By Sam McPherson
It wasn’t supposed to have been this way. When the Giants decided to move to San Francisco in the late 1950s, there were visions of more frequent success with all the new riches the West Coast had to offer. But in the first 13 seasons in the City by the Bay, the team had made the World Series just once—the 1962 team was the only standout squad. The advent of division play in 1969, though, gave the San Francisco Giants a new opportunity, and in 1971, the team finally made it back to the postseason.
Despite going just 6-12 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Giants edged out the hated SoCal rivals by one game for the National League West division title. San Francisco had a three-game lead on L.A. in mid-September when the two teams played their final head-to-head contests, and even though the Dodgers won both games, the Giants clung to the resulting one-game lead over the final 14 games of the season, despite going just 11-16 overall in the their last 27 games of the season.
First baseman Willie McCovey—the almost star of the 1962 World Series—was now 33 years old, and longtime Giants center fielder Willie Mays was 40 years old. Each player had 18 home runs while performing well throughout the season…when they played. The two Willies missed a combined 83 games during the regular season. The young horse that carried San Francisco in 1971 was actually right fielder Bobby Bonds, the 25-year-old stud who socked 33 HRs while stealing 26 bases as well.
Toss in the contributions of catcher Dick Dietz (19 HR, 72 RBI) and left fielder Ken Henderson (15 HR, 18 SB), and the Giants lineup was a good one, top to bottom. Even 21-year-old shortstop Chris Speier contributed 46 RBI and 56 walks to the cause.
Starting pitchers Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal were still in their late primes, dominating the rotation with 37 starts apiece—no other Giants pitcher started more than 22 games in 1971. Perry went 16-12 with a 2.76 ERA, striking out 158 batters, while Marichal was 18-11 with a 2.94 ERA and 159 strikeouts. San Francisco’s bullpen added a ton of wins by keeping games close enough for the offense to pull it out late, as two relievers posted double-digit win totals: closer Jerry Johnson (12-9 with 18 saves) and Don McMahon (10-6, four saves). The 1971 Giants were 13-6 in extra-inning games, and when you win the division by only one game, every one of those stellar relief efforts mattered.
With a 5-2 start in the first week of the season, S.F. took over first place for good on April 7 and never relinquished the division lead for the rest of the season. The Giants were 37-14 on May 31, with a 10.5-game lead in the division. Even though they went just 53-58 for the rest of the season, San Francisco never lost the division lead on their way to winning the NL West for the first time with a 90-72 record.
In the postseason—it was just the third season of the League Championship Series—the Giants faced the NL East champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Winners of 97 games during the regular season, San Francisco didn’t fear their opponent, having beaten them nine times in 12 games during the year. That psychological edge, along with the dynamic duo of Perry and Marichal each starting twice in a five-game series if needed, gave the Giants all the confidence they needed.
S.F. actually had to start Marichal in Game 162 just to clinch the NL West, meaning he wouldn’t be available for Game Two of the playoff series. Perry won Game One of the NLCS with a gritty, complete game effort as the Giants emerged victorious at Candlestick Park with a 5-4 win. But Game Two went to the Pirates, as Pittsburgh battered six different Giants pitchers—none named Marichal—for nine runs on 15 hits.
For Games Three and Four, the teams shifted to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, where Marichal finally got the ball. The Giants star pitched a complete game, giving up just four hits, but two of them were solo home runs. Meanwhile, Bob Johnson stifled the S.F. lineup, holding them to one run over eight innings. The Pirates won the game, 2-1, when Richie Hebner took Marichal deep in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Game Four saw Perry on the mound again, pitching just four days after Game One—and it was all offense in this one. The two teams combined for 10 runs in the first two innings, as the score was tied 5-5 entering the third inning. Sadly, the Pirates broke it open in the sixth inning, scoring four runs on their way to a NL pennant-clinching, 9-5 victory. Perry gave it everything he had, but he surrendered seven runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings to take the loss.
It was a sad ending to a fun season, and little did Giants fans know it would be another 16 seasons before the team would win the NL West again.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball and fantasy sports for many online sites, including CBS, AXS and Examiner.