October 21, 1981: Yankees’ outfield logjam allows Cardinals to trade for Willie McGee

On the same day that Tommy John threw seven shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 3-0 win over the Dodgers in Game 2 of the 1981 World Series, the Cardinals and Yankees quietly made a deal that would help the Cardinals capture the 1982 world championship.

The trade, which sent Yankees minor league outfielder Willie McGee to the Cardinals for pitcher Bob Sykes, didn’t draw much attention in the press. The New York Daily News, focusing heavily on the World Series, noted the trade in a collection of wire reports near the bottom of Page 105. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t make mention of the trade at all.

The trade was so quiet that neither the Yankees nor Cardinals even called McGee to tell him about it.

“I read about the trade in the small type in the newspaper,” McGee told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985. “I called the club a few days later and said, ‘I think I belong to you? What are your plans for me?’”[1]

McGee originally was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the seventh round of the 1976 amateur draft, but didn’t sign. The following season, the Yankees made him their first-round pick (15th overall) and sent the 18-year-old to their rookie-ball affiliate in Oneonta, New York.

By 1980, McGee had advanced to AA Nashville in the Southern League, but a broken jaw and dislocated hip limited him to just 78 games. With just one home run, 22 RBIs, and seven stolen bases in 15 attempts, his stat sheet wasn’t doing much to attract attention.

Just as importantly, there didn’t appear to be a clear path for McGee to reach the big leagues. That December, the Yankees signed Dave Winfield and placed him in left field, with Jerry Mumphrey in center and Reggie Jackson in right. On the bench, the Yankees had a proven veteran and former all-star in Lou Piniella. With that much talent already on their major-league roster, there didn’t appear to be a roster spot for McGee.

“After two or three years, I started seeing guys with lots of ability year after year have good years and not get moved up,” he said. “I learned with that organization to stop trying to predict because it seems everything you predict, they do the opposite.”[2]

The Yankees saw the same logjam as McGee. Upon signing Winfield, they needed to move someone off their 40-man roster to accommodate their new slugger. Bill Bergesch, the Yankees vice president for player personnel, said the decision was between keeping McGee or another player, and the New York Times identified that player as Ted Wilborn.[3] Wilborn had enjoyed a better season in 1980, batting .270 with six homers, 63 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases for Nashville. As a result, the Yankees outrighted McGee to Nashville, knowing they might lose him in the draft the following year.

In 1981, McGee broke his jaw again, but returned six weeks later sporting a facemask. Cardinals scout Hal Smith saw McGee shortly after his return from the injury and found McGee’s determination as impressive as his speed.[4] That determination paid off, as McGee enjoyed the best season of his minor-league career, batting .322 with seven homers, 63 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases in 100 games that season.

Suddenly, the Yankees appeared certain to lose their young outfielder in the draft.

“Rather than lose him we tried to find out if we could get something in return,” Bergesch said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of interest in him, but we talked to the Cardinals about him. We had made a similar arrangement with them the year before when we got George Frazier for Rafael Santana, another frozen player we had.

“We’re sorry Willie had to get away from us, but under the circumstances, we didn’t have much choice. These things happen all the time in baseball.”[5]

Nonetheless, for the sensitive McGee, the trade was as emotional as it was life-changing. He was excited by the opportunity the Cardinals presented, but also hurt by the Yankees’ willingness to send him to St. Louis. He’d dreamed of playing in Yankees pinstripes. Now that dream was gone.

Weeping, he called his mother to tell her the news. She told him she would pray about it. The next day, she offered a bold prediction: “You’re going to go up next year, and y’all going to win the World Series,” she said.[6]

In exchange for McGee, the Yankees received Sykes, a left-hander from Miami-Dade College whom the Cardinals had acquired in a trade with the Tigers three years earlier. During his first season with the Cardinals in 1979, Sykes had surgery to repair a blood clot in his left shoulder, and he hadn’t fully recovered. In three season in St. Louis, he had gone 12-13 with a 5.08 ERA, splitting his 62 appearances evenly between starts and relief.

Sykes’ injured shoulder never allowed him to gain traction with the Yankees. In 1982, he allowed 33 earned runs in 37 innings with their Triple-A affiliate in Columbus before he was demoted to Double-A Nashville. There, he went 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA over 36 innings, but the Yankees released him anyway that spring.

His professional baseball career was over.

“I’ve gotten a lot of bad press and ridiculed about this,” Sykes said in 1985. “I’ve heard Howard Cosell and others joke about it like it was the worst trade ever made, but it was no lopsided deal. It was a trade for a guy on his way out for a guy on his way up. It just so happened the guy who went out was going way out and the guy on the way up was going way up – he turned out to be a superstar.”[7]

In May 1982, an injury to center fielder David Green prompted the Cardinals to promote McGee from Louisville. By the time Green was healthy enough to return to the lineup, McGee had taken his job. McGee placed third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting that season, batting .296 with four homers, 56 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases. In Game 3 of the World Series, he put on one of the all-time postseason performances in franchise history, hitting two home runs and making a leaping catch to rob Gorman Thomas of a home run.

In 1985, McGee hit .353 to earn National League MVP honors, a Silver Slugger, one of three career Gold Gloves, and make one of four career All-Star Game appearances. His 18-year career would include 13 seasons in St. Louis, and in 2014 he was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame.

“I would have liked to do something for the people in St. Louis while I was there,” Sykes said. “No one was trying harder than me, but frankly, I helped the club a hell of a lot by being traded. I’ll be a Cardinal fan for the rest of my life.”[8]


[1] “McGee N.L. Most Valuable,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 19, 1985.

[2] Jane Gross, “Ex-Yankee Minor Leaguer Becomes a Major Star,” New York Times, June 18, 1982.

[3] Dave Anderson, “Cardinals’ Willie McGee is Not ‘E.T.’” New York Times, October 17, 1982.

[4] Vahe Gregorian, “The Humble Hero,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 1998.

[5] Phil Pepe, “Winfield was reason for trading McGee,” New York Daily News, October 13, 1982.

[6] Vahe Gregorian, “The Humble Hero,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 1998.

[7] Dave Luecking, “Bob Sykes: A Redbird Footnote,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[8] Dave Luecking, “Bob Sykes: A Redbird Footnote,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

 

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