December 15, 1995: Willie McGee returns to St. Louis

 

On the same day the Cardinals announced that shortstop Ozzie Smith had been medically cleared to play in the upcoming 1996 season, the team reunited with another star from its pennant-winning 1980s teams.

On December 15, 1995, the Cardinals signed Willie McGee to a minor-league contract worth $500,000 if he made the team.[1] Though the Cardinals already had their starting outfield set with Ray Lankford, Brian Jordan, and Ron Gant, general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa both expressed confidence that McGee would serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, backing up all three positions.

“He should be one of our extra outfielders,” Jocketty said. “He adds some veteran strength to our bench. He’s still a serviceable guy, he’s a switch-hitter, he runs well, and he plays a couple of outfield positions.”[2]

“I think he’ll start a bunch of games at the three spots,” La Russa said. “Having him as a switch-hitter is a real weapon. The important thing is that he understands winning. He understands how important it is for guys to pull together and he’s going to talk it up.”[3]

The Cardinals originally obtained McGee in a trade with the Yankees in October 1981. The deal, which took place the same day as Game 2 of the World Series, was so far under the radar that the New York Daily News noted the trade in a collection of wire reports near the bottom of page 105 and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t mention the trade at all.

The following May, an injury to center fielder David Green prompted the Cardinals to call McGee up to the major-league roster. He never looked back, batting .296 with four homers, 56 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases that season to rank third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In Game 3 of that season’s 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 won the National League batting title with a .353 batting average. With 26 doubles, a league-high 18 triples, 10 homers, and 82 RBIs, McGee won the National League MVP and the Silver Slugger Award. He also made the second all-star appearance of his career and won the Gold Glove Award.

1985 Topps

McGee made two more all-star appearances in 1987 and 1988. After helping the Cardinals win the National League pennant in 1982, 1985, and 1987, however, the Cardinals slipped from prominence. The team placed fifth in the National League East in 1988 and finished third in 1989.

In 1990, the Cardinals team McGee knew began to dismantle. In June 1990, Whitey Herzog resigned. On August 29, the Cardinals traded McGee to the Athletics for Felix Jose, Stan Royer, and Daryl Green. After the season, third baseman Terry Pendleton signed a free-agent contract with the Braves and outfielder Vince Coleman signed with the Mets.

“Terry was just getting to his prime,” McGee said. “Vince was getting to his prime. Ozzie was still holding his level of play. I was coming off a batting title. I wonder if my level of play would have stayed where it was if I had stayed? I’m sure it would have. I think my numbers would have been better if I had stayed.”[4]

McGee was batting .335 at the time of his trade, and by the end of the season, that average was higher than any other player in the National League. With Eddie Murray placing second with a .330 average (though finishing the year with the highest batting average in the majors), McGee won the second batting title of his career.

In Oakland, McGee played under La Russa, batting .274 with 15 RBIs and three stolen bases in 29 games. After the season, he signed with San Francisco, where he played for four seasons. His career appeared over in 1994 when he injured his Achilles tendon, but McGee rebounded as a reserve with the Red Sox, where he batted .285 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 200 at-bats.

“I’d like to have seen what would have happened if I hadn’t got injured,” McGee said. “That set me back, and I still wanted to play every day. But things happen for a reason.”[5]

Before signing McGee, Jocketty researched McGee’s recovery from his Achilles injury.

“That was a concern, yes, but the reports we got were all good,” Jocketty said. “He still runs very well. Not as fast as he once did when he was younger, but he’s fine.”[6]

Once McGee hit the free-agent market following his lone season in Boston, he wanted to return to either San Francisco or St. Louis.

“I was either going to go to San Francisco, which is where my home is, or St. Louis,” McGee said. “When this opportunity came along, it was great. Last year in Boston I didn’t really know anybody and you get hung up a little bit.”[7]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — December 16, 1995

After spending the previous season as a reserve for the American League East champion Red Sox, McGee wasn’t concerned about playing in a reserve role.

“I’m pretty sure I could play every day, but I don’t think I’m here for that,” McGee said. “You look at the guys they have here and it’s quite an outfield. I’m ready to do whatever they want.”[8]

 “It’s their time now,” he said after a March spring training game. “They’re in their prime, and it’s their time to carry the torch.”[9]

Cardinals fans were certainly excited to welcome McGee back to the fold. He received one of the loudest ovations of the night when he was introduced at the Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in St. Louis in February.[10]

“I can’t really explain it,” McGee said. “I always approached it like I went about my business, worked hard, and gave the game everything I have. I think the people here appreciate that.”[11]

Even as Smith was entering his final season in 1996, however, McGee believed he had several more years of baseball ahead of him.

1996 Fleer Update

“Physically, I think I can play two or three more years,” McGee said, “but I don’t know what my interest is. I know I love the game or I wouldn’t have tried to come back from that injury.”[12]

Indeed, McGee played four more seasons with the Cardinals, playing through his age-40 season. McGee appeared in 123 games in 1996, batting .307/.348/.417 with five homers and 41 RBIs in 309 at-bats. The following season, he hit .300/.347/.420 in 300 at-bats and hit a game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning of the Cardinals’ home opener.

He retired after the 1999 season and was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014. Since 2017, McGee has been a member of the Cardinals’ major-league coaching staff.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie Gets OK To Play,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1995.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie Gets OK To Play,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1995.

[3] Rick Hummel, “In Pinch, McGee Helps Cards Give Pirates The Willies In 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1996.

[4] Rick Hummel, “McGee Sees Cause For Concern In The New Concerns Of Baseball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1996.

[5] Rick Hummel, “In Pinch, McGee Helps Cards Give Pirates The Willies In 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1996.

[6] Dan O’Neill, “A Familiar Newcomer Steals The Show At Baseball Dinner,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 1997.

[7] Dan O’Neill, “A Familiar Newcomer Steals The Show At Baseball Dinner,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 1997.

[8] Dan O’Neill, “A Familiar Newcomer Steals The Show At Baseball Dinner,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 1997.

[9] Rick Hummel, “In Pinch, McGee Helps Cards Give Pirates The Willies In 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1996.

[10] Dan O’Neill, “A Familiar Newcomer Steals The Show At Baseball Dinner,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 1997.

[11] Dan O’Neill, “A Familiar Newcomer Steals The Show At Baseball Dinner,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7, 1997.

[12] Rick Hummel, “In Pinch, McGee Helps Cards Give Pirates The Willies In 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 10, 1996.

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