The Ultimate Cardinal: Willie McGee

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This is part of our series on the “Ultimate Franchise Players” in baseball history. These players are not necessarily the greatest players in franchise history. We’ve chosen them because they possessed a unique characteristic that made them one of the most important, beloved, or emblematic players for that franchise.

The St. Louis Cardinals have always had colorful characters: entire teams like the Gashouse Gang or the Runnin’ Redbirds; individuals like Pepper Martin, or Whitey Herzog, and the nearly insane Dizzy Dean or the probably insane Joaquin Andujar.

And of course, they’ve also had a lot of Hall of Famers: Ozzie Smith, Rogers Hornsby, Enos Slaughter, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Stan Musial, to name a few.

Stan Musial is the best player to ever wear the uniform, but the ULTIMATE Redbird would have to be Willie McGee.

Awkward and a bit homely, McGee held two rare, simultaneous virtues: he was singularly talented and sincerely modest: in short, he was a lot like the city. The citizens of St. Louis loved him for it.

McGee came up in 1982, and, as a 23-year old rookie, instantly led St. Louis to a World Series. He became a Cardinal legend in Game Three of the 1982 World Series, when he made two run-saving catches in the outfield, one of them involving a super-human leap-and-stretch high over the County Stadium wall to pull back a two-run home run. He added to these defensive feats at the plate: Willie hit two home runs and drove in four runs. McGee would never again have to buy a meal, provided he was within 300 miles of St. Louis.

But, in truth, McGee was never spectacular. Well, in 1985 he was spectacular (he was the National League Most Valuable Player), but the rest of the time he was just awfully good. He won two batting titles, was a three time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner, and he was a consistent performer in the clutch.

The McGee legend was lifted into an otherworldly realm in the 1996 season. It all started in 1990, when the unthinkable happened: Willie was traded. The Cardinals were in a bad way, as most of their Whiteyball talent was fading or gone, and they needed to deal the aging McGee (31 years old) in order to rebuild. So, the move was logical, but the logic just wouldn’t sit with Cardinal fans. To add insult to injury, McGee was traded during a road trip, so his loving fans never got to say goodbye. Finally, to add salt to the injury, McGee won his second batting title that very year, in a GREEN uniform.

The story has a happy ending. In 1996, after a five-year absence, McGee came back to the Cardinals. He was 37, but he had some good baseball left in him, and he played four more seasons in Cardinal red. This time, Cardinal fans got to say goodbye their way, in a way that couldn’t of happened anywhere else. Willie McGee received a standing ovation EVERY TIME he came to bat in St. Louis — every single time — until the day he retired.


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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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