The move west had been good for the Giants franchise. After two losing seasons ended their tenure in New York, the team began playing winning baseball as soon as they arrived in San Francisco in 1958. They consistently contended over the next decade-plus and won a National League pennant in 1962. The 1971 San Francisco Giants continued in that tradition, but also foreshadowed decline. A blazing start allowed the ’71 Giants to capture the NL West title. But the fact a race that was comfortably in hand nearly got away from them portended some rougher sailing ahead.
Bobby Bonds, the father of future San Francisco superstar Barry, was the Giants’ best player. At the age of 25, Bobby posted a stat line of .355 on-base percentage/.512 slugging percentage. He hit 33 home runs. Bonds drove in 102 runs and scored 110 more, ending up fourth in the MVP voting.
Willie McCovey was one of the great players in franchise history and at 33-years-old, the first baseman was still going strong, with a stat line of .396/.480. Dick Dietz provided pop from behind the plate, with 19 home runs and a .387 OBP. Ken Henderson chipped in with a .370 OBP playing left field.
And there was another franchise legend, one you may have heard of, that was still making a contribution. The great Willie Mays turned 40-years-old in May of 1971. His numbers weren’t dazzling—18 home runs and a .271 batting average. But Mays’ patience at the plate enhanced his value even further. Drawing a league-leading 112 walks, he ended up with an OBP of .425.
All of which enabled San Francisco—even with offensive weak spots around the infield—to finish third in the National League for runs scored.
The starting rotation was anchored by two future Hall of Famers. Gaylord Perry was 32-years-old and went 16-12 with a 2.76 ERA. Juan Marichal, now age 33, was 18-11 and his ERA clocked in at 2.94. Perry and Marichal combined to start 74 games.
The bullpen was anchored by Jerry Johnson. With his 18 saves (in an era where there were nowhere near the save opportunities relievers enjoy today), 109 innings pitched and a 2.97 ERA, Johnson made his way onto a few Cy Young, and even MVP ballots. John Cumberland was a reliable swingman between the rotation and the bullpen, with a 2.92 ERA.
But the depth in both the rotation and the bullpen was problematic. A couple of young arms in Ron Bryant and Steve Stone combined for 41 starts and had ERAs ranging from the high 3s to the low 4s. The other bullpen arms, Don McMahon and Rich Robertson had ERAs on the high side of 4. The result was that San Francisco’s composite staff ERA ended up sixth in the NL, right in the middle of what was then a 12-team league.
The National League of this era was split into just two divisions, an East and a West, and only the first-place finisher qualified for postseason play. The Cincinnati Reds were situated in the NL West. The Reds had won the pennant in 1970 and were considered the team to beat. San Francisco’s ancient rival from both coasts, the Los Angeles Dodgers, were always competitive. With no wild-card fallback, the Giants had no slack.
San Francisco blew out of the gate to a 12-4 start. That stretch included a series win over the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, keyed by shutouts from Stone and Bryant. The Giants grabbed two of three from the Reds. By the early part of May, San Francisco had spurted to a 6 ½ game lead. Cincinnati and Los Angeles were each coming into Candlestick Park for some good early season baseball.
The series against the Reds started the week. On Monday night, infielders Al Gallagher and Tito Fuentes knocked two hits apiece and Marichal delivered a complete-game 3-2 win. Tuesday night’s win came easier—Bonds, Dietz and McCovey all homered, Perry was staked to an early lead and coasted home to the 6-1 victory. Wednesday afternoon’s finale started even faster—a six-run first inning was keyed by backup infielder Hal Lanier ripping a bases-loaded double. Bryant went the distance and completed the sweep, 7-2.
After a day off on Thursday, it was time to face the Dodgers. The Giants trailed 4-3 going into the bottom of the seventh. In short order, three singles, two walks and a couple errors by the Dodgers led to a big inning and an 8-4 win.
Marichal was brilliant again on Saturday afternoon, but the game was still scoreless into the bottom of the seventh. Mays led off with a double and was able to score on a base hit by Dietz. Marichal made it stand up for a 1-0 win.
Finally on Sunday, the bullpen failed and couldn’t hold a 5-3 lead. The ultimate 9-6 defeat prevented San Francisco from sweeping the week, but it was all still an impressive early statement and the NL West lead grew to nine games.
By the time Memorial Day arrived, San Francisco was soaring at 36-14. They had a healthy 10 ½ game on L.A. and were plus-11 on the Houston Astros (a National League team until 2013). Cincinnati was playing poorly and stared at a 15-game deficit.
No one can stay that hot, and the Giants didn’t. Even with a softer schedule out of the holiday weekend, they lost 11 of 16. The Dodgers heated up and quickly slashed the lead down to five games. A series with the San Diego Padres was the right tonic—San Francisco swept a five-game series that included a pair of doubleheaders. In early July, the Giants won another series with the Pirates.
At the All-Star break, San Francisco was 55-36. Los Angeles was within six. Cincinnati was still 15 out and the Reds would not be in contention the rest of the way.
The Giants picked the pace up again coming out of the break. They won six of seven games against the Pirates in the latter part of July. There were some downsides in August—series losses to NL East contender St. Louis, and dropping two straight to Los Angeles. But by Labor Day, the Giants’ record was still 82-58 and their edge on the Dodgers had nudged back out to eight games.
There were five head-to-head matchups between San Francisco and Los Angeles in early September. Picking up even one win, and certainly two, could ensure this NL West race got put to bed without drama.
Instead, the Giants went south and lost three straight to their rival, getting outscored 17-5 in the process. Then they dropped a weekend series to lowly Atlanta. In the blink of an eye, Los Angeles was within three games of the lead.
There was still a two-game set with the Dodgers back in Candlestick the following week. The Giants lost both of those games too. The lead was slashed to a single game. San Francisco was able to stop the bleeding the following week, but the margin remained a tantalizing single game as each team entered the final series of the season.
All the action was in SoCal—San Francisco was visiting San Diego, while Los Angeles hosted Houston. Perry took the ball on Tuesday night and did what an ace does. He shut down the Padres. Shortstop Chris Speier hit a three-run blast and the Giants won 7-1. The Dodgers had a tighter affair, but kept the pressure on with a 2-1 win.
Wednesday night’s game was tight and went to extra innings tied 1-1. L.A. was getting crushed, on their way to an 11-0 loss. The opportunity to clinch was there. But in the bottom of the 10th, Johnson, so good all year, gave up a three-run walkoff blast to Padre slugger Nate Colbert. The 1971 NL West race was going to the last day of the season.
Marichal was the man with the ball. Like Perry before him, Marichal did what an ace does. He never let the Padre offense get going. A couple hits by Fuentes fueled a steady offensive attack. The Giants had a comfortable 5-1 lead going into the ninth. Marichal induced Colbert to hit one on the ground to short. Speier threw to McCovey and the Giants were NL West champs.
San Francisco might have barely hung on, but they did establish some early momentum in the NLCS against Pittsburgh. Hosting the first two games of what was then a best-of-five series, the Giants won the opener and took an early lead in Game 2. But Pirate power muscled up and several big home runs turned the tide in that game. The Giants had to settle for a split of their home games. They lost Games 3 & 4 in Pittsburgh and the season had come to an end.
1971 was still a terrific year for baseball in San Francisco. The downside was really that this ended the run of good seasons the franchise had enjoyed since moving west. Five of the next years saw the Giants under .500. They did not return to serious contention until 1978. They did not make the NLCS again until 1987. It took until 1989 to win the National League pennant. And the first World Series championship in their West Coast home? That was an even longer wait, not coming until 2010.