Retire #51

[Editor's note: This is part of an on-going series of articles arguing for—and against—the fan-based movement to retire Willie McGee's jersey number 51.]

I suppose it would be remiss to ignore the 650-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to the debate over whether to retire number 51 or not: statistics. I don't intend to build an altar playing the numbers game. After all, while figures don't lie, liar's figure.

Willie McGee's career accolades are solid: an MVP for the Cardinals, a four-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, a two-time NL batting champ (one of which he won while wearing an A's uniform), a career Top 100 base stealer, and a career Top 100 singles hitter.

As a Cardinal team cornerstone, during his original nine year run in St. Louis, he was a starter for eight straight (only 1989 saw his production fall to less than 120 games). In those eight years of starting, Willie's team rank in runs, RBI, stolen bases, slugging percentage and average was 3.33, meaning that he was in the top three or four on the team in all of those categories. In his prime five years as a Cardinal starter, his last five starting years before he was traded, that rank was 2.84. In those five seasons the great Ozzie Smith ranked 3.48 and Terry Pendleton ranked 4.76.

The reality is, statistical or not, no Cardinal in recent history provided as much five tool excellence over such a long period. In fact, the only player to do it in a five year stretch since then is a player most fans assume already is headed to baseball's Hall of Fame, Albert Pujols.

Now that the wading in the muck is done we can get serious. The Cardinal retired numbers, the Cardinal Hall of Fame, the Cardinal Stadium honored spots are the fans' spots. There could be no better human being to place next to Stan Musial, Ken Boyer or Red Schoediest than Willie McGee. And the stories of those greats, on and off the field, with the glove and with the love, get passed down the generations as a result of a flag we have planted in their honor. It is deserving that we seal Willie's fate in the same way.

Is the honor deserved? Absolutely. Willie won us a World Series game single handedly with his five tools. It is the last World Series we have been given to enjoy. His catch, his bat, his speed, but also his grace.

Two series earlier that year, Howard Cosell had referred to Willie as E.T. While the event made news and the insult certainly could have put lesser players off their games, my memory is of Willie being interviewed about it, slightly hunched at the shoulders as he often was when the cameras found him off the field, and saying (as best I can recall), "He can call me that, but I don't have to answer it."

Nothing in sports is more rewarding than winning it all, and many of my most cherished memories of that team and time involve Willie.

As I said, the retired Cardinal numbers and the flags, banners and statues are the fans' domain, not a statistician, and in St. Louis the criteria has been made more than clear by looking at the Cardinals sports brothers. The Blues have retired five numbers in their history; half of which don't belong retired in some vision of statistics make the man theories. Barclay Plager, Bob Gassoff, and Al McInnis are clearly undeserving if the fans are removed from the picture.

Barclay Plager is Willie McGee with fewer stats, a long time player and anchor of a team that say some success and a lot of bonding with the fans, Barclay was never seriously considered for the NHL Hall of Fame.

Gassoff was a developing bulldog of a defenseman whose life ended tragically. Al McInnis is a transplanted Flame who will visit the Hall of Fame as a result of his Canadian accomplishments. He is, like Willie, beloved by this city and the Blues fans, and will continue to receive the loudest, longest, and most sincere ovations at any ceremony he attends.

The Rams have honored along their ring Dan Dierdorf and Jackie Smith amongst a group of players no one in St. Louis cares about like Tom Mack and Bob Brown. The era of chasing the buck isn't new to sports, but their effects continue to be felt. The St. Louis football fans are reminded of their idols even though those players never dressed for a single Rams' game.

More and more cities have found themselves in the same situation and are more than willing to honor and retire, those whom the fans feel should be honored and remember as their local sports heroes. I've never been upset seeing Plager's number hanging from the rafters or Smith's honored along with Jackie Slater's. If any youngster asked about Gassoff or Dierdorf I could, with pride, describe the man and the player as easily as I could should someone ask me about Ozzie.

The opposite is also occasionally performed in perhaps some of the ugliest moments is sports. Teams that move will unretire all the numbers associated with the other city. The Dallas stars unretired the two Minnesota North Star retired numbers, enforcing a schism between greatness and locality with all the skill of a chain saw wielded by a drunken gopher.

However the point is still reinforced. It is not service to a franchise, service to a sport, or the accumulation of individual numbers printed in black and white a stored in some file cabinet. It is service to the community, grace under pressure, and dependability on the field that are worthy of honor, and accorded the permanence of retirement.

Willie McGee is unmatched in these criteria.


EDITOR's NOTE: St. Louis Game Time is the official print publication of The Birdhouse.  It can be purchased before all home games at the stadium and is also available by email subscription. For more content, visit

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