 216 hits and 18 triples. He also drove in 82 runs, doubled 26 times, slugged a career-best .503, stole 56 bases and scored 114 runs to run away with the NL MVP.

St. Louis won the pennant again in 1987, with McGee batting .285 to go with a career-best 11 home runs and 105 RBIs, but fell to the Minnesota Twins in a seven-game World Series.

By 1989, McGee had earned himself a substantial raise, nearly doubling his salary to $1.5 million from just two seasons prior. But owner Gussie Busch had died and his successor, August Busch III, had no interest in sports ownership. On Aug. 29, 1990, the Cardinals traded McGee to Oakland for younger and cheaper prospects, Stan Royer and Felix Jose. At the time the deal was made, McGee was batting .335 and had reached the qualifying number of bats to win his second NL batting crown.

With a new ownership group and manager in place for the 1996 season, McGee returned to St. Louis as a free agent. In each of the next four seasons, he played in at least 120 games and batted. 300 two more times. As the team prepared to tear down Busch Stadium II in 2005, McGee’s 10th inning walkoff home run against Montreal Expos on Opening Day in 1997 was recognized as one of the old ballpark’s most memorable moments.

And still, nearly 20 years since his retirement, McGee puts the St. Louis crowd on its feet when he shows his face as a Cardinals assistant coach.

“You live life, man, you just go be yourself,” he said. “I think I’m just fortunate that I was able to be myself all those years. What you saw out there on a field is who I was. I tried to play the game hard every day.”

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1982-90, 1996-99

KEY STATS

.294 in St. Louis | 3x Gold Glove | 2x NL batting champ | 4x All-Star | WS ring | MVP ‘85 | Cardinals HoF ‘14 | 25.6 WAR

TOP 100 SCORE: 3.48

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
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