Whenever Willie McGee is in town for a St. Louis Cardinals game and he is introduced, he gets the largest ovation. It doesn’t matter if Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and/or Ozzie Smith are introduced as well. This was true when the 1982 and 1985 teams were honored, and it was true when McGee was here for the first game of the season several years ago.
He remains “a” Cardinal fans’ favorite, if not “the” favorite. Maybe it is because of his “aw shucks” style: He never showboated; he always hustled. He made the impossible look easy at times while playing outfield, and would look terrible in the batter’s box one pitch before lining a triple into the gap on the next.
When you talk about “Whitey Ball,” you’re talking about Willie McGee. It was more than stealing bases, playing defense, and timely hitting. It also involved carrying one’s self as a gentleman. There was no gaudy jewelry. No braids. No tattoos. His pants weren’t pulled down over his shoe tops (although it was teammate George Hendrick who unwittingly created this fashion faux pas, which remains prevalent today.)
He rarely—if ever—argued with umpires. He didn’t get in fights with teammates in hotel lobbies, or with anyone for that matter. Willie McGee was a clean-cut winner. He was a player that was easy to root for and easy to watch play.
During his 17-year career, 13 years were spent with the Cardinals. A mid-season trade in 1990 sent him to Oakland, but he would win the second of his National League batting titles that season, because no NL player could catch his .335 average. He would play for San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston.
He won his first batting crown in 1985 and also the NL MVP award. McGee won three Gold Gloves, the 1985 Silver Slugger award for center field, and played in four All-Star Games.
I think any Cardinal fan that can remember the 1982 World Series will never forget when the world got to see just how fantastic Willie McGee was as a ballplayer.
It was Friday night, October 15. McGee belted two home runs and made two of the best defensive plays in World Series history. He robbed the Milwaukee Brewers’ Gorman Thomas of a home run late in the game, leading manager Whitey Herzog to say after the game, “I don't know if anyone has ever played a better World Series game than Willie.”
If all of these accomplishments weren’t enough, McGee returned to St. Louis in 1996 and finished his career as a Cardinal. After the Redbirds lost the first six games of the season in 1997, the team returned home on a frigid night for the home opener. With the scored tied 1–1 in the bottom of the ninth against the Montreal Expos, McGee hit a pinch-hit game-winning home run.
There has been a Willie McGee Day at the ballpark. There have been reunions of the 1982 and 1985 World Series teams. The 1987 team will certainly be asked to take a bow in 2012, during the 25th anniversary of that pennant-winning squad.McGee will be the toast of the team, even with Ozzie Smith, Jack Clark, and other Cards’ favorites on the field. McGee also will be honored with a bobble-head night on Friday at Busch Stadium.
But there is something that the Cardinals organization can do to forever show McGee the appreciation that he deserves: The team should retire his distinctive No. 51. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. He should not have to be enshrined in the Hall to have his number retired, though.
This is not the first time “Retire 51” has been suggested; in fact, you still can often spot a T shirt or two with that slogan at a Cardinals game. In a season in which the mighty Cardinals have been given a big dose of comeuppance, the front office should rethink its standard for retiring a number and honor McGee in this fashion.
If they aren’t convinced now, just wait until he is introduced on Friday night.
Commentary by Alvin Reid