Hall of Famer, Mighty Hitter McCovey Dead at age 80

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Well, that was a short offseason. The World Series wrapped on Sunday night, and yesterday the word came from San Francisco which called for a special edition of this and every other blog, column or sportscast that involves baseball. Willie McCovey had passed away at age 80, according to a press release put out by his longtime employer, the Giants.
When I was a boy of 8 and first discovering the great names of baseball, Willie Mays was the first Giant I heard of. It wasn’t too long before I heard of Willie McCovey. The Mets were in San Diego, and advertising their upcoming games in San Francisco Murphy mentioned both Mays and McCovey. I knew less about McCovey only because Willie Mays got his name mentioned in Charlie Brown cartoons. It didn’t take long to find out about the man the Giants and their fans called “Stretch.” In a few years I learned that McCovey had been at the dish in the last of the 9th inning of game 7 of the 1962 World Series. Runners were on second and third. A single from Stretch would make the Giants World Champions for the second time in 8 years and give them their first World Series over the Yankees since 1922. McCovey slashed a liner which second baseman Bobby Richardson managed to catch. The Yankees won that World Series. Nobody would know they wouldn’t win another one until 1977. As for McCovey, he would hit 521 home runs and drive in over 1550 runs-but that moment was as close as he would come to a World Series ring.
McCovey was born in Henry Aaron’s home town of Mobile, Alabama but was a shade younger than Aaron. When it became clear McCovey could play pro baseball, there were no more Negro leagues so he went directly to the minors. This created a major problem for him as well as any other black players of the day. Then as now, a lot of minor league cities were located in the deep south. The Giants’ AA team was in Dallas which couldn’t exactly be considered a friendly city for blacks in the late 1950’s. He was at least allowed to play there which wasn’t true when the Dallas team went to Shreveport. Segregation there was so strict that no black player could oppose the Shreveport team. When he got to the top he was given a tall order facing Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. In response he went 4 for 4 against the Phillies’ superstar. He played left field then with Willie Mays in center. Later in his career he would move to first base, then leave the Giants for San Diego and Oakland, only to return to spend his last 4 seasons in San Francisco.
He was an All-Star 6 times, the last 4 from 1968–71. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1959 and the MVP a decade later though his Giants were a losing ball club. 3 times including 1969 he led the league in home runs. He led the league in RBIS in both 1968 and 1969. In 1986 he went to Cooperstown on his first try.
Stories about him began making the rounds early on. The Mets’ first manager Casey Stengel asked his right fielder (or pitcher Roger Craig depending which version you read) concerning McCovey, “Where do you want to pich him, or was it play him–second deck or third deck?” This was when McCovey was just coming into his own. Legendary pitcher Bob Gibson, who is to say the least no shrinking violet and still intimidating in his 80’s called McCovey the scariest hitter in baseball. Reggie Jackson who rarely took a back seat to any man also called McCovey the scariest hitter in the game. This came from a man who dubbed himself “The Straw that Stirs the Drink” and “Mr. October” and habitually talked about himself in the third person. McCovey hit 231 home runs in Candlestick Park, more than any other man. The swirling winds at Candlestick made it almost as unfriendly for hitters as the Houston Astrodome or the 1966 version of Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He connected on September 16, 1966 with a jolt that was considered the longest ever hit at Candlestick. In April, 1973 and June 1977 he homered twice in the same inning which nobody had done twice in a career. Since then it’s been done by Andre Dawson and Jeff King. When McCovey did it in 1977, one of his 2 home runs that inning was a grand slammer. He put up a career total of 18 4-base 4-baggers which remains the National League high. He and Ted Williams (who also has 521 bombs) hit home runs in 4 different decades on their way to Cooperstown. As long as the Giants play where they do now, his name will live on. Beyond the right field fence of their park there’s an inlet of San Francisco Bay once called China Basin. It has been renamed McCovey Cove. Across the cove from the park is a statue of Stretch, and the land the statue stands on is now called McCovey Point.

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