Thirty years ago, on a wet Memorial Day evening in St. Louis, the Cardinals received a special performance from a player who was starting to show he, too, was special.
In his 16th game for the Cardinals since his promotion from Class AAA Louisville, rookie center fielder Willie McGee had his first four-hit game in the big leagues and sparked a 10-run fourth inning, leading St. Louis to an 11-6 victory over the Giants on May 31, 1982. Boxscore
McGee, batting sixth in the order, stroked two of his four singles in the fourth inning. The 10 runs were the most the Cardinals had scored in an inning in two years and the most in the National League at that point of the 1982 season.
The performance lifted McGee’s batting average to .378 and his on-base percentage to .410. McGee had transformed from a fill-in to a regular who would be integral to the Cardinals’ successful run to their first World Series title in 15 years.
“Willie has been very impressive,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said to the Associated Press after the game. “In spring training, I knew he was going to come up here and hit big-league pitching the way he has.”
Seven months earlier, Oct. 21, 1981, the Cardinals had acquired McGee from the Yankees in a trade for pitcher Bob Sykes. McGee had spent five seasons in the Yankees’ minor-league system without reaching the majors.
“After my second or third year, I started telling myself the Yankees weren’t the only team,” McGee said to the Associated Press. “I know I can hit. “
Still, McGee didn’t make the ’82 Cardinals’ season-opening roster. Sent to Louisville, he hit .291 in 13 games. When St. Louis outfielder David Green suffered a hamstring injury on May 7, the Cardinals called up McGee, who made his big-league debut three days later.
McGee, 23, started in the outfield in just one of his first nine big-league games. The Memorial Day performance helped solidify him as St. Louis’ everyday center fielder.
An all-day rain in St. Louis had left the Busch Stadium field wet. Both teams skipped fielding and batting practice. Attendance for the Memorial Day evening game was a paltry 11,313, even though the Cardinals were in first place in the National League East.
The Giants led 3-1 before the Cardinals battered them for 10 runs in the fourth. The Cardinals had 15 batters in the inning and 12 reached base on nine hits, two walks and an error against three pitchers, starter Renie Martin, Dan Schatzeder and Fred Breining.
Eight of St. Louis’ nine hits in the inning were singles (shortstop Ozzie Smith doubled.) McGee and pinch-hitter Tito Landrum each singled twice in the inning. Smith, McGee and Landrum also drove in two runs apiece in the fourth.
Orlando Sanchez, a catcher who entered the game 2-for-30 for the season, singled in the first run of the fourth, knocking out Martin. Schatzeder yielded six runs and six hits.
“It’s the momentum,” said McGee. “It’s like when you play basketball. One team gets the momentum and just keeps going. I felt my adrenaline pumping.”
Herzog said McGee’s second single in the fourth inning was the key hit. Batting right-handed against the left-hander Schatzeder, McGee delivered a bases-loaded two-run single to right.
“He had two strikes and he reached out and hit a breaking ball,” Herzog said.
Said McGee: “I’m starting to relax and just let things happen.”
The win was the Cardinals’ sixth in seven games and boosted their record to 31-18, giving them a 3.5-game lead over the second-place Mets.
McGee would go on to bat .296 for the season, with 24 stolen bases and 56 RBI.
In his book “White Rat: A Life in Baseball” (1987, Harper & Row), Herzog wrote:
Willie McGee … became the biggest story in baseball that summer … Once Willie McGee hit town and the kid pitchers started coming through, I began to feel that 1982 might be the Cardinals’ year.
Previously: Five fabulous facts about Willie McGee