In ’71, winning the NL West seemed special
Thursday, June 16
SAN FRANCISCO — I recently performed some mental arithmetic and realized that 40 years had passed since the Giants won the National League West in 1971.
Forty years? No way it happened that long ago. I can still hear Dick Dietz blurting, “The Dodgers can go to hell” amid the euphoria in the Giants’ clubhouse during KSFO’s postgame radio broadcast.
One way or another, we eventually realize how rapidly the decades disappear.
“It’s just gone by so quickly,” said Ken Henderson, the left fielder on that ’71 team. “When you retire from playing and begin a new career and raise a family and you get to the point where you get your kids in school and then you have grandkids, you just say, ‘Wow. Where did the years go?’ ”
In the wake of last year’s World Series-winning experience, younger Giants fans are entitled to scoff, “So what?”
However, the Giants’ 1971 club will bear enduring significance.
It was the first San Francisco team to win the West since division play began in 1969. Some fans thought it might be the last. The Giants didn’t capture the division title again until 1987.
Moreover, 1971 marked the last full season that the franchise’s core of superstars — Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry — spent together. Perry was traded to Cleveland for left-hander Sam McDowell in the offseason, Mays was shipped to the New York Mets in May 1972, and Marichal and McCovey departed for Boston and San Diego in separate trades during the 1973-74 offseason.
Forty years later, the season remains memorable for those who experienced it, and frustrating.
San Francisco bolted to a 37-14 start and built a 10 1/2-game lead in the West. Mays turned 40 but remained capable of greatness. He homered in each of the season’s first four games before tiring as the year progressed. He batted .336 through May and only .225 afterward. But, proving he could find other ways to help the team win, Mays drew a league-high 112 walks. That swelled his on-base percentage to .425, another NL best. He also stole 23 bases in 26 attempts.
Bobby Bonds (.288, 33 homers, 102 RBIs) had one of his best years. Rookie shortstop Chris Speier and second baseman Tito Fuentes formed a dynamic double-play combination. Marichal (18-11, 2.94 ERA) and Perry (16-12, 2.76) were dual aces.
The Dodgers gradually trimmed the Giants’ huge lead to one game by September. To remain in front of Los Angeles, the Giants were forced to start Marichal in the regular-season finale at San Diego. He pitched a five-hitter as the Giants clinched the division with a 5-1 decision. But Pittsburgh triumphed, three games to one, in the best-of-five NL playoffs, which hadn’t yet been renamed the League Championship Series.
Having won nine of 12 games against Pittsburgh during the regular season, the Giants felt confident that they would advance to the World Series. “We really owned the Pirates that year,” said Henderson, who has rejoined the organization as a premium seat sales manager. “I get asked about
1971 an awful lot. I talk about it with a lot of fond memories but it was obviously very disappointing for us.”
Had the Giants clinched the division earlier, they could have started Marichal and Perry in the first two playoff games at Candlestick Park. “I’m not saying that’s the reason we lost the series, but I think we would have had a definite advantage, having Juan in that first game,” Henderson said.
Perry won Game 1, 5-4, but Bob Robertson homered three times for the Pirates in a 9-4 Game 2 rout. The Giants had to wait until Game 3 to use Marichal, who was edged by Bob Johnson, 2-1. Pittsburgh won Game 4, 9-5, and ultimately defeated Baltimore in the World Series.
Losing to the Pirates didn’t faze Speier. “I thought it was going to be that way every year,” said Speier, now the Cincinnati Reds’ bench coach. After all, the Giants had the likes of Gary Matthews, Garry Maddox, Ed Goodson and Dave Kingman poised to become regulars. “We still thought
we could be pretty good,” said Speier, an All-Star with the Giants from 1972-74. “It was like the passing of the baton.”
The baton was dropped, in numerous ways and for numerous reasons. In the next nine seasons, the Giants finished above .500 twice.
Still, Speier acknowledged that the ’71 crew was a special one.
“It was just a great experience for a kid to come up and be taught how to play major league baseball by those guys — Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Perry, Bonds, Henderson,” Speier said. “It’s something I hold very, very dear to my heart.”
— Chris Haft