Bob Gibson, who was likely the most feared pitcher of his era, once described Willie McCovey as “the scariest hitter” in baseball. McCovey aka Willie Mac aka Stretch hit more home runs at Candlestick Park than any other hitter. Candlestick Park, a stadium that was notorious for being a place where home runs went to die.
Growing up a Giants fan in the 1970s I don’t have much memory of his early years as a Giant — the years when he was in his prime as “the scariest hitter.” Although I did get his autograph on my glove when I was seven years old.
Instead, my memory picks up when he returned to the Giants in 1977, after a few years with the Padres and A’s. McCovey was a mountain of a man who lumbered around the diamond, playing first base and swinging a bat that looked like a small tree, while he played out his final few years as a major league baseball player.
At one point, McCovey held the record for most career grand slams. He ended his career with 521 home runs in an era that predated steroids, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
More important to me is the fact that McCovey was a quiet man who didn’t make a lot of noise about himself. He let his game speak for itself and for him. And he was such a good player and man that the San Francisco Giants organization created the Willie Mac award upon his retirement. The award is given each year, based on a vote of players, coaches and others within the organization, to the most inspirational player on the team. It says something about McCovey that this award is one of the biggest deals of every Giants season.
One of the best things the Giants organization has done over the last 20-25 years is to embrace their history. Players from years past, and decades ago, have been brought back into the organization, treated like royalty, and adored by fans and players alike. The stadium has statutes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and others. The stadium is located at McCovey Cove in the San Francisco Bay.
What the Giants do with their history is one of the reasons why baseball is the best major sport in America. It continues to tell a story in which generations of players are linked with each other. No other sport is like baseball, with its 162 game schedule each season that tells one piece of its story every year and its historical ties that go back decades. Why? Because the game has not changed all that much. Unlike football and basketball, where the rules change every year, baseball is still following the same basic rules it always has. There are rarely changes that alter the fundamental dynamics of the game. And so the story continues from year to year, decade to decade, and on into the future. The Giants maintenance of their history keeps that story alive.
Willie McCovey passed away today. It was a day all Giants fans knew was coming. McCovey has been suffering for a long time with the physical ailments of an athlete who put it all out there at the major league level for two decades, and the inevitable other ailments that hit the old. But he will not be forgotten by Giants fans. He is an integral part of the story of the San Francisco Giants. I still have that glove and while I may not have much memory of that 1972 summer when he signed it, the autograph means something that no money could replace.
Willie McCovey, a man who deserves the title “Legend”.