Unlike Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who retired after the 1973 and -76 seasons, respectively, Willie McCovey was still playing in 1978, which means that I was old enough to see the tail end of his career, and to have more than an inkling of his significance. My father and grandfather, lifelong Dodgers fans, spoke with a mixture of awe and “ohhhh” regarding the towering slugger nicknamed “Stretch,” while my eight-year-old brain marveled at the back of his 1978 Topps card, which required a different, smaller font than the standard cards in order to contain every season, and every home run — 493 of them, 92 more than any other player in the set — of a career that stretched back to 1959. McCovey was power-hitting royalty, with a regal bearing and a uniform number (44) that linked him both to Aaron, whose home run heroics I’d already read about, and Reggie Jackson, whose exploits I’d seen on television.
Indeed, McCovey was the only player to reach the 500 home-run plateau — which he did on June 30, 1978, the 12th player to do so — between September 13, 1971 (Frank Robinson) and September 17, 1984 (Jackson), and when he retired with 521, he was tied with Ted Williams for eighth on the all-time list. Jackson had only just passed McCovey when I encountered the two at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in March 1986. The former, entering his final season as an Angel, merely growled at my request (and the requests of several others) for an autograph, but the latter, a newly elected Hall of Famer and a spring instructor for the Giants, cracked a modest smile as he slowly and methodically signed every last scrap of paper handed to him.
So it was a sizable pang that I felt upon hearing Wednesday night’s news that McCovey passed away at the age of 80 after what the Giants called “a battle with ongoing health issues.” Of the small handful of Hall of Famers whose autographs I’ve obtained myself, I don’t think any had shuffled off this mortal coil until McCovey.
Before he was a civic icon with a statue on McCovey Point, overlooking McCovey Cove — the part of San Francisco Bay beyond AT&T Park’s right-field wall over which one could imagine the slugger depositing baseballs had his career begun a few decades later — McCovey was the seventh of 10 children born to railroad laborer Frank McCovey and his wife Ester in segregated Mobile, Alabama on January 10, 1938. Playing baseball in a local playground league, he came to the attention of Jesse Thomas, a friend of former New York Cuban Stars owner Alex Pompez, who, by the early 1950s had become a scout for the New York Giants. Pompez would later be credited with opening the Dominican Republic talent pipeline. In the spring of 1955, Pompez invited the 17-year-old McCovey, who had dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles to earn money for the family, to a Giants tryout camp in Melbourne, Florida.
Though he was raw and easily distracted by games taking place on adjacent diamonds, the Giants liked McCovey’s ability to hit the ball 400 feet. They signed the 6-foot-2, 165-pounder for $175 a month and sent him to the Class D Sandersonville Giants of the Georgia State League, where he hit 17 home runs. He continued to hit at every stop, and amid an offensive performance as sizzling as the heat in Triple-A Phoenix (he slashed .372/.459/.759 with 29 homers in 95 games), the Giants — then in the midst of a three-way pennant race with the Braves and Dodgers — called him up. On July 30, 1959, McCovey debuted by going 4-for-4 with a pair of triples against future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts; the Giants’ 7-2 win lifted them into first place by half a game.
One problem: the Giants already had a future Hall of Famer at first base in Orlando Cepeda. A Pompez discovery signed out of Puerto Rico at that same Melbourne tryout camp, Cepeda had won NL Rookie of the Year honors the season before, in 1958. Manager Bill Rigney initially shifted the more athletic Cepeda to third base, displacing light-hitting Jim Davenport, but the experiment lasted just four games, with Cepeda making three errors in a total of four chances over his final two games. Rigney then sent Cepeda to left field, which worked well enough, thanks particularly to McCovey’s hitting. While the Giants finished third in the three-team race, the 21-year-old McCovey produced a .354/.429/.656 line with 13 homers, 185 wRC+, and 3.1 WAR in just 52 games, earning unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors.
McCovey and Cepeda spent the next five seasons being juggled by managers Rigney, Tom Sheehan (1960), and Alvin Dark (1961-1964), with Cepeda playing more left field in 1960-61 and McCovey more in 1962-64, though injuries, a dreadful slump, and struggles against southpaws limited the latter’s time. During those five seasons, each player led the league in homers once (Cepeda hit 46 in 1961, McCovey 44 in 1963), but McCovey made just 2,004 plate appearances to Cepeda’s 3,146 over that span, and while he was only slightly less productive at the plate (138 wRC+ to Cepeda’s 145), he was about half as valuable due to playing time and defense (12.5 WAR to 22.4). The matter was more or less settled after Cepeda missed most of 1965 due to a knee injury while McCovey hit 39 homers with 5.7 WAR, rebounding from an 18-homer, 0.3 WAR debacle. Cepeda, sent to left field upon returning, was traded to the Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki in May 1966; he would win NL MVP honors in 1967 and help the Cardinals to a championship that year.
Before they untangled the McCovey/Cepeda knot, however, the Giants themselves won a pennant in 1962, a year in which McCovey hit .293/.368/.590 with 20 homers, a 154 wRC+, and 2.3 WAR in just 91 games. Dark platooned the 24-year-old without mercy, primarily in left field with Harvey Kuenn; for the entire season, McCovey completed just 20 games, and made just one start against southpaws, taking all of 12 plate appearances (out of 261) against them. Mays helped him learn the outfield ropes — and though his defense in left (where he played 45 games) and right (where he played 12) was equivalent to just one run below average according to Total Zone, it looked worse. “Don’t give him a glove. Give him a cigarette and a blindfold,” one observer reportedly said about the move. Wrote Sports Illustrated’s Walter Bingham, “In the outfield, when he lopes in or staggers back to make a catch, there is always an exaggerated roar from the stands, not in mockery but in pure enjoyment of seeing a fly ball handled in a special way.”
The 1962 World Series against the Yankees went seven games, but McCovey played only in the four that weren’t started by lefty Whitey Ford. He went 3-for-15, hitting a solo homer off Ralph Terry in a 2-0 Game Two victory and a two-out, seventh-inning triple, also against Terry, that went for naught in Game Seven, but his series performance is remembered most for the hit he didn’t get. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead but Matty Alou at third base and Mays at second after doubling, McCovey faced Terry one more time. After fouling one off down the right field line, he hit a screaming line drive — but right to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who wasn’t playing him to pull (McCovey was an early shift candidate), for the final out of the series.
Two months later, in the comic strip Peanuts, Charlie Brown bemoaned what might have been:
Peanuts creator Charles Schultz revisited the event a month later, with Brown wondering, “Or why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?” After McCovey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986 and asked how he’d like to be remembered, he said, “I’d like to be remembered as the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”
From 1965 to -70, McCovey — who began to punish lefties as well as righties — typically batted cleanup behind Mays and led the majors with a 170 wRC+, tied with Aaron for the major’s home-run lead (226), and ranked fifth overall in value at 38.3 WAR, 0.6 ahead of Mays. In 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” he hit .293/.378/.545, leading the league in slugging percentage, wRC+ (175), and homers (36). He followed up by hitting .320/.453/.656, leading in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wRC+ (195), homers (45), and WAR (7.9) en route to NL MVP honors in 1969. Late that season, pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton stood with his Astros teammates, observing McCovey taking batting practice at Candlestick Park, an incident he recounted in Ball Four:
“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.”
Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite painted the perfect picture of McCovey’s imposing presence in a 1978 feature:
[S]tanding at the plate, his left shoulder dipped, feet spread far apart, bat waving menacingly, he gives an impression of size that exceeds even the 6’4″, 220-pound reality. His home runs are majestic, for sheer distance the equal of any stroked by the legendary tape-measure sluggers — Ruth, Foxx, Mantle, Howard, Stargell, Kingman and Luzinski. His reactions may have slowed after 20 years, but the swing is as vicious and perfect as ever. McCovey was an early student of Ted Williams, in the days when the Red Sox were training in Arizona, and his swing is a slightly uppercutted copy of the Splendid Splinter original.
McCovey put the fear into opposing managers, too: his 45 intentional walks in 1969 stood as a record until broken by Barry Bonds in 2002. Reds manager Sparky Anderson, who often ordered his pitchers to work around him, once said, “I walked Willie McCovey so many times, he could have walked to the moon on all those walks.” On another occasion, Anderson said, “If you let him bat 600 times and pitched to him instead of around him, he’d hit 80 home runs.”
In the final spring game of 1971, McCovey tore cartilage in his knee. Opting to play through it instead of undergo surgery, he was limited to 105 games, 18 homers, and 2.6 WAR, and needed to have the knee drained at every stop on the road “because it would swell up as big as my head.” He was still able to help the Giants win the NL West, and homered twice in a losing cause against the Pirates in the NLCS, his last postseason appearance. Unfortunately, though he’d undergone his first knee surgery while in the minors, this was the beginning of ongoing troubles in both knees that required dozens of surgeries during his career and after; not once in his final 10 seasons (1971-80) would he play enough to qualify for the batting title.
A fractured right forearm limited McCovey to 81 games and a dismal .213/.316/.403 line in 1972, and the Giants traded Mays to the Mets during his absence, the start of a cost-cutting movement that would see McCovey dealt after a strong rebound in 1973 (.266/.420/.546, 29 homers, 3.6 WAR). On October 25, 1973, the 35-year-old first baseman and outfielder Bernie Williams (no, not that one) were sent to the Padres — McCovey’s choice, as he thought the environment would help his ailing knees — in exchange for pitcher Mike Caldwell. He spent two fairly productive seasons wearing the garish yellow and brown while playing for a rather ghastly team. The Padres went 60-102 in his first year, then improved to 71-91. But his performance collapsed in 1976, and he lost his job to Mike Ivie. On August 30, 1976, he was sold to the A’s, for whom he went just 5-for-24 without a run or RBI. Finishing at .204/.283/.336 with seven homers, the end appeared near.
In 1977, the 39-year-old McCovey was invited to spring training by the Giants. Improbably, he reclaimed his old job, and as the league’s oldest regular, hit .280/.367/.500 with 28 homers and a 129 wRC+ in 141 games, his highest total since 1970, en route to NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. On September 18, the Giants held “Willie McCovey Day,” which began with his tearful speech and ended with his walk-off single off the Reds’ Pedro Borbon. The returns diminished thereafter, but not without highlights, including his 500th home run, off the Braves’ Jamie Easterly in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. His final homer came off the Expos’ Scott Sanderson at Olympic Stadium on May 3, 1980. Playing sparingly that year, he announced his retirement at midseason. He collected RBIs in Giants wins at both his final home game on July 3, following a pregame ceremony, and July 6 at Dodger Stadium, where the enemy crowd gave him a rousing tribute after his eighth-inning sacrifice fly. “McCovey was called back by a deafening ovation, and he was clearly moved,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins. “With a huge smile on his face, he raised his hands high, then made a sweeping bow.”
The Giants honored McCovey by retiring his No. 44 and establishing the Willie Mac Award, given to the team’s most inspirational player as chosen by his teammates, and presented by McCovey during the season’s final homestand. The team kept him in the fold, first as a spring-training instructor, then as a special assistant to the general manager, and for the last 18 years of his life, as a senior advisor. Most of that latter period, alas, was spent in a wheelchair, the result of innumerable knee and back surgeries. A 2014 infection nearly killed him and led to the removal of all of the hardware in his knees. Through it all, he remained an upbeat presence, able to share in the joy of the Giants’ 2010, 2012, and 2014 championships and to serve as an ambassador for the team and the city.
With a couple leaguewide homer spikes now standing between McCovey’s retirement and the present, the former Giant is now tied for 20th on the all-time list, not only with Williams but also Frank Thomas. His total of 18 grand slams remains an NL record and is tied for fourth all-time. One can only wonder how many more home runs he might have hit while playing in a more hitter-friendly park than Candlestick (where his 236 homers were the most all-time), or in a more hitter-friendly era than the 1960s, or without Cepeda crowding his playing time, on two good knees. Six hundred homers doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Adjusted for park and league, he does still stand out, emphatically. Among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances, his 145 wRC+ is in a virtual tie for 39th with fellow Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Willie Stargell, and Jim Thome. By our measure, his 67.4 WAR ranks 74th. Via Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, he’s 14th among first basemen with 64.5 career WAR, 13th with a seven-year peak of 44.9, and 13th in JAWS at 54.7, matching the average for enshrined first basemen. He received 81.4% on his first appearance on the ballot in 1986, the sole player elected by the writers that year.
While the numbers testify to his greatness and his ferocious power, they only hint at the extent to which the gentle Giant was beloved by fans throughout the baseball world. This one will never forget having seen his swing, or crossed his path.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.