Willie Charles Kirkland
- Bats Left, Throws Right
- Height 6' 1", Weight 206 lb.
- High School Northwestern High School (Detroit)
- Debut April 15, 1958
- Final Game September 26, 1966
- Born February 17, 1934 in Siluria, AL USA
"Every year I went to spring training it was almost like I'd never been to spring training before. I'd work at my game. And work. And work." - Willie Kirkland
Willie Kirkland played nine seasons in the big leagues, appearing in at least 98 games each year, and also played 6 seasons in Japan.
Willie was signed by the New York Giants in 1953. He led the Mountain States League in RBI that year. He was one of the top home run hitters in the Northern League in 1954 with 27, leading the league in batting average at .360 while playing for the St. Cloud Rox. In 1955, in the Western League, Kirkland led the league with 40 homers with the Sioux City Soos. He hit 37 home runs in the American Association with the Minneapolis Millers in 1956. The book The Santurce Crabbers indicates that Kirkland also played for them in Puerto Rico in the winter in the 1950s. Willie also served in the United States Army in 1957 before joining the majors.
He debuted in the majors as a regular with the San Francisco Giants in 1958, playing in 122 games in the Giants' first year in San Francisco. The other two outfielders were Willie Mays and Felipe Alou.
Kirkland's 1958 Topps baseball card (see above) lists him as "3rd B. - O.F.", but in his nine years in the majors, Kirkland played only outfield, usually in right field but with over 90 games each in center and left. Third baseman Jim Davenport also made his debut in 1958, which may explain why Kirkland never played any third base.
In 1959 and 1960 he hit over 20 home runs each year, holding on to his regular job in the outfield even as youngsters Orlando Cepeda, Leon Wagner and Matty Alou looked for playing time in the outfield. There is a section on Willie Kirkland in the book The Original San Francisco Giants, which is about that season.
After the 1960 season he and Johnny Antonelli were traded to the Cleveland Indians for Harvey Kuenn. Willie continued to hit over 20 homers per year in 1961 and 1962 with Cleveland, but his average dropped to .200 in 1962.
As the second dead-ball era kicked in and averages around the leagues plummeted, Kirkland's averages plummeted too. From 1962 to the end of his major league career, he never hit higher than .231, but then the American League, where he played, was usually hitting under .250 also. Still, he continued to show some power.
After three years with Cleveland, he spent part of a season with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964 and then finished out his career with the Washington Senators, where he was managed by Gil Hodges, from the end of the 1964 season until 1966.
In 1967 Kirkland played for the Hawaii Islanders, becoming a big star there and hitting 34 home runs. He then moved to the Hanshin Tigers in Japan for six seasons, continuing to display power with a modest batting average.
One of the players on the list of the ten most similar to him, Vince DiMaggio, seems an apt comparison given the good power, the focus on defense (although DiMaggio had stronger range factors) and the modest batting averages.
- 20-Home Run Seasons: 4 (1959-1962)