Willie McCovey Was *The* San Francisco Giant
The Hall of Famer and San Francisco Giants legend passed away Wednesday afternoon at the age of 80.
Photo by John G. Mabanglo/EPA-EFE
There were two things that dominated the coverage of Willie McCovey’s July 30, 1959 debut. The first was his power. The 21-year-old McCovey came to the Giants leading the Pacific Coast League with 28 home runs while posting a .377 batting average, and upon arriving in the major leagues, he immediately lived up to his reputation. Brought up from Phoenix to San Francisco just that morning, McCovey smashed two triples and two singles in his first four plate appearances. He scored three runs, drove in two, and helped the contending Giants break out of a four-game losing streak with a 7-2 victory over the Phillies. The second was, of course, his height. At 6’4”, McCovey was a towering presence at first—a presence that quickly earned him the nickname “Stretch.”
It was less than a week before McCovey was being heralded as a sensation. The headlines sang with his exploits. On July 31, he drove in Willie Mays from second with a two-out single in the eighth—the winning run of a 4-3 victory. On August 1, he scored the tying run in a 9-5 comeback win. On August 2, he hit the first home run of his major league career, a two-run shot that gave the Giants yet another victory. August 3 was the All-Star Game, and McCovey left his mark on it without even appearing in the game: With the National League lineup going disappointingly hitless on the afternoon—despite featuring such notable sluggers as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays—New York Times columnist John Drebinger wrote that the game might have been improved had NL manager Fred Haney played "Willie (Stretch) McCovey...this latest Giants phenom.” Haney’s reply: “I’m told that this Willie simply wasn’t available. He already was on his way to Cooperstown getting measured for his plaque.”
McCovey grew up poor in the strict segregation of 1940s Mobile, Alabama, one of six children sharing a single room, gathering around the radio nightly to listen to radio play-by-play recreations of major league games. He dropped out of school at the age of 16, working to support his family through first a paper route, then a short-lived job bussing tables at an abusive whites-only restaurant, then washing chicken parts at a poultry shop. He had only left Mobile once before he got the call from the Giants bird dog scout, telling him they wanted to watch him play in Florida.
Just over seven years later, McCovey stood at the plate, one of the game’s biggest and most beloved stars, in San Francisco in Game 7 of the World Series—two out, the go-ahead run Willie Mays standing at second. With the fate of the Giants’ championship hopes now resting in his hands, he rocketed a ball towards right field—only to have it snagged by Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson. The game was over, the final score still 1-0. The Yankees won the Series. The Giants made only one other postseason appearance during McCovey’s career. He never got that ring. Giants fans would have to spend the decades wondering, as Charlie Brown said in a Peanuts strip on December 22, 1962: “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”
But a World Series championship was probably the only thing McCovey never achieved as a San Francisco Giant. Apart from a three-season stint in the mid-1970s split between San Diego and Oakland, McCovey played the entirety of his 22-year major league career with the Giants. With the Giants, he earned just about every accolade imaginable in baseball. Despite playing in only 52 games, he was the Rookie of the Year in 1959, even receiving MVP votes; his first of six All-Star selections came in 1963. Over four seasons and four-straight All-Star selections from 1968 to 1971, McCovey led the league in walks once, in home runs and RBI twice, and in slugging percentage and OPS three times. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the American League collectively slugged just .339, McCovey’s line was .293/.378/.545. In 1969, when he won both the NL MVP award and the All-Star Game MVP award, McCovey posted an absurd .320/.453/.656 line, with 45 home runs and 126 driven in. Throughout his decade of peak performance, McCovey was one of the most feared sluggers the game had ever seen. It was only fitting that his record for the most homers ever by a left-handed hitter was broken by another Giant—this time launching them into the cove that bears McCovey’s name.
Teams love their all-time greats, but it’s rare to see an all-time great love the team back in the way McCovey did.
For fans of the San Francisco Giants, McCovey’s significance went far beyond his incredible legacy on the field. Though the franchise’s history went back the better part of a century in New York, and though the team carried all-time great Willie Mays across the continent when it moved to California in 1958, the team had been in San Francisco for just over a year. They still played in another team’s stadium; they still sought an identity for themselves on this new coast, in this new city. Willie McCovey was that identity: a young star who exploded onto the West Coast scene, who owned first Seals Stadium and then Candlestick Park, whose on-field power was fearsome but whose most notable off-field traits were his warmth and openness.
McCovey kept the flame alive in San Francisco long after his playing days were over. He kept an advisory role with the team for almost two decades. He attended games regularly at the Stick, then at AT&T Park, even as his mobility decreased. Each year since 1980, he personally awarded the player voted the Giants’ most inspirational with the award that bore his name. Just a few months ago, he got married in the Giants’ home clubhouse. Teams love their all-time greats, but it’s rare to see an all-time great love the team back in the way McCovey did. The relationship between McCovey and San Francisco was something special for both of them. And though he will never again be seen at AT&T Park, never present another Willie Mac Award, or hit another home run, his memory will remain: in the Hall of Fame, in the retold histories of the Giants franchise, in every repetition of the name “McCovey Cove.”