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A Good Man Gone


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”.

willie mac

 

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11 responses to “A Good Man Gone

  1. Kevin Brennan November 1, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Sad to see him go. Even as a Cardinals fan, I always admired McCovey. He just seemed like a stand-up guy, and loaded with talent. Oddly enough, he was overshadowed by Mays, but man, with those two Willies in the line-up the Giants were scary.

    The great ones are saying farewell, one by one, eh?

    • kingmidget November 1, 2018 at 10:27 am

      Yep. It’s amazing how much talent the Giants had in the 1960s and they were never able to win it all. Just says something about the talent back then as well as the talent dilution caused by expansion.

      • Kevin Coyle November 1, 2018 at 11:03 am

        Ever so close in 1962. Game 7 in SF, Yankees up 1-0, bottom of 9th, 2 outs, Mays on 2nd, Alou on 3rd. McCovey hits what he later claimed was the hardest ball he ever hit, straight into the glove of Bobby Richardson, who was not playing Willie to pull because he didn’t know any better. Stretch later claimed that 99 times out of 100 a ball hit by him in that direction was a hit. That’s baseball for you.

      • kingmidget November 1, 2018 at 6:04 pm

        I read in a piece last night that McCovey never really got over that game and that he hit the game-ending play. It’s all part of the story.

  2. Sorryless November 1, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Mark,

    What a beautiful, heart felt tribute to a good man.

    My first introduction to the Giants was back in the seventies when MLB did a Game of the Week. John “The Count” Montefusco was on the mound in the old Candlestick Park. McCovey was the only hitter I paid attention to, because he was a mountain of a man and I marveled at the courage of the infielders because whenever he hit the ball, it was in a hurry to get somewhere else.

    These baseball records, like 521 . . they are the ones I recognize. They can keep the stats that have been compiled since the ’90’s. McCovey’s number came during a time when home runs were a big deal.

    They don’t call it McCovey Cove for nothing.

    Great piece!

    • kingmidget November 1, 2018 at 6:09 pm

      Thank you. The Giants teams of the late 70s were mostly a horror story Stephen King couldn’t have improved upon. Montefusco was a character. McCovey was the old veteran, hobbling on sore knees and occasionally knocking the cover off the ball.

      And the Saturday Game of the Week. With Kubek and Gowdy, right? Many Saturday afternoons during the season were spent laying on the sofa watching the game. With cable deals for every team now and every game televised, it’s just the same event it used to be.

      • Sorryless November 1, 2018 at 8:32 pm

        And that old windy cavern of a ballpark with the see through fiberglass fences.
        Yes. It was an event, and really, the only reason for me to stay inside for any length of time on a Saturday afternoon. And you’re right, it was special. I remember a time when I listened to more games on the radio than I watched on TV! There was something about listening to a game and letting your mind paint the picture. Man, those were the days.

      • kingmidget November 2, 2018 at 7:45 am

        Almost all of my baseball memories from the early 70s to the late 90s are of that old windy cavern. I’d gladly go back there to see a game if I could. My brother and I went to the last night game every played there. A cold September night,, bundled up watching the Giants play the Dodgers. It’s where we went when I was a kid and where I went with college friends — back when they played real doubleheaders. We’d start the day in shorts and t-shirts and end the day in jeans and three layers.

        I used to religiously listen to the Giants every night on KNBR – it is what I went to sleep to during the summer months – and watch the game of the week on Saturday and Monday Night Baseball, and the dozen or so Giants games that were televised every year on a local station. That was a treat. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to go back to that approach. As I said, the luster has worn off when you can see each and every game.

      • Sorryless November 2, 2018 at 6:02 pm

        What great memories you take with you! I remember doing the same at the old Shea Stadium with my friends. We would catch a doubleheader from the nose bleed section and work our way down to field level. In the late seventies and very early eighties, the Mets were a dumpster fire, and attendance was dismal. It was great! We had the run of the place.
        Two games, one price . . and they could play two games in the time it takes to play one now.
        You’re right about the saturation of games, it’s too much. Just as Inter-league play took something away from seeing two teams square off in the World Series . . .

      • kingmidget November 2, 2018 at 7:53 pm

        Truth is … a double header was typically just a little too much. 😉 But we always stuck it out, never leaving early, even if the lines coming out of the Candlestick Park parking lot were the worst I’ve ever experienced. Oh, to be young again.

      • Sorryless November 2, 2018 at 9:24 pm

        I loved it. Especially when we could get down to the dugout area and grab some autographs.

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