On December 15, 1995, one of the longest tenured St. Louis Cardinals in history would put pen to paper and return to St. Louis after a brief absence. At this point, Willie McGee was already a Cardinals legend, but his return showed how much St. Louis meant to him.
Willie McGee was already cemented in St. Louis Cardinals lore even before returning for his final hurrah. The electrifying center fielder ranks among the longest tenured Cardinals even to this day, and had elite productivity to go with it
He was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1977 as an 18 year old out of Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA, but was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981 for Bob Sykes in what would go down as one of the greatest trades in Cardinals history.
At that point, McGee have already proven his talent by cruising in Double A. In the 100 games he played during the 1981 season, he slashed .322/.360/.454, and added on 24 stolen bases along with an impressive 5 triples. His combination of speed and hitting ability was already apparent, so he didn’t spend much more time in Double A in 1982 before making the jump to the Majors.
McGee quickly proved that he belonged, slashing .296/.318/.371 with 24 stolen bases and 8 triples. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that season, and he only went up from there.
From 1982-1989, McGee made 4 All-Star games, won 3 Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger, and the 1985 NL MVP. This ’85 season was obviously his best; he hit .353/.385/.503 and had a remarkable 18 triples, tied for the 48th highest single season mark in the modern era. On top of that, he added 56 steals, while being caught just 16 times.
During that same period, the St. Louis Cardinals won 3 National League pennants, 1 World Series ring, and compiled a 692-603 (.534) record. With the combination of exciting plays brought on by McGee’s blistering speed and the team success that came with it, it’s no wonder that Willie McGee became one of the most adored Cardinals of his time.
But all good things must come to an end as they say, and the Cardinals knew this when they were prepared to let McGee walk after the 1990 season due to financial disagreements. While McGee wanted a 3 year deal for $9M, the Cardinals were not willing to go beyond $7M, so they simply resigned themselves to losing him.
That’s when the Oakland Athletics called. The A’s had just lost their starting center fielder to a season ending injury and were eager to fill the whole that he left, and McGee was a perfect option for that. Since the Cardinals were already resolved to losing McGee for a compensatory pick, so this seemed like the perfect situation.
While there is an argument to be made that the Cardinals got pieces more valuable than a compensatory pick, it isn’t by that much. Jose was the most worthwhile piece the Cardinals got back, and he actually slashed a solid .298/.352/.436 and made an All-Star game in three years in St. Louis.
Green never made it to the majors, fizzling out in in High A in 1991, while Royer made it to the majors, but posted a career WAR of -0.3.
After 6 seasons with the A’s, Red Sox, and Giants, McGee returned to the Cardinals on that fateful day in 1995 on a one year, $600K contract with a $100K signing bonus. Even with inflation, this was a great deal for the Cardinals, and it gave the Cardinals unique flexibility.
On top of providing value way beyond what the Cardinals were paying for in 1995, McGee signed a team friendly one year deal for the next three seasons after this one, which turned out to be his final years.
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This series of contracts prevented McGee from saddling the team with a long term albatross, and is not something many players are willing to do for an organization. McGee putting the Cardinals interests ahead of his own when his earning potential is all but evaporated demonstrated McGee’s selflessness and love for the organization.
However, McGee didn’t let himself get to the point of even being a hard negative before retiring. In his last year, McGee was unquestionably a shell of what he had once been as a player, but he still remained serviceable with a .251 batting average.
McGee retired as the 7th longest tenured St. Louis Cardinals hitter ever, sporting the birds on the bat for 1661 career games over 13 seasons. He remains 10th in games played today, and is 13th on the Cardinals all-time hits list with 1683 hits, and is rightfully considered not only one of the best center fielders, but one of the greatest hitters to ever don Cardinal red.
Willie McGee should probably not have been traded, but his eventual return to St. Louis mended any hard feelings and kept the 1990 McGee trade out of the running for the worst trade in St. Louis Cardinals history. Instead, McGee will always be remembered as one of the greatest Cardinals to ever live.