Willie McCovey

On October 16, 1962 at Candlestick Park, McCovey came within inches of being a World Series hero. The Giants trailed the perennially powerful Yankees 1-0 with runners at second and third and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game. McCovey hit a line drive toward right field that second baseman Bobby Richardson speared to end the Series. The play has been discussed by fans ever since. It even became a running element of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip, a moment in life that Charlie Brown could relate to with complete empathy.

After belting 29 homers in three months in the Pacific Coast League in 1959, McCovey joined the Giants in the middle of the season and debuted by going 4-for-4 with two singles and two triples against Robin Roberts. He hit .354 that year and, despite playing in only 52 games, won NL Rookie of the Year honors. McCovey slumped badly in 1960 and spent time in the minor leagues at Tacoma. The stay was a short one, for the Giants, headed toward a fifth-place finish, sorely needed his bat in their lineup. McCovey was a first baseman by trade, but he spent three seasons in the early 1960s primarily in the outfield in deference to smoother-fielding Orlando Cepeda. When Cepeda was felled by a knee injury in 1965, first base became McCovey’s.

Since he was a soft-spoken man playing on a star-studded Giants team, McCovey’s talents were not as often heralded by the media and fans as those of teammates Mays, Cepeda, and Marichal. However, his opponents respected the devastating dead-pull power that was his majestic personal trademark and made him one of the most feared home run hitters of his time. McCovey first led the NL in homers in 1963, with 44, and won the title again in 1968, with 36, and in 1969, with 45. For four consecutive seasons, 1967-1970, he led the NL in home run percentage. In 1970 the slugger homered in all twelve parks, one of the few players ever to accomplish that feat. Toward the end of his career, on June 27, 1977, McCovey hit a grand slam and a solo home run in the same inning against the NL champion Cincinnati Reds, becoming the only player in history to hit two home runs in one inning twice; his first such effort came on April 12, 1973.

McCovey had his banner year in 1969 and won the MVP award. In addition to leading the NL with 45 homers, 126 RBI, and a .656 slugging percentage, he drew a record 45 intentional walks and finished fifth with a .320 batting average. His 9.2 home run percentage that year is one of the highest ever. McCovey’s appearance in the 1969 All-Star Game was his third of six, and he paced the NL to a 9-3 victory with two home runs. McCovey was an integral part of an ever-changing Giants team that contended for a decade, reaching the World Series in 1962 and the NL playoffs in 1971. Giants owners devastated Bay Area fans by sending McCovey, their favorite player, to the upstart San Diego Padres prior to the 1974 season. Tagged Big Mac in deference to Padres and McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc, McCovey had two good seasons and one poor one before the Padres sold him to the Oakland Athletics, the Giants’ cross-bay competition. He played in only 11 games for the A’s, who released him at the end of the season. McCovey was invited by new Giants ownership to San Francisco’s spring training camp in 1977, and he responded with a 28-homer, 86-RBI comeback at the age of 39.

The final hurrah of McCovey’s career came in 1980 when he hit his only home run of the season and the 521st and final one of his career, which then tied him with Ted Williams for tenth place all-time in home runs. Having played during four decades, he retired during the season and joined the Giants’ public- and community-relations staff. McCovey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.