Willie McCovey, RIP

Willie McCovey, legendary first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, died on Wednesday. He was 80 years old.

McCovey burst on the baseball scene in 1959 in the midst of a three-way pennant race among the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Braves. In his very first game, he went 4-4 with two triples. In just 52 games, the 21 year-old belted 13 home runs and drove in 52 runs. His batting average? .354.

The Giants finished third, but with the addition of McCovey seemed likely to become the team of the 1960s in the National League. Willie Mays was in his prime. Orlando Cepeda had emerged as an all-star. Felipe Alou was a star in the making. His brothers Matty and Jesus were in the pipeline. Juan Marichal was just a year away from joining the starting rotation.

Things didn’t quite go according to plan. For one thing, Cepeda and McCovey played first base. Both were tried in left field. Neither was a natural out there, to say the least, and both developed bad knees.

Fighting injuries, McCovey did not come close to reproducing his 1959 form at the plate in the early 60s. In those days, batting average was the main statistics by which batters were judged. If you didn’t hit close to .300, you needed lots of home runs to maintain be considered a star.

McCovey hit .238 in 1960 and .271 the next season. And limited to about 100 games in each season, he produced only 31 home runs during that two-year span.

McCovey’s on-base percentage plus slugging average (OPS) numbers weren’t bad at all (.818 and .841) but that statistic hadn’t been invented yet. Some considered McCovery, just 23 years old, a flop — his 1959 season a “flash in the pan.”

In 1962, McCovey revived his reputation even though he played in only 91 games with just 229 at-bats. He hit .291, with 20 home runs and 54 RBIs.

The Giants won the pennant that year, after defeating the Dodgers in a play-off. It was the only pennant they would win that decade (and, indeed, until 1989).

The 1962 World Series made McCovey famous, though not in the way he wanted. In the ninth inning of the seventh game, he came to the plate against Ralph Terry of the New York Yankees. The Yankees led 1-0, but the Giants had runners on second and third. Two were out.

The Yankees elected to pitch to McCovey, rather than walking him and going after Cepeda ( a reasonable decision). McCovey hit a sharp line-drive. Unfortunately, it was right at second baseman Bobby Richardson, who gloved it to end the game.

McCovey would later call this the hardest ball he ever hit. Plenty of pitchers he victimized over the years would probably disagree, and I don’t remember it that way. However, McCovey’s post-game statement was close to the truth: “One foot higher or either way, and I guess I would have been a hero.”

Instead, McCovey became a punch line. At least twice, the widely-read comic strip “Peanuts” ran a cartoon that featured four images of lovable loser Charlie Brown sitting silent and unhappy, and a fifth image in which he moans, “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”

In 1986, McCovey told the AP that when people ask him how he would like to be remembered, he responds, “I’d like to be remembered as the guy who hit the line drive over Bobby Richardson’s head.”

McCovey bounced back from the disappointment of the ’62 Series by leading the National League in home runs in 1963. He re-emerged as a star, albeit still overshadowed by Mays and Cepeda. McCovey, though, was “lower maintenance” than the two super-stars. Giants fans seemed to appreciate this, and began their love affair with “Stretch.”

MoCovey really came into his own in the first few seasons after the Giants traded Cepeda. He led the League in home runs and RBIs in both 1968 (the year of the pitcher) and 1969. In those two seasons and in 1971 and 1973, he led the league in intentional walks, a sign of the fear he induced (McCovey missed much of the 1972 season due to injury).

1969 was his best season. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League on the strength of a .320 batting average plus 45 homers and 126 RBIs. His OBS was 1.109.

That year, also produced MoCovey’s second most famous game — the 1969 all-star which I attended at RFK Stadium in Washington. In the third inning, facing John “Blue Moon” Odom, he hit the longest home run I have seen in person. The next inning, he homered off of Denny McLain, the American League’s reigning Cy Young award winner, who had amassed 31 wins the year before.

In one of the most star-stubbed all-star games ever — a game that featured, among others, Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, and McLain — McCovey was the MVP.

By the time I got to the Bay Area for law school — the Fall of 1971 — McCovey was slipping a little. 1971 was his last all-star game appearance. The Giants traded him to San Diego following the 1973 season.

Still, it was a pleasure to watch McCovey play at Candlestick Park in 1972 and 73 (provided I remembered that “the Stick” felt 30 degrees colder than Palo Alto, and dressed accordingly). The big man still had that sweet swing, and you never knew when you might see a vicious shot fly off his bat and over the fence. I saw a couple.

I also enjoyed watching McCovey warm up his infielders between innings by tossing them ground balls. A friend noticed that he threw perfect grounders. It wasn’t just that the infielders didn’t have to move their feet, they hardly even had to bend down. Somehow, McCovey’s tosses seemed to hop up almost to belt level at just the right moment.

McCovey was productive in San Diego, but seemed to be through after a poor 1976 season split between the Padres and Oakland. Nonetheless, the Giants gave him a shot in 1977, and he rewarded them with 28 home runs and a .280 batting average.

He retired as a Giant in 1980. That year, he became only the second player in baseball history to homer in four decades. Ted Williams was the first. Later, Rickie Henderson and Omar Vizquel (!) would accomplish this.

McCovey was so beloved in San Francisco that when the Giants opened their gorgeous mew stadium, they named the body of water behind right field “McCovey Cove.” Later, they erected a statue of “Stretch” at the mouth of the cove. Around the statue are plaques with the names of the winners of the Willie Mac Award, which the Giants have given out annually since 1980 to a player who displays McCovey’s spirit and leadership.

I don’t doubt that there are such players. However, I question whether there are any who display McCovey’s spirit and leadership with as much humility and grace as he did.

STEVE adds: One of my most vivid memories of attending Dodgers games in LA as a kid was a ninth inning moment against the Giants in, I think, 1971, when McCovery came to the plate with the bases loaded, against (if memory serves) the Dodgers’ closer, Jim Brewer. Even though the Dodgers’ first basemen, Wes Parker, was guarding the first base line, McCovey ripped the ball sharply down the right field line right past a diving Parker, clearing the bases and winning the game. I don’t recall ever seeing someone hit the ball so hard. He was scary to see at the plate.

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