Like seemingly tens of thousands of other Cardinals fans, I enjoyed and admired Willie McGee’s many contributions to the franchise over the years 1982-90 as a starter and his triumphant 1996-99 return as a reserve.
Yet, while I don’t want to devalue the passion of those who are lobbying for the Cardinals to retire Willie McGee’s number 51, I simply don’t agree with them.
McGee was a fine baseball player and is a fine human being, but is certainly not the most accomplished ex-Cardinals player to not have his number retired by the team.
Likely because his playing years are fresh in our memories, McGee receives the support from many for his number to be retired. I also can’t help but wonder if McGee has adopted some of the emotional support orphaned when Mark McGwire chose not to talk about the past and firmly planted his career legacy in limbo-land.
Looking at McGee’s recognition earned on the field, he won the League Most Valuable Player Award in 1985 and was a four-time All-Star. The career .295-hitter collected two batting titles, one Silver Slugger Award and three Gold Gloves. McGee paced the league in singles, hits and triples once.
Important contributions? Yes. But, how important are they?
According to Baseball-Reference.com, here are the ten former players most similar statistically to McGee over their careers:
1. Hal Chase
2. Ken Griffey
3. Charlie Grimm
4. Paul Hines
5. Wally Moses
6. Phil Cavarretta
7. Ed Konetchy
8. Jose Cruz
9. Sam West
10. Jose Cardenal
Some interesting names, but no one is listed there has earned the honor of a retired number other than Cruz with the Houston Astros, a team that has but one pennant and has yet to win their first World Series.
McGee’s supporters may cite non-statistical tangibles. He was a rookie starter on the 1982 World Champions and was an important cog in the 1985 and 1987 National League Champion squads – the Cardinals’ last golden era, arguably prior to the current one.
But, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this St. Louis franchise has been playing baseball quite successfully since 1892. During that time, many, many fine players donned the Birds on the Bat and led their teams to World Series victories without having had their numbers retired.
In fact, many of these players who did not have their numbers retired were deemed good enough to receive the ultimate recognition – enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Here are four of those Hall of Famers who played as many or more seasons in the Cardinals uniform as McGee during his primary tour of duty, yet have not received retired number recognition:
Jim Bottomley (1922-32)
Frankie Frisch (1927-37)
Jesse Haines (1920-37)
Joe Medwick (1932-40, 1947-48)
Let’s take a brief look at each of the four.
Bottomley – The .310-career hitting first baseman was voted into the Hall in 1974. “Sunny Jim” won the 1928 National League MVP Award as the first premier prospect of the Cardinals’ farm system. He finished second twice in the batting race and third once, hitting .371 in 1923, .367 in 1925 and .348 in 1931. Bottomley led the league in hits, triples and home runs once plus doubles, extra-base hits, total bases and RBI twice. Bottomley’s Cardinals squads went 2-2 in his four World Series.
Frisch – The .316-career hitting second baseman received his call to the Hall in 1947. “The Fordham Flash” won the 1931 Most Valuable Player Award and was a three-time All-Star. He was a league leader in singles, hits, total bases and runs plus took the stolen base crown three times. Frisch played in four World Series for the Cardinals, with his team winning twice. He also managed the club from 1933-38, and was the player-manager of the 1934 World Champs.
Haines – “Pop” Haines’ 18 years pitching is the most in Cardinals history and his 210 career wins is second to Bob Gibson on the team’s all-time list. He joined the Hall in 1970. Haines led the circuit in appearances, complete games and shutouts twice. He logged second most innings-pitched in a season, wins, and games started. Haines pitched in four World Series for the Cards, registering a 3-1 record with a 1.67 ERA.
Medwick – The .324-career hitting outfielder was voted into the Hall in 1968. “Ducky” won the Triple Crown in 1937, a year in which he was also named the NL MVP. Medwick was a ten-time All-Star. He paced the league in doubles, extra base hits, total bases and RBI three times. Medwick was a two-time leader in hits and once registered league-bests in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, triples and home runs. He hit .379 in the Series for the 1934 World Champions.
In 2005, his first year of eligibility, McGee received 26 votes for the Hall of Fame. That 5% showing was the exact minimum needed to remain under consideration the next year. However, McGee dropped to 12 votes (2.3%) in 2006 and as a result, was removed from the HOF ballot. His only hope remaining is future consideration by the Veterans Committee.
Nothing against number 51. But, since numerous Cardinals Hall of Famers like Medwick, Frisch, Bottomley and Haines haven’t had their numbers retired, neither should Willie McGee.
And before one suggests adding more and more retired numbers, consider the fact that the 11 honorees to-date place the Cardinals second only to the New York Yankees and ahead of other tradition-laden National League franchises such as the Giants and Dodgers.
Willie McGee was a fine player and a fine Cardinal and deserves the adulation of his legions of fans. But, let’s leave it at that for now and let history decide the rest.
Footnote: To learn about the Cardinals’ mysterious process in selecting retired numbers, subscribers can refer to our July, 2005 story entitled ”Retirement Mysteries”.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
© 2006 stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed.
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