Willie McCovey, the soft-spoken first baseman with the thunderous bat that clouted 521 HRs over a storied 22-year Hall-Of-Fame career, primarily with the San Francisco Giants, passed yesterday at 80.
“If you pitch to him he’ll ruin baseball”, once quipped Reds manager Sparky Anderson. Few could aptly describe the ferociousness with which McCovey would lash line drives, most of them over the fences. The stats are impressive – 500 HR club, 6x All-Star (including an All-Star MVP), a stretch during his peak years where he led the majors in OPS three years in a row (!), and also the NL Rookie-Of-The-Year in 1959.
While moving rapidly through the Giants’ system, he still didn’t make the big club in ’59 for a big reason – Orlando Cepeda, the Giants resident first baseman and NL ROY in 1958, just the year prior. But by late July, annihilating Triple-A pitching with a punishing 29/92/.372 line, he forced the Giants’ hand and was brought up on July 30, so much so that Cepeda was moved to 3B to accommodate him. And quite a debut he had, against the Phillies and future HOFer Robin Roberts, going 4-4 with 2 triples, and didn’t slow down the rest of the year, batting .354 with 13 HRs and 38 RBIs in effectively only 1/3 of a season to unanimously win the 1959 NL ROY Award.
The rest of McCovey’s early career didn’t go so smoothly – struggling in 1960, he was relegated to part-time duty at 1B (shared with Cepeda) in ’60 and ’61, and played many games in the outfield for the first time in 1962, as the Giants went to the World Series. McCovey did hit a solo HR for the capper in a Game 2 victory (2-0 final) but otherwise struggled with a .200 average as the Giants lost in 7 games. In 1963 he had an All-Star year as the starting LFer (with his 44 HR’s pacing the NL), but never really hit his stride while him and Cepeda shared time on the same club.
With Orlando Cepeda’s struggles with injuries and also with SF manager Alvin Dark, “Stretch” McCovey moved back to his native first base full-time in 1965, and with Cepeda shipped off to St. Louis in early 1966, had another All-Star campaign. His best years were from 1968-1971, where he made the All-Star roster every season, but especially in 1969, when (similar to ’68) he led the NL in HRs and RBIs (45, 126), and the majors in OBP, Slugging and OPS, good enough for his sole career MVP Award. And in 1971, he returned to the post-season against the Pirates in the NLCS, this time dominating with a .429 average and 2 HRs, although falling short of making the World Series.
Moving into his mid-30’s, McCovey was traded to San Diego, to Oakland for a short stint, then back to SF to finish his career at age 42, one of only three MLB players to play both in the 1950’s and 1980’s straight through their career (Tim McCarver and Jim Kaat the others). He was elected to the HOF in his first year of eligibility, in 1986.
Willie McCovey was a star that excelled mostly while the spotlight shone on others, be it Orlando Cepeda, or of course Willie Mays. But that seems to suit the humble, reserved gentleman who otherwise carried a very big stick, and who will always remain one of the most beloved San Francisco Giants.
P.S. – Here’s a bonus for McCovey fans – a radio broadcast of the May 17, 1963 game between the Mets and the Giants, at Candlestick Park, where Mays and McCovey hit back-to-back HRs in the first inning! Video is queued up to the Mays AB (if a glitch it’s at 7:34, McCovey announced at 8:55), but the entire game is a fun listen (40 mph winds that night, the sounds of vendors, fans, and the PA announcer). So crack open a cold Rheingold (or Falstaff) beer, and revisit and enjoy a time now long gone.
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