On Halloween Night, the baseball world lost a legend. The charismatic Willie McCovey passed away at 80 years old, after a long battle with lingering health issues. When one thinks of all-time great baseball players, they often bring up Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Pete Rose. Willie McCovey isn’t blurted out when creating a Mount Rushmore of baseball players.
But between 1959 and 1980, there was not a more dominant, dangerous hitter than McCovey. Pitchers would flirt with fire by pitching to Willie, as he would often blast the ball out of Candlestick Park for home runs, home of the San Francisco Giants. Off the field, his energy and enthusiasm were contagious. In his later years, McCovey would be a regular honored guest at Giants games. Even in his wheelchair, he would exude a magnificent smile. The Big Mac had a presence; a legacy that will never be forgotten.
McCovey Goes From Humble Beginnings to Big League Star
Before Mac was the Big Mac, his story begins in Mobile, Alabama. He was one of nine kids, raised by Frank and Esther McCovey. The family was always important to Willie and even in his Hall of Fame induction speech, he made reference to the importance of growing up in a connected, unified household.
“I was raised with seven brothers — Frank Jr., Wad, Arthur, Richmond, Walter, Clauzell and Cleon — and two sisters –Francis and Ethel. All of them and the others with the McCovey family name in Mobile, Alabama, and throughout the country are a part of me and share on this occasion today,” said McCovey.
For a small city of almost 200,000, McCovey praises Mobile for getting him into baseball. His playground director, Jesse Thomas, recognized Willie’s talent at a young age and arranged a tryout in front of San Francisco Giants scouts in Melbourne, Florida. The tryout proved to be the impetus that would get McCovey to playing in the major leagues with the Giants.
On July 30th, 1959, McCovey would make his major league debut. He would be facing against Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who would finish his career with a 3.41 ERA. Immediate impact doesn’t begin to describe the debut moment for McCovey. It would be the beginning of a remarkable career as he went 4 for 4, with two singles and two triples. He would win the NL Rookie of the Year, finishing the season with a .354 batting average.
The Big Mac was born.
McCovey’s Slugging Persona Makes Up Lack of World Series
“You knew right away Willie wasn’t an ordinary ballplayer,” Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said. “He was so strong, and he had the gift of knowing the strike zone. There’s no telling how many home runs he would have hit if those knees weren’t bothering him all the time and if he played in a park other than Candlestick.”
Willie McCovey’s tenure with the San Francisco Giants was dominant and historical. He would be a six-time All-Star and lead the National League in home runs for three seasons. In 1969, batting alongside Willie Mays, McCovey would win the National League MVP, hitting 45 home runs, 126 RBI’s and a .320 batting average.
No wonder Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson referred to Willie McCovey as “the scariest hitter in baseball.” Candlestick Park became McCovey’s playground. Whenever McCovey would get up to bat, fans would go to flat ground from the right-field bleachers, hoping to catch one of his home run balls.
Despite all of the accolades awarded to McCovey, one thing missing from his trophy case is a World Series ring. The first baseman would get awfully close to Fall Classic glory in 1962, when he took the Giants to Game 7 against the New York Yankees. In the bottom of the 9th, the Giants were down 1-0. Willie Mays was on second base, Matty Alou on third. At bat, Willie McCovey. McCovey made contact but unfortunately, it wasn’t a home run. It was a line drive right into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, ending the series. It would be the closest McCovey would get to winning the World Series, and it still haunted him throughout his life.
“I still think about it all the time, I still think, ‘If I could have hit it a little more,’” McCovey said. “Can’t get away from it.”
McCovey Produces Endearing Legacy
McCovey left the Giants briefly to play for the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres. But in the latter stages of his career, he went back to his San Francisco team. In the years that followed his retirement, McCovey would remain an integral part of the Giants organization. At AT&T Park, the inlet would be renamed “McCovey Cove,” to pay respect to the legendary home run hitter McCovey was. Every year, the first baseman would present the Willie Mac Award to the Giants player that exhibited spirit and leadership in the clubhouse. Two qualities that McCovey possessed on and off the baseball diamond.
Years passed and McCovey’s health started to decline. But his commitment and passion for the Giants still shone through his endearing personality. When the Giants won three World Series championships in five years (2010, 2012, 2014), it eased the pain of players like McCovey, who spent his whole career coming up short at glory.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to get here. We’ve been pretty lucky,” stated McCovey.
While the smile will be missed, McCovey’s endearing legacy will be eternalized forever in baseball history. As former Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson proclaimed: “If you pitch to him, he’ll ruin baseball. He’ll hit 80 home runs. There’s no comparison between McCovey and anybody else in the league.”
In 1979, McCovey was the first player in MLB history to get intentionally walked 40 times in a season. Before that, there was no National League hitter, who had ever even drawn 30 walks in one season. That’s how dominant and prolific McCovey was.
So next time when you are thinking of the greatest baseball players of all-time, make sure to include and consider the great Willie “Big Mac” McCovey.
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