The San Francisco Giants gave opponents “The Willies” from 1959 -72, when Willie Mays and Willie Lee McCovey comprised the heart of their offensive attack.
Born in Mobile, Alabama on January 10, 1938 he was the seventh of ten children. A natural left hander, he played center in basketball, end in football and first base in baseball. A “bird dog” saw him play on the playgrounds of Mobile and alerted Giants’ scout Alex Pompez about McCovey, who had dropped out of high school in 1954 to work and help the family finances. The 6’2”, 175 pound McCovey was invited to a Giants tryout camp in Melbourne, Florida, where his play was mediocre. Pompez, having seen him play back in Mobile, signed him anyway and he received $ 175 a month to play in the Class D Georgia State League. He rose quickly through the minor league ranks and by 1958 had made it to Triple-A Phoenix, where the 20 year old first baseman hit .319 with 14 home runs to help the Giants win the Pacific Coast League championship. The big league club had just moved to San Francisco from New York and featured a first baseman named Orlando Cepeda, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, so despite his impressive minor league statistics, he remained in Triple-A.
“Stretch” had now grown to 6’4” and 200 pounds and was terrorizing the Pacific Coast League, hitting .372 with 29 homers and 92 RBI after 95 games. The Giants had no choice but to call him up, moving Cepeda to third base to make room for the big lefthander. McCovey batted .467 in his first seven games, including his first home run and his first 2 homer game. He enjoyed a 22 game hitting streak, was named NL Player of the Month in August and finished the year batting .354 with 13 home runs. In all, he played in just 52 games but was named NL Rookie of the Year, giving the Giants two 21 year old first baseman who had now won that award in back-to-back seasons. Three years later, he helped the Giants to the 1962 World Series against the New York Yankees, where his best-known moment took place in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7. Trailing 1-0, the Giants had Willie Mays on second and Matty Alou on third with McCovey at the plate. A base hit would win the championship and “Big Mac” ripped a hard line drive that was miraculously snagged by the Yankees second baseman, Bobby Richardson, to end the game and the series. It would be the closest McCovey ever got to winning a world championship.
His best year came in 1969, when he hit 45 home runs, drove in 126 and batted .320 to win the NL MVP award. He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1974 and the Oakland A’s purchased his contract near the end of the 1976 season. He returned to the Giants for the 1977 season and, with Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson now retired, found himself as baseball’s active all- time home run leader with 465. In June, he became the first player to hit two home runs in the same inning twice in his career. One of those dingers was a grand slam, making him the NL’s all-time grand slam leader. He was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1977 and in May of 1980 hit his 521st career home run, making him one of four players in major league history to hit home runs in four different decades.
Mr. McCovey was a six time All-Star, led the NL in home runs three times, twice led the league in RBI, was NL MVP, NL Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year. He retired in 1980 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame six years later in his first year of eligibility. The inlet of San Francisco Bay beyond the right field fence of AT&T Park, historically known as China Basin, has been named McCovey Cove in his honor. The Giants retired his # 44 in 1980, which he wore throughout his career in honor of fellow Mobile native Hank Aaron.
On this date in 1959, Willie McCovey made his major league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies, going 4-for-4 against Hall of Famer Robin Roberts including two triples and two singles. He scored three runs and drove in two in a 7-2 Giants win.