Willie Charles Kirkland was born on February 17, 1934 in Siluria, Alabama. After graduating from Southwest High School, Kirkland was drafted by the New York Giants in 1953. In 1954, he led the Northern League with a .360 batting average, and then hit 40 home runs in the Western League 1955. He made his major league debut for the Giants in April 1958 in San Francisco, where the franchise had just moved. Fielding alongside the great Willie Mays and teaming up with another great Willie, McCovey, the “Three Willies” were a core component of the great teams in the bay area for several years.
In 1960, his last season in San Francisco, he recorded 21 doubles, 10 triples and 21 home runs while also stealing 12 bases. It would prove to be one of his best seasons as a professional in the majors, but because of the talent base in San Francisco (besides Mays, they also had Felipe and Matty Alou vying for outfield time), he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in December 1960. The next season was one in which he recorded career-high numbers: 27 homers and 95 RBIs. In fact, on July 9, 1961, Kirkland hit 3 home runs in his first three plate appearances. In the ninth inning, with the game on the line and runners on first and second with no outs, Kirkland had a chance to make history with a fourth home run in the same game. However, the team manager called for him to bunt, advancing the runners into scoring position and a chance to take the lead. He followed orders perfectly, but a walk later, the game ended on a double play grounder.
The following year marked his fourth straight year with at least 20 home runs, but after the 1963 season, Kirkland was on the move again. Half a season with the Baltimore Orioles was followed by another move – this time to the Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers). Injury slowed Kirkland down towards the end of his time with the Senators, but meanwhile in Japan, interest in the slugger was brewing.
Kirkland signed with the club in late February 1968, joined the team for its spring training in Maui, and after just 4 games of experience with the club under his belt, came to Japan to participate in the exhibition schedule. Barely over his jet lag, Kirkland found himself sitting on the bench at the game’s first exhibition game. The score was knotted 0-0 in the fourth, with two outs and runners on the corners. Instead of using second baseman Kingo Motoyashiki, manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto called Kirkland’s number. On the mound for the Tokyo Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) was a young ace pitcher who did not want to be shown up by the new foreigner on the team. Two straight curves put Kirkland behind in the count, and after watching a few errant fastballs, the opposing battery elected to go back to breaking stuff to finish him off. He turned on the inside slider and sent a liner screaming to right. It glanced off the right fielder’s glove and over the wall for a 3-run home run. From that time on, Kirkland was placed in the cleanup spot.
That first season, Kirkland wowed the team with 37 home runs and 89 RBIs. He would be the team’s first great slugger in a long time. Even in its two recent championship seasons (1962 and 1964), there were no power hitters to speak of. With Kirkland and the emergence of young catcher Koichi Tabuchi, the team would have a strong power threat for years.
Unfortunately, with Kirkland it tended to be feast or famine (home run or strikeout) and in 1969, he led the team (and the league) with 133 strikeouts, establishing the single-season mark for futility. (It came with 26 home runs and 66 RBIs, though.) Kirkland also accomplished the rare feat of hitting two home runs in the same inning of a game on August 14 of that year – the first time a foreigner had ever done so in NPB history.
When new manager Minoru Murayama took over the reins, there was talk of offering Kirkland in a trade, however, fan popularity and his strong play against the Giants kept him with the team through the start of the 1970s. Though his numbers took a dive for a few years, he remained with the club for six seasons. At one point, he matched his amazing accomplishment in the States, hitting three home runs in a single game. He also picked up the nickname “Monjiro” (after TV character Monjiro Kogarashi) because of his resemblance to a famous fictional character. Playing with a toothpick in his mouth, Kirkland was beloved by Hanshin fans and made #31 popular in the years before Masayuki Kakefu turned it into a legendary number.
When at last Kirkland retired from the team after the 1973 season (which he ended for the team with a strikeout against the Giants – giving them their 9th straight pennant), he returned to the States and worked in the maintenance department for General Motors in Detroit. He continued to be employed with the company well into his fifties, after which point he stopped accepting interviews from Japanese media.
Kirkland will always be remembered for his clutch performances, his mammoth home runs and for being a longstanding member of the team during an age in which they just could not overcome their cross-country rivals. He is still tied for the longest tenure by a foreign fielder (non-pitcher) in team history with Randy Bass and Matt Murton.