The Great Debate

The St. Louis Cardinals hosted a special Guest of Honor at Busch Stadium Friday night for their game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the process, they may have rekindled a debate that has been going on for the better part of a decade. And it involves arguably the best offensive player of the Whiteyball era.

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On the night he was immortalized by his very own bobblehead figurine, Willie McGee returned to St. Louis to sign some autographs (with fellow Cardinal great Vince Coleman), be paraded around the warning track in a shiny new pickup truck, and throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Coleman while their teammate Ozzie Smith served as umpire.

McGee’s endearment to the Cardinal fan base is immeasurable and unshakable. He is easily one of the most popular players in Cardinal history. Fans were lining up outside Busch as early as noon on Friday to guarantee a spot in line to get the outfielder’s autograph and make sure they got their McGee bobblehead. By 5:00—still 15 minutes before the gates even open—the stadium was completely ringed with lines of fans. McGee #51 jerseys draped the backs of hundreds, maybe thousands in attendance. And McGee, a sheepish yet genuine smile permanently plastered on his face, looked almost embarrassed by all the love sent his way. No one expected any more or less.

That’s the emotional side of the story. Cardinal fans genuinely love Willie McGee. One almost universally used descriptor of McGee is humble…that has something to do with it. McGee never once gave off a single vibe of “me first” or taking his position in life for granted. And McGee never dogged it in any aspect of his game. He’s a perfect fit here, because St. Louis sports fans cannot get enough of the two H’s: humility and hustle.

But McGee also produced on the field. Everyone knows about the batting titles, the plays in the 1982 World Series, the 1985 MVP, gold gloves, etc. What may come as a surprise is just how good statistically McGee was during his time as a Cardinal from 1982-1990.

During that period, McGee had more hits (1,362) than any other Cardinal. He had the most singles (1,030) and triples (76), and finished second to Smith in doubles. He had the third-most stolen bases (274), behind Coleman and Smith. McGee also had the most RBI of any Cardinal in that period (545) and only Ozzie scored more runs. And the biggest surprise of all is that McGee’s home run total in that era (52) is only surpassed by Jack Clark‘s (66).

In the field, McGee may not have been a defensive wizard (pun intended) like Ozzie but he more than held his own. McGee won three Gold Gloves as a Cardinal, playing mostly center field. It may not have always looked pretty, but McGee had the range and athleticism to get the job done. And for that team in that time and playing in that stadium, his defensive skills were just fine.

McGee had all the tools necessary to make him the perfect Whiteyball player: speed, solid defense, timely hitting, and a little bit of power. His defense could never hold a candle to Ozzie; whose could? But it’s possible Willie McGee is a little underrated as an offensive player. He may have been the Cardinals’ best all-around hitter during the Whiteyball era. Think of the importance that title carries.

That’s the logical side of the story. Nearly every time McGee’s name is brought up, the debate about whether his #51 should be retired or not fires up right along with it. The Cardinals, officially, only retire uniform numbers when the player gets inducted into the Hall of Fame (Ken Boyer excepted). McGee’s career numbers are not good enough to earn him that distinction. Others argue that since the Cards already have 11 numbers taken out of rotation, the team must be prudent with future retirement or they’ll run out of digits for future players to wear. But many fans believe #51 should be retired. They believe McGee deserves the same team accolades that other key members of the Cards’ most successful eras have received. McGee was on two NL Championship teams and one World Series winner for the Cardinals in the 80s. And after being traded to the Oakland A’s in 1990, McGee returned to the Cards 5+ seasons later to help them make the playoffs again in 1996. But that time in the 80s, that Whiteyball era, was so special and so remarkable. Even now, as Cardinal fans witness the unprecedented career of Albert Pujols and the success Tony LaRussa-led squads have had here since 2000, there is still a very noticeable pining for that brand of baseball played in St. Louis more than two decades ago. And Willie McGee was as important to the success of those teams as any other player…even Ozzie Smith.

Maybe a professional team can’t retire a uniform number just because everyone loves that player. That would be especially dangerous in St. Louis, where half the team is, at the very least, treated like extended family. But when coupling the pinnacle of that popularity with top offensive and defensive stats in maybe the most franchise-defining era in team history, perhaps the real question is why wouldn’t the Cardinals retire Willie McGee’s #51?

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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