November 18, 1985: Willie McGee is named National League MVP

In the midst of his remarkable 1985 season, Willie McGee was invited to a Kiwanis luncheon where he was going to be honored for his humility. When the Cardinals outfielder arrived, there was a line at the door, so instead of stepping in front of those awaiting tickets, he joined the line. When he got to the front, he sheepishly said, “I’m Willie McGee. This luncheon’s for me.”[1]

McGee’s penchant for avoiding the spotlight never wavered, even after he was voted the National League MVP that fall.

“I’m not going to look at it as making me a better person or another person,” said McGee, whose father Hurdice spent four decades as a machinist at the Oakland Naval Yard and worked additional jobs to make ends meet, including stints as a janitor.[2] “I’m going to come out next year and just try to do better. Hopefully, I’m not going to let it affect my life.”[3]

McGee’s .353 batting average that season won the National League batting title, easily eclipsing the .320 average shared by the Dodgers’ Pedro Guerrero and the Expos’ Tim Raines. He also posted league highs in hits (216) and triples (18) while adding 10 homers, 82 RBIs, and 56 stolen bases. Along the way, McGee went on two 11-game hit streaks and combined with Vince Coleman to set a record for the most stolen bases in a season by two teammates (166).

His breakout season – and 17 game-winning RBIs – were a big reason why the Cardinals won the National League pennant that season.

McGee’s batting average was the highest by a switch hitter in National League history, beating the .348 averages posted by Frankie Frisch with the Giants in 1923 and Pete Rose with the Reds in 1969. He became the fourth switch hitter to win the NL MVP, joining Rose, Maury Wills, and Frisch. [4]

“I don’t know what I’m capable of doing, but this gives me an idea,” McGee said. “If someone asked me at the start of the year if this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have thought I was at that stage yet.”[5]

McGee’s accolade marked the 17th time a Cardinal had won the MVP Award. Previous award winners included Rogers Hornsby, 1925; Bob O’Farrell, 1926; Jim Bottomley, 1928; Frisch, 1931; Dizzy Dean, 1934; Joe Medwick, 1937; Mort Cooper, 1942; Stan Musial in 1946, 1946, and 1948; Marty Marion, 1948; Ken Boyer, 1964; Orlando Cepeda, 1967; Bob Gibson, 1968; Joe Torre, 1971; and Keith Hernandez, 1979.

“The award shows that I put everything together,” McGee said. “Everything I did worked.”[6]

McGee received 14 of 24 first-place votes to finish with 280 points. The Reds’ Dave Parker placed second with six first-place votes and 220 points. The Cardinals’ Tom Herr placed fifth, John Tudor finished ninth, Jack Clark was 10th, and Vince Coleman was 11th. Ozzie Smith also received five points in the voting.

“It would be interesting to me, if the St. Louis Cardinals took a 25-man vote, who they would pick as their most valuable player – Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr, or Jack Clark,” said Rose, Parker’s manager in Cincinnati. “Not to take anything away from Willie McGee because he had a great year, but I think the Cardinals still would have done well without him in the lineup. But we could not have done the job we did if Dave Parker would have been out for any length of time.”

Parker finished the year with a .312 batting average, 34 homers, and 125 RBIs. Guerrero, who placed third in the voting, hit .320 with 33 homers and 87 RBIs and Dwight Gooden placed fourth after going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts over 276 2/3 innings.

“With the type of year he had, Willie should have been a unanimous choice for MVP,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said. “He keeps working at it. He’s never satisfied. He’s a very humble young man and he wants to do better.”[7]

With Coleman batting leadoff and stealing 110 bases, McGee batting second, Herr batting third and driving in 110 runs, and Clark batting cleanup and hitting 22 home runs, the Cardinals’ first four hitters each finished in the top 11 in the MVP voting.

“He was definitely a plus,” McGee said of batting behind Coleman. “Just like Vince helped me, I helped Tommy Herr and Tommy helped Jack Clark. But also I helped Vince Coleman a lot too. I think I put myself in the hole a lot by taking a lot of first pitches.”[8]

McGee also gave credit to Smith, who welcomed McGee into his home when McGee first came up to the big leagues.

“He led me right,” McGee said of Smith. “He made my transition to the big leagues a lot easier. I wasn’t going into anything blind. Ozzie definitely was the biggest contributor in my career.”[9]

“I told you in spring training that he was ready to blossom,” Smith said. “I knew the only thing that would hold him back were injuries.”[10]

McGee’s 1985 season proved to be the best of his career, as he posted highs in batting average, hits, runs, triples, and stolen bases. In 1990, he won a second batting title, hitting .335 with the Cardinals before he was traded to the Athletics.

“Willie should hit for a high average most of his life,” Herzog said after McGee was named MVP. “I would say that for the next five, six, seven years that he should hit .330 all the time. If you put him in another ballpark, he’d probably hit 15 home runs, but I’d rather have him hit 10 home runs and 20 triples.”[11]

“I’d rather be known as an all-around player who can help a team win in several different ways, not just a one-dimensional player like a home run hitter,” McGee said.[12]

As McGee played through his age-40 season, he remained a multi-dimensional player. Through 18 seasons, he compiled 2,254 hits, a .295 batting average, and 352 stolen bases. Along the way, he was selected for four all-star games and won three Gold Glove Awards.

“He could do everything,” Bob Forsch said, “and he never said anything boastful. It was like he was surprised he was that good.”[13]


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

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

[3] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[4] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[5] Ross McKeon, “McGee takes it in stride,” San Francisco Examiner, November 19, 1985.

[6] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[7] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[8] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[9] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[10] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[11] Rick Hummel, “McGee is 17th MVP For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1985.

[12] Ross McKeon, “McGee takes it in stride,” San Francisco Examiner, November 19, 1985.

[13] Rob Rains and Alvin A. Reid (2002), Whitey’s Boys: A Celebration of the ’82 Cards World Championship, Chicago; Triumph Books, 76.

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