Willie McCovey was called “Stretch.” And his career stretched over many eras. A Hall of Famer who played over 22 years and 4 different decades, McCovey almost nearly gave the Giants their greatest moment in team’s history twice in the same at bat.
Mac was a native of Mobile AL when the New York Giants signed him in 1954. They were the defending World Champion Giants when he signed on. Willie Mays was still there. As was Hoyt Wilhelm and Leo Durocher. My dad, a rabid New York Giants fan, was 13 years old when McCovey signed.
When he finished playing, my dad was 39 and I was 8 years old. That is quite a career.
When he made his big league debut with the Giants in 1959, they had settled in San Francisco. Willie Mays was still there. As was 1954 World Series hero Johnny Antonelli. But some new faces were on the squad, like Jim Davenport, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou.
Big Mac didn’t make his debut until July 30th, but he made it a memorable one at Seals Stadium. He went 4 for 4 with a pair of triples, driving in 2 and scoring 3 times off of future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts.
In August, his first full month, he batted .373 and posted an OPS of 1.120, belting 8 homers and was named player of the month. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year.
By 1960, the 22 year old McCovey was a regular, but not putting up the eye popping numbers of his rookie campaign. In 1962, the Giants beat the Dodgers in a playoff for the NL Pennant with McCovey slugging 20 homers in just 91 games.
San Francisco would face the star studded defending World Champion Yankees in the World Series. McCovey hit a key homer in Game 2 that expanded the Giants lead to 2-0, which stood.
In Game 7 with the Giants trailing 1-0 to Ralph Terry,McCovey tripled with two outs in the 7th but was stranded at third when Orlando Cepeda struck out. It would not be the last near miss for McCovey in that game.
The Giants bullpen escaped a bases loaded nobody out jam in the 8th and in the 9th tried to rally. Down to the last out, Willie Mays doubled to right field but Matty Alou was held from scoring the tying run. McCovey came up with the tying and World Series clinching runs on base.
McCovey hit a high deep drive to right field that hooked foul. If it stayed fair, it would have been the most dramatic home run in World Series history (and the pitcher, Ralph Terry, had forked up a World Series clinching homer just 2 years prior to Bill Mazeroski.)
Terry pitched again and McCovey hit a sharp line drive but Bobby Richardson was positioned perfectly and caught it. A little higher or to the left or right and it would have gone through, scoring Alou and Mays and the Giants would have been the champs.
As it was, the Yankees won and San Francisco would have to wait another 48 years for a World Series title. The crew that featured eventual Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays and McCovey would never win one.
In 1963, McCovey made his first All Star team at age 25. He led the league with 44 homers that season. In a pitchers era, McCovey consistently hit 30+ homers while seeing his OPS hover in the .900s. He led the league with homers, RBI, slugging and OPS in 1968.
In 1969, He took home the NL MVP with a traditional line of .320, 45 HR and 126 RBI while also leading the league in On Base, Slugging, OPS and OPS Plus and for the Sabermetrics crowd having the highest WAR for position players.
He helped the Giants make it back to the post season in 1971 and eventually saw his career take a detour to San Diego in 1973 and a handful of games with the A’s in 1976.
1977 saw his return to San Francisco and the result was his best season in years. He slugged .500 and launched 28 homers while batting .280. By 1978 he was in his 40’s and slowing down, but not before setting the mark for most home runs by a left handed National League hitter all time. He homered in 4 different decades, a feat matched only by Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson and Omar Vizquel.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame and the Giants award for best teammate and community service is the “Willie Mac Award.” The greatest and longest honor could be the fact that the body of water just beyond right field at new AT&T Park in San Francisco is known as McCovey Cove, even though he never played a game there. (Perhaps the Bonds Bay would have made more sense.)
Either way, he remains a revered and beloved figure in Giants history. McCovey’s post career tax issues were pardoned by President Obama.
If only that ball did not hook foul or sailed past Richardson. What a legacy that would have been.