SABR

Willie McCovey

This article was written by Mark Armour.

In Jim Bouton’s revelatory 1970 book Ball Four, he describes a late September 1969 scene at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. “A group of terrorized pitchers stood around the batting cage watching Willie McCovey belt some tremendous line drives over the right-field fence. Every time a ball bounced into the seats we’d make little whimpering animal sounds. ‘Hey, Willie,’ I said. ‘Can you do that whenever you want to?’ He didn’t crack a smile. ‘Just about,’ he said, and he hit another one. More animal sounds.”i

At the time, McCovey was the best and most feared hitter in baseball. He was known not for long towering home runs, though he could certainly hit one of those when the mood struck, but for vicious line shots that imperiled first baseman, second basemen, and base runners, not to mention patrons in the distant right field stands. Longtime Dodger manager Walter Alston, who saw McCovey more than he would have liked, noted, "McCovey didn't hit any cheap one[s]. When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God. You can't cry about it."ii Reds manager Sparky Anderson, among the many managers who often chose to walk the slugger, reasoned, "If you pitch to him he'll ruin baseball. He'd hit 80 home runs. There's no comparison between McCovey and anybody else in the league."iii

His journey to the top of his profession was oddly uneven, mostly due to circumstance. A natural first baseman, left-handed all the way, his six-feet-four and 200 pound physique (though he got bigger) and long arms earned him the wonderfully appropriate nickname of “Stretch”. Jim Murray, the erudite Los Angeles Times columnist, once wrote, “"On ground balls hit down to the second baseman, there's no need to throw, the second baseman just hands the ball to Willie.”iv Unfortunately, when he arrived on the scene in late 1959 (in spectacular fashion) his team already had a first baseman, and a great one at that, and it took the Giants nearly seven years to straighten this all out. McCovey’s years at the top were further shortened by injuries—he had bad feet and arthritic knees and hips that caused him considerable pain and made him mainly a part-time hobbled player for the last 10 years of his career. But if he had plenty of obstacles and mishaps to overcome, McCovey managed to stick around for parts of 22 seasons, hit 521 home runs, and earn the admiration and respect of seemingly every man he came across, especially in his adopted home town of San Francisco, California.

Willie Lee McCovey was born on January 10, 1938 in Mobile, Alabama. Frank McCovey was a railroad laborer, and he and Ester had ten children, Willie being the seventh. Frank was a quiet man, and Ester usually ran the house without interference. Usually. “It didn’t happen frequently,” Willie recalled, “but I got my whippings. You better believe it. My father was the moral head of the house. He worked hard to support us. We never starved. Mother did all the yelling, but sometimes we didn’t listen to Mother. Father was quiet, like I am. He didn’t say much, but when he spoke, we listened.” The children ate what came to be known as “soul food”—pots of beans or black-eyed peas—with chicken on Sundays.v "We went to church every Sunday," recalled McCovey, "and nobody ever smoked in front of my parents, even when we were all grown up. Of course, I never smoked anyway."vi

Mobile in the 1940s and 1950s was not an easy place for an African American child to grow up, and opportunities to escape the oppressive segregation were few. “Kids in Mobile either hung around street corners and went into gangs, or they hung around street corners and went into sports. I was lucky. The kids who were my friends went into sports.” McCovey and his cohort dominated local playground teams in baseball, softball, basketball and football. He played first base in baseball and softball, was a high-scoring center in basketball, and played end in football.vii

One of his playground directors was a man named Jesse Thomas, whose brother Showboat Thomas played in the Negro Leagues. Jesse Thomas was a friend of Alex Pompez, the former Negro League owner now employed as a scout for the New York Giants. Thomas acted as a “birddog”, often alerting Pompez about local players that needed checking out, and he recommended McCovey. Pompez followed up, and liked what he saw. This feeling was not unanimous. Ed Scott, another local Mobile baseball man who signed Henry Aaron for the Indianapolis Clowns, saw McCovey regularly and passed on him. “Nobody thought that he was going to be able to make it,” Scott related decades later, “because, you know, he had [only] one position—first base—and he wasn’t making that much contact.”viii

Meanwhile McCovey had dropped out of high school a year early in 1954 to work and help the family finances. He delivered newspapers at the age of 12, and now worked in a bakery. In December he went to Los Angeles to visit his older brother Wyatt for the holidays—because his father worked for the railroad he was able to ride the train for free. Willie loved LA so much he decided to stay to live and work. He might have stayed for years, but his mother wrote to tell him that Alex Pompez was trying to reach him—he wanted Willie to attend a Giants tryout camp in Melbourne, Florida. The Giants sent him a bus ticket, and McCovey headed east.

Joining McCovey at the camp were dozens of other prospects, including Orlando Cepeda and Jose Pagan, who both traveled from Puerto Rico. McCovey had just turned 17 years old, and was rail thin—6-foot-2 and 165 pounds. “I was scared to death,” he recalled. “I couldn’t have impressed anybody.” Fortunately, Pompez had already seen him play, and signed McCovey in spite of his uninspired play at the camp. McCovey got $175 a month to play for Sandersville in the Class D Georgia State League. Pompez sent another $500 to McCovey’s mother. “I didn’t realize she was that good of agent,” he later mused.ix

Despite his age, McCovey had no difficulty adjusting to professional pitching. He hit .305 with 19 home runs, 24 doubles, 15 stolen bases, and a league-leading 113 RBI in just 107 games. The next year, with Danville, Virginia, in the Class B Carolina League, McCovey kept hitting—29 home runs and a .310 average, leading the circuit with 38 doubles. In 1957, promoted all the way to Double-A Dallas, he hit .281 with 11 home runs. More importantly, he suffered injuries to his ankle and knee while sliding into home, costing him several weeks of the season. The knee had to be punctured and drained of fluid. Although he had had a bit of speed in his first few professional seasons, with a lot of triples and stolen bases, he would generally be considered slow afoot.

In 1958 the 20-year-old made it to Triple-A Phoenix, and he .319 with 14 home runs while battling knee soreness and visiting orthopedists. His teammates included Felipe Alou, Leon Wagner, Tom Haller, Willie Kirkland, and Ernie Broglio, a group good enough to win the Pacific Coast League championship. McCovey went to his first major league spring camp in 1959, but despite his impressive minor league record he had no realistic chance of making the team. The Giants, who had relocated to San Francisco, had two first baseman already: Bill White, who had had a strong rookie season for the Giants in 1956 but had spent most of the next two years in the Army; and Orlando Cepeda, the reigning Rookie of the Year, who had hit .312 with 25 home runs and 96 RBI and captured the hearts of the fans in San Francisco. McCovey wore a steel brace on his knee and saw very little action, before being sent back to Phoenix to start the year.

McCovey rather emphatically forced the Giants’ hand. In late July, after 95 games, he was hitting .372 with 29 home runs and 92 RBI. That was apparently sufficient, and the Giants called him to San Francisco on July 30. “Something in the back of my mind kept asking—‘Am I good enough?’” recalled McCovey.x The Giants were just 1/2 game out of first place, though they had lost their last four games and had not been scoring runs. Cepeda had done his part, hitting just as well as he had in his fine rookie year. Manager Bill Rigney decided to move Cepeda to third base to get McCovey into the lineup.

His first game was on July 30, hitting third between Willie Mays and Cepeda, facing Phillies’ ace Robin Roberts at Seals Stadium. All McCovey did was go 4-for-4 with two triples, leading the Giants to a 7-2 victory. It was one of the more impressive debuts in big league history. He hit in his first seven games, batting .467 in that stretch, including his first home run (off the Pirates’ Ron Kline) and his first two-homer game (both off Milwaukee’s Bob Buhl). On August 17 he started a 22-game hitting streak, at the end of which he was hitting .381. He finished his two-month debut batting .354 with 13 home runs. The Giants stayed in first place most of August and September, and led both Los Angeles and Milwaukee by two games with eight to play, but lost seven of the eight and finished third, four games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers.

A theme of the Giants of this period was all of the surplus talent that they kept producing, and how they ultimately mismanaged it. This was especially true at first base. Though they had traded Bill White in March, the Giants now controlled two Hall of Fame talents who played first base, both soon to be 22 years old, born just four months apart in fact. Rather than trying to trade one of them, in a deal which they would almost definitely not have received equivalent value, the Giants chose to keep both. The experiment with Cepeda at third base lasted four games, resulting in two assists and three errors. Cepeda moved to left field, where he was also uncomfortable, though he did less damage. Thirty years later, Cepeda had some perspective. "I just wasn't ready mentally," he said. "I know I could've played left field if I'd put my mind to it, but I was only 21 years old and very sensitive. Friends and other players kept telling me I should demand to play first. It was all pride with me. And ignorance."xi McCovey, as always the loyal teammate, just wanted to play. “"I could see his point," recalled McCovey. "Why should he make a fool out of himself playing out of position. The thing is, we both couldn't be on first."xii

"I could understand his reluctance," manager Bill Rigney recalled. "But Cepeda was the better athlete, so I thought he could make the move to another position more easily. But he would come up to me and say, 'Beel, I the first baseman not the left fielder.' What could you do? He was the most popular San Francisco Giant. It was very hard not to like Orlando Cepeda. But this became an unresolvable situation."xiii That said, it was Rigney’s job to try, and he and his bosses deserve some blame for later allowing Cepeda to dictate the defensive alignment. In 1960, with the team moving to brand new Candlestick Park, he stayed with the same alignment—McCovey at first base and Cepeda in left field. (With Willie Mays, the best player in baseball, manning center field, Rigney also had the problem of finding places for Willie Kirkland, Jackie Brandt, Leon Wagner, Felipe Alou, and Matty Alou.)

“If anyone’s immune to the sophomore jinx, it’s got to be McCovey,” Rigney said. “His hitting is fundamentally too sound. He has a near perfect swing, a picture swing, and he doesn’t go after too many bad balls.”xiv Fully grown at 6-feet-4 and 200 pounds, McCovey had a tough year in 1960. At the end of May he was hitting .267 with 9 home runs, but a prolonged summer slump kept him on the bench often, and eventually to Triple-A in late July. His demotion was brief, just 17 games, but he continued to struggle on his return. For the season he hit .238 with 13 home runs. While his numbers against right-handed pitchers were respectable (.279, 13 homers), against southpaws McCovey hit a wretched .129 in 70 at bats. McCovey’s defense, never a strong suit, suffered along with his offense.

In 1961 McCovey, playing for new manager Al Dark, was used as a platoon first baseman most of the season, starting 79 games and batting .271 with 18 home runs. Cepeda, whose hitting was apparently unaffected by the shuffling, shifted all year between first base and left field and had a great season, hitting .311 while leading the league with 46 home runs and 142 RBI. The next year, Dark announced that Cepeda, clearly the star of the tandem, would be his full-time first baseman. McCovey began the year as a pinch-hitter, then began to work his way into sharing the left field job with Harvey Kuenn. He had never played the outfield in his life, but at least he had Willie Mays next to him. “Mays told me what to do,” McCovey recalled. “He built up my confidence. He let me make plays he could have made, and the club would have wanted him to make.”xv Still it was not an easy transition, leading one local observer to say, "Don't give him a glove. Give him a cigarette and a blindfold."xvi

Even during these early years, McCovey could look forward to matching up against Dodger star Don Drysdale. During the years 1959 through 1962, McCovey hit .500 (16-for-32) with five homers off the pitcher. Drysdale won 25 games in 1962, and captured the Cy Young Award, yet McCovey was still 7-for-10 against him. On August 11 at Candlestick, McCovey beat Drysdale with a titanic three-run pinch-hit home run that brought the home crowd roaring to its feet. “Drysdale threw it,” recalled Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges, “and it was just gone. I don’t think anybody really knows where or when it landed.”xvii (Drysdale slowly started to figure McCovey out, but still allowed 12 home runs and a .336 average to his nemesis.)

For the 1962 season, in his part-time left field role, McCovey hit .293 with 20 home runs in just 229 at bats. His .590 slugging percentage would have been fourth in the league had he had the requisite playing time. Dark had given up on him against left-handed pitchers—he started only once all year against a lefty, and he was removed for pinch-hitters anytime a lefty was brought in. As a result, he played just 19 complete games. For the season he finished 3-for-10 against southpaws. In the World Series, he started four times—sitting out the three games Whitey Ford pitched. In Game 2, he homered off Ralph Terry in a 2-0 Giants win, went hitless in Game 3, singled in Game 5, and then played a central role in the finale.

In Game 7, facing Terry again, he tripled to deep center field in the seventh but had the biggest at-bat of his career in the bottom of the ninth. Trailing 1-0 with two out and runners at second and third, McCovey strode to the plate. Yankee manager Ralph Houk came to the mound to talk to Terry, and many observers felt that he would walk McCovey to face the right-handed Cepeda, who had been battling a knee injury the previous few weeks. Houk chose to pitch to Willie, who hit a long foul ball, and then hit a bullet directly to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who squeezed it for the final out and the World Series title. Two months later this at-bat was immortalized by Giants fan Charles Shultz in his daily Peanuts comic strip. After three identical frames show Charlie Brown and Linus sitting dejectedly on a curb, the final frame shows Charlie Brown wailing to the heavens: “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”xviii

In 1963 Dark finally decided he needed to keep McCovey in the lineup, starting him 145 times and giving him 627 plate appearances. In return, McCovey provided a league-leading 44 home runs (tying Milwaukee’s Henry Aaron), 102 RBI, and a .280 average. He also led the league with 13 errors in left field, but Dark had concluded that he was better than Cepeda had been, and McCovey, unlike Cepeda, did not complain. "I knew I wouldn't be a Willie Mays," McCovey says, "and anybody who saw me play there could tell that right away. But I learned. I think I played it adequately."xix

McCovey spent a lot of time with Mays off the field in these early years. Mays carefully guarded his privacy, and did not get close to many people. “Mays was the type of guy,” McCovey remembered, “I don’t know what it was about him, but anywhere he went he felt he had to take somebody with him. And that somebody was usually me.” As McCovey’s career progressed, he generally hit fourth in the order, just after Mays, and he appreciated that Mays could “score for you off balls that nobody I’ve ever seen in baseball would score on.”xx

Just when it seemed like McCovey had settled into stardom, he had a bad year in 1964, hitting just .220 with 18 home runs in 364 at bats, including a grisly .145 against lefties. McCovey struggled with the January death of his father, his greatest influence, and then battled the first significant physical problem of his major league career—a painful and mysterious ailment to the sole of his left foot. Dark doubted the injury, which disappointed his player. “Now, why would I not want to play? It was my profession, I always wanted to play before.”xxi Before the 1965 season, a special ripple sole was devised for his shoes and he was able to live with the lessened soreness. But McCovey’s injuries were just beginning.

Cepeda, the team’s star first baseman, had been playing the past few years with a sore right knee. He continued to hit, averaging 32 home runs, 107 RBI and a .309 average over his first seven big league seasons. (He later suggested that he foolishly kept playing on the knee because Dark doubted his injury.) When Cepeda showed up at camp in 1965, playing under new manager Herman Franks, the swelling and pain in his knee had become unbearable, and he ended up playing just five games in the field the entire season, along with 28 pinch-hitting appearances. Franks moved McCovey back to first base, and the slugger responded with a great comeback season, 39 home runs and a .276 average. This was an offensive-starved era, making McCovey’s statistics especially impressive. He finished second in the league in homers and walks (88), and in the top five in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The Giants remained in the pennant race until the last weekend of the season before losing to a Dodger team that won 15 of its final 16 games.

When Cepeda showed up ready to play in 1966, the Giants once again had two star first basemen, one with a bad knee and the other with bad feet and two sore knees. Franks kept McCovey at first and tried Cepeda in left field for a few games, but it was soon clear that the situation had, finally, become untenable. On May 8, the 28-year-old Cepeda was dealt to the Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki. Although his career would eventually succumb to his bad knees, Cepeda had a few good years left in him, including an MVP award in 1967. Significantly, neither he nor McCovey would ever play the outfield again. McCovey, also 28, had established himself as one of the best hitters in the game, but for the first time had a total grip on the first base position—the only position he could competently play.

McCovey responded in 1966 with what had now become a standard McCovey season—36 home runs, 96 RBI, a .295 batting average—finishing fourth in the league in on-base percentage (.391) and second in slugging (.586). McCovey was playing in a league filled with all-time great players, and he was holding his own with all of them. As proof, he batted cleanup in the 1966 All-Star game, behind Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Henry Aaron in the batting order. In 1967 he had to miss time throughout the season because of his sore knees, but he still finished with 31 homers, 91 RBI and a .276 average in 135 games. The Giants finished in second place for the third straight season, though this time the race did not go to the last weekend.

McCovey was a quiet, humble man, but he was enjoying his new fame, and wealth—he was likely making $60,000 by 1968, and it would soon be twice that. He made his home in San Francisco—he no longer returned to Mobile, which he considered unfriendly to black people. He liked to drive big cars, often a Cadillac. He liked being with young women, listening to jazz or pop records, wearing the finest and most “mod” clothes. One thing he did not do: speak out on social issues. While there were many black athletes who wanted to take public positions on the issues facing African-Americans in the 1960s, McCovey was not one of them. “I do what I think is right,” he said. “I have experienced prejudice. I know something’s got to be done, but I am not knowledgeable as to what should be done. No matter what, I am a Negro. But I don’t condone violence. It is not my bag.”xxii

His bag was hitting a baseball, and in 1968 he did it better than anyone else in the game. In what became known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” someone forgot to inform McCovey, who hit .293 and led the NL with 36 home runs, 105 RBI, and a .545 slugging percentage. Jim Maloney, Cincinnati’s ace pitcher, understated the case when he called McCovey “the most feared left-handed hitter in the National League.” Because all his fellow hitters had struggled to score runs over the past few years, after the season the major leagues agreed to lower the pitching mound and reduce the size of the strike zone.

In March 1969 he appeared on the television show “The Dating Game,” and he and his selected date won a trip to Europe, deferred to after the season. In celebration, he went out and had his best year yet, cementing his reputation as baseball’s best hitter. Along with his league-leading 45 home runs and 126 RBI, he hit .320 with 121 walks, leading the league with an extraordinary .453 on-base percentage and .656 slugging percentage. He was intentionally walked 45 times, a new major league record. McCovey did not think the new pitching mound had any effect. "The mound looks just as high to me,” he reported. “Even before all this came up, the mounds varied in different parks. There was no conformity, and I'll bet it's the same this season. All they really had to do to improve hitting was to eliminate the spitball. If they had truly banned the spitter this season they wouldn't have to lower the mound or shrink the strike zone."xxiii

The Giants were involved in yet another tight pennant race, this time in the brand new NL West. Herman Franks had been replaced by Clyde King, a move that suited McCovey well. "I don't think," he said, "that I've ever met two men anywhere who have such opposite views about handling players. Herman was the type who hated to build a player up. Clyde, well, he's always around with the compliments to everyone. Ballplayers, like everyone else, like to get told they did something right." xxiv (Franks was Mays’ friend, and the longtime star and team leader did not take to the switch as well as McCovey did.) The Giants were in first place as late as September 22, but ultimately finished three games behind the Braves.

One of the biggest thrills of McCovey’s career was the 1969 All-Star game, played on July 23 in Washington’s RFK Stadium. Batting fourth in the NL lineup, McCovey hit two long home runs, one each off Oakland’s John “Blue Moon” Odom and Detroit’s Denny McLain. He finished 2-for-4 in the NL’s easy 9-3 victory, after which he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. After the season, he was named the NL MVP for the season in a close vote over the Mets’ Tom Seaver, who won 25 games for the surprising world champions.

The 1970 Giants started slowly, causing the club to replace King with Charlie Fox, though too late to catch the red-hot Cincinnati Reds. McCovey had another great season, batting .289 with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, leading the league in walks (137), intentional walks (40), and slugging percentage (.612).

In the final exhibition game in the spring of 1971, McCovey tore cartilage in his knee, and he opted to play the season rather than undergo surgery. The result was a lessened workload (just 95 starts, and 10 pinch-hitting appearances) and lessened effectiveness (.277, 18 homers in 329 at bats). “Every town we went to I had to have it drained because it would swell up as big as my head.” McCovey recalled. “I was on medication throughout the year to try to keep the soreness and inflammation to a minimum.”xxv Unfortunately, McCovey’s knee woes would drag down the rest of his career. The Giants won the NL West that season and McCovey played all four games of their NLCS loss to the Pirates, hitting 6-for-14 with two home runs. A home run he hit off Steve Blass in Game 1 was a vintage McCovey special—a vicious blast over the right field fence that Roger Angell described as “an intercontinental ballistic missile.”xxvi

He showed up in 1972 healthy and raring to go, and homered on Opening Day off Houston’s Don Wilson. In the season’s fourth game, San Diego’s John Jeter ran into McCovey at first base, fracturing Willie’s right forearm. ("I feel like I killed Santa Claus," Jeter said.xxvii) McCovey missed nearly two months of action, and struggled mightily upon his return. In what turned out to be 263 at-bats, McCovey hit just .213 with 14 home runs. While McCovey was on the disabled list, the Giants traded Willie Mays to the Mets, which marked the start of the club’s efforts to rid itself of its aging, high-salaried players.

In 1973, with two arthritic knees but a healed forearm, McCovey hit nearly as well as ever—in 130 games, many of them as a pinch-hitter, he belted 29 home runs and hit .266, walking 105 times (including a league-leading 25 intentionally). After the season he became the next high-priced Giant to be discarded, following Sam McDowell in June and preceding Juan Marichal in December. On October 25, McCovey and reserve outfielder Bernie Williams were dealt to the San Diego Padres for pitcher Mike Caldwell.

McCovey was not caught unawares by the trade. “This was something that [team president] Horace Stoneham and I had talked about. He was losing a lot of money, so he was getting rid of all his high-priced players and he wanted to make sure they were happy, so he would ask us, me and Mays, where we wanted to go.” McCovey wanted to stay on the West Coast and in the National League, and thought the climate in San Diego would be much better for his aching knees. “Buzzie Bavasi [the general manager of the Padres], we all three were on the phone. And I let them know then that this is what I wanted.”xxviii

"They've never had a real star here," said San Diego’s manager, John McNamara. "Now we have one who is absolutely first class." McCovey willingly took the burden. "What I do is give 100% and hope I'm setting an example,” he said in his first spring with Padres. “That's why I played so often when I was hurt.”xxix McCovey hit well the next two years—22 home runs and 96 walks in 128 games, then 23 home runs and 57 walks in 122 games—but not enough to get the woeful Padres into contention. He continued to battle physical ailments, had increasing difficulties in the field and on the bases, but still did damage when he got into the batter’s box. McNamara scheduled a couple of days off a week to try to wring as much value as he could out of his best hitter.

In 1976, the 38-year-old McCovey struggled right from the start, and lost his first base job to the 23-year-old Mike Ivie. On August 30 he was sold to the Oakland A’s, which allowed him to try the designated hitter position for the only time in his career. For the year he hit .204 in parts of 82 games. With no contract for the coming season, his career seemed like it might have come to an end. He contacted the Giants, who invited him to spring training with no promise of a job.

In fact, he made the club. "He earned every bit of it," said Giants’ manager Joe Altobelli. "He is just a super individual. Each day I admire him more.”xxx In the Giants home opener, the ovation from the 40,000 fans, lasting several minutes, reduced McCovey to tears. “I knew then what it felt like to be a Giant. I knew then that there is still some loyalty around.” McCovey had his healthiest season since 1970, playing 141 games, and batting .280 with 28 home runs and 86 RBI. This earned him the NL Comeback Player of the Year award, and made him as beloved in his home city as he had ever been. “I'd like to think that when people think of San Francisco,” he said, “they also think of Willie McCovey. It's where I want to be, where I belong. I hope the people there love me a little in return."xxxi

On September 18, the Giants held a “Willie McCovey Day” before their game at Candlestick Park against the Reds. McCovey spoke for several minutes, on the verge of tears, thanking everyone he could think of, including his mother Ester, who was on the field. Fittingly, he ended the game with a two-out game-winning single off Pedro Borbon in the bottom of the ninth. "I think Willie showed everyone today just what kind of an individual he is," said Altobelli.xxxii

McCovey played three more seasons with the Giants, with decreasing playing time and effectiveness. He hit his 500th home run on June 30, 1978, off Jamie Easterly at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. He hit .228 with 12 home runs that year, sharing the first base job with Mike Ivie, who was more effective. McCovey improved to .249 and 15 home runs in 1979, while Ivie hit 27 home runs and hit .286. When McCovey received little playing time for the first several weeks of the 1980 season, he announced his retirement, which would follow a couple of weeks of celebrations. His only home run of the season, hit in Montreal off Scott Sanderson on May 3, was his 521st, tying Ted Williams for 8th place on the all-time list. In his final appearance at Candlestick Park, on July 3, he was lavishly feted before the game, got the start, and contributed an RBI single to a Giants’ win. He was allowed to finish his career on the ensuing road trip to Los Angeles. In Dodger Stadium, the fans showered him with tremendous standing ovations. His final at-bat, on July 6, was an 8th inning pinch-hit go-ahead sacrifice fly, contributing to another win. At age 42, his wonderful playing career had come to an end.

In retirement, McCovey has remained firmly associated with the Giants and with the city of San Francisco. In the late 1960s he bought a lot in Woodside, just down the peninsula from the city, and several years later he built a sprawling house on it. In subsequent years it became a beautiful and luxurious suburb, home to the mansions of many Silicon Valley millionaires, including the late Steve Jobs. McCovey has lived in the home ever since, close to his beloved Giants. He has held various positions with the club over the years: spring training instructor, special assistant to the general manager, and, most recently, Senior Advisor. His principal role seems to be showing up at the park and playing the part of beloved icon, something he is happy to do.

Other than his work with the Giants, McCovey was able to make occasional money at the memorabilia and autograph shows that became so popular in the 1980s and 1990s. He got into some hot water in 1996 when he was indicted for evading taxes on income derived from these shows. He ended up paying a $5,000 fine and serving two years probation.

McCovey was married once briefly—to Karen in 1964—but the couple divorced two years later. Willie and Karen had a daughter, Allison McCovey, who in 2012 was the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project.

The injuries that brought him constant pain throughout his career got only worse in subsequent years. He had many surgeries in each knee, before eventually having each replaced. He has had four back surgeries, which have left him increasingly immobile. By 2013 he had been in a wheelchair for more than a decade, though he still gets to many Giants games every year. His recovery from his latest back surgery kept him away from the ballpark during the Giants 2010 World Series victory, but he was front and center two years later when they did it again.

McCovey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, in his first year of eligibility. He has attended most of the induction ceremonies in subsequent years. The San Francisco Giants permanently retired his uniform number 44 soon after he last wore it. When the club opened their new ballpark, initially called PacBell Park, in 2000, one of the park’s most striking visual features was the China Basin just beyond the right field fence. To honor their famous slugger who surely would have hit many balls into the water, the club named this inlet McCovey Cove. In 2003, the club unveiled a statue of their icon at McCovey Point, at the mouth of the Cove. Around the statue there 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.

In 2013 McCovey remained an ever-present, beloved, and optimistic, denizen of his home city. "My health is good, it's just that I'm not able to walk yet," he said in March 2012. "It's mostly my balance. I haven't been walking for so long that I have to work on the balance." In 2010 he had begun home rehab for his recovery, and he and his nurse, Estela Bejar, fell in love. This only made McCovey more determined. "We got lots of plans to do, so I've got to get well," says McCovey, nodding and smiling at Bejar. "Plans to live and do things. Go to Hawaii and play golf."xxxiii

McCovey spent several years playing with, and often overshadowed by, outstanding teammates, including Mays, arguably the greatest player there ever was. None of this—the platooning, the slights, the unrelenting injuries—seemed ever to affect this man, this man without enemies, who remained delightfully humble and grateful to be playing baseball, playing for the Giants. Five decades after his amazing debut, he is still there, still humble, still grateful, still smiling.

Acknowledgment

I would like to thank Steve Treder and Rob Wood for their thorough review of this article.

 

Notes

i Jim Bouton with Leonard Shecter, Ball Four (New York: World, 1970), 385.

v Arnold Hano, “The Arrival of Willie McCovey,” Sport, June 1969.

vi Ron Fimrite, “The Cable Cars, The Fog—And Willie,” Sports Illustrated, April 17, 1978.

vii Hano, “The Arrival of Willie McCovey.”

viii Ed Scott, interview by Ron Anderson, in Jim Sandoval and Bill Nowlin (eds.), Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and their Profession (SABR, 2011), 69.

ix Sam Whiting, “Willie McCovey recalls ’62 Series—50 years ago,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 2012.

x Hano, “The Arrival of Willie McCovey.”

xi Ron Fimrite, “The Heart Of A Giant,” Sports Illustrated, October 16, 1991.

xii Fimrite, “The Cable Cars, The Fog—And Willie.”

xiii Fimrite, “The Heart Of A Giant.”.

xiv Charles Einstein, “Hey, Lay Off McCovey,” Sport, July 1963, 34.

xv Hano, “The Arrival of Willie McCovey.”

xvi Walter Bingham, “The Race Is In The West,” Sports Illustrated, June 4, 1962.

xvii Einstein, “Hey, Lay Off McCovey.”

xviii Charles Schulz, daily strip, Peanuts, December 22, 1962.

xix Fimrite, “The Cable Cars, The Fog—And Willie.”

xx Mike Mandel, SF Giants. An Oral History (Santa Cruz: self-published, 1979), 89.

xxi Einstein, “Hey, Lay Off McCovey.”

xxii Hano, “The Arrival of Willie McCovey.”

xxiii “San Francisco Giants,” Sports Illustrated, May 19, 1969.

xxiv Mark Mulvoy, “The Pursuit Of Willie And Clyde,” Sports Illustrated, September 15, 1969.

xxv Mandel, SF Giants, 91.

xxvi Roger Angell, The Summer Game (New York: Viking, 1972), 274.

xxvii Jim Kaplan, “The Week,” Sports Illustrated, May 1, 1972.

xxviii Fay Vincent, It’s What’s Inside the Lines That Counts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 23-24.

xxix William Leggett, Ron Fimrite, Mark Mulvoy, Pat Putam, Jim Kaplan, “Familiar Faces In New Places,” Sports Illustrated, March 18, 1974.

xxx Ron Fimrite, “I’ll Come Home To You, Said Willie,” Sports Illustrated, May 2, 1977.

xxxi Fimrite, “The Cable Cars, The Fog—And Willie.”

xxxii Ron Fimrite, “The Cable Cars, The Fog—And Willie,” Sports Illustrated, April 17, 1978.

xxxiii Whiting, “Willie McCovey recalls ’62 Series—50 years ago.”

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