Baseball had a long day with the passing of three people on Halloween. Bill Fischer, the journeyman pitcher from 1956 to 1964 and long-time pitching guru passed away at his home in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Tom Baker, the former systems engineer turned baseball scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates passed at his home in Huntington, West Virginia. The kicker came at night when San Francisco Giants legend Willie McCovey died at the age of 80 at Stanford University Medical Center from an infection. The baseball community mourns the loss of all three, but the headliner of losing the Hall of Fame first baseman in McCovey hurts the overall community and many who grew up in Northern California.
The seventh of ten children, Willie Lee McCovey was born on January 10, 1938 in Mobile, Alabama. His father, Frank McCovey, worked for the railroad in Mobile. His mother, Ester McCovey took care of eight boys and two girls. Jesse Thomas saw McCovey’s reputation as a hard hitter for softball and baseball. However, they gave McCovey no bonus when he signed with the San Francisco Giants. They sent him to Melbourne, Florida to prove his talent and signed his contract.
Despite the fact that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946, racism in the south was still common and Willie McCovey had to deal with it. Through the late 1950s, the minor league teams had to leave their African-American players behind for certain trips. However, the majors were not like the minors by the time he made his major league debut on July 30, 1959. At Seals Stadium in San Francisco, McCovey batted third against the Philadelphia Phillies. Facing future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts, McCovey went 4 for 4 with 2 RBI and 3 runs scored.
McCovey’s impact on the Giants was immediate. So immediate that the despite only playing in 52 games that season, he was named the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year. That season, McCovey hit 13 home runs, 38 RBIs and .354 in 192 at bats. However, his 1960 season was miserable in comparison. His defense at first base slipped and his offense collapsed. However, after 1960, things turned around. McCovey was one of five MLB hitters to hit 300 home runs in the 1960s. This list includes Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
He never got the postseason resume many Hall of Famers had. Unfortunately, a screaming liner in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series to Bobby Richardson ended his only World Series appearance. He never returned. McCovey admitted that they were surprised the Yankees were pitching to him. He also admitted that he never hit a ball harder in his career at that point before the one he smacked off Ralph Terry.
In Northern California, people hovered around televisions to see Willie McCovey hit. He could hit a ball far at wind-blown Candlestick Park. Everyone wanted to see McCovey hit home runs. If you lived in Northern California, you knew who he was. But, McCovey soon became a national sensation. In 1969, he appeared on the game show The Dating Game, hosted by the late Jim Lange. McCovey managed to get a date and they won a trip to Europe that they would take after the 1969 season. In 1970, Jim Bouton included talk about his animal sounds in his controversial book, Ball Four. The comic strip Peanuts made a joke about his 1962 World Series Game 7 out.
Ultimately, McCovey played a part in four decades of baseball. Despite the knees and some injuries slowing down his performance, Willie McCovey played for the San Diego Padres and the Oakland Athletics. However, before he retired, he returned home to the San Francisco Giants. McCovey retired during the 1980 season, with his final game on July 6. That year, the Giants retired his No. 44. In 1986, McCovey was inducted into Cooperstown. In his later years, he returned as a senior advisor for the Giants and the handed out the Willie Mac Award for 38 seasons for those who were the most inspirational.
He was the original player that San Francisco Giants fans could consider their own. Even the legend Willie Mays played in New York for a long time. Willie McCovey was the first San Francisco Giant. He will be remembered forever in San Francisco. McCovey Cove is named after him and his No. 44 will stand forever as his own. He leaves behind his daughter Allison, former wife Karen McCovey and Estela Bejar, whom he married on August 1, 2018 at AT&T Park.
Rest in peace, Stretch. Northern California baseball will not be the same without you.
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