In one of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ wisest trades ever, the knock-kneed McGee was acquired from the Yankees farm system in 1981 for pitcher Bob Sykes. He was a bad-ball switch-hitter, swinging at anything thrown, yet he got results throughout the ’80’s and stayed effective into the ’90’s. “I just want to be consistent,” McGee maintained from his early days on. “That’s the way I want to finish out my career.” And more or less, that’s what he achieved. Though this popular Cardinal had stints with other clubs, his heart was always in St. Louis, and he ultimately returned there at the end of his career.
In 1982, McGee was called up to the bigs to replace injured outfielder David Green, and never looked back. He batted .296 through the rest of the season while swiping 24 bags, coming in third in the Rookie of the Year voting, as the Cardinals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series.
Teamed with other speedy contact hitters Ozzie Smith, Tom Herr, and eventually Vince Coleman, McGee helped form the foundation of a team that would reach the World Series twice more in the decade after their 1982 victory. In 1985 his league-leading .353 average was the highest in history for a switch-hitter, and he established other career highs with 114 runs, 56 stolen bases, and a league-leading 18 triples. Hitting behind Jack Clark, the 1987 National League leader in on-base percentage, McGee responded with a career-high 105 RBIs.
The pigeon-toed McGee was a good base stealer due to sheer speed rather than ability to read pitchers. His swiftness gave him enormous range in the field and, coupled with a strong arm, won him three Gold Gloves. Although criticized at times for lack of concentration at the plate and in the field, McGee was still regarded as one of the best outfielders of the 1980s until a variety of injuries kept him out for much of the 1989 season.
Like most successful Cardinals of the ’80’s, McGee was mostly a slap hitter. Often his line-drive singles would be turned into doubles, thanks to his blistering speed and the deep dimensions of Busch Stadium. Though Willie ended up with three homers in 24 World Series games, he tallied double-digit homers just three times in his career.
In August 1990, McGee was traded to the Oakland Athletics for prospect Felix Jose and two other players as the West Coast team was making its way towards the World Series. Oddly enough, although Willie was traded with a little over a month left to play, he had enough plate appearances to have his .335 average qualify for the National League batting crown. When the season ended, McGee wound up winning the race despite playing the last six weeks of the season in the American League.
McGee’s tenure with the A’s didn’t last long. After he helped boost the team into the World Series, he signed with the San Francisco Giants in December 1990. With the Giants, McGee performed as usual, hitting around .300 with very little power. However, an upper back inflammation in July 1993 and a torn Achilles tendon in June 1994 greatly hampered his speed and flexibility.
McGee didn’t return to the majors until June 1995, when he signed a minor-league deal with the Boston Red Sox. He logged some playing time with Boston, but in the offseason happily signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals. Invigorated by his return to his original club, McGee showed signs of the ballplayer of old, hitting over .300 for the next two years, playing all three outfield positions, and being an invaluable bat off the bench (with 16 pinch-hits) for manager Tony LaRussa.
In 1998, Busch Stadium was clearly not the speedy singles-hitter home it had been for McGee’s 1980s Cardinal team. New Redbird Mark McGwire helped hammer home that point by bashing 70 dingers that year. McGee was still used as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter, but he slumped down to .253 and then .251 the following year. By the end of 1999, McGee decided to retire, a .295 lifetime batting average in tow. Willie worked with the Cardinals as a part-time instructor in training camp the next spring, but expressed no regret giving up the game that he loved. “I’ve had my shot,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to pick up a bat…It’s really strange, but I don’t want to do it.”