The baseball world gets poorer every time a Hall of Famer dies.
That was the case on Wednesday when Willie McCovey passed away at the age of 80.
The San Francisco Giants reported their former outfielder and first baseman had “ongoing health issues” and “passed away peacefully,” according to a statement the team tweeted out Wednesday afternoon.
Giant is the perfect descriptor to the kind of player McCovey was. He had an immediate impact as the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year. It’s interesting to point out that the Giants had the National League Rookie of the Year and the Washington Senators had the American League Rookie of the Year in both 1958 and 1959. Hall of Fame teammate Orlando Cepeda was the N.L. Rookie of the Year one year before McCovey was, while in the A.L., the Senators had Albie Pearson in 1958 and Bob Allison in 1959.
The likes of Cepeda, McCovey and Willie Mays helped form a formidable Giants lineup. Unlike Mays and Cepeda, however, McCovey never played on a World Series winning team, though his name is forever etched into World Series lore.
In 1962, the Giants had to go through a hurdle just to even reach the Fall Classic. There was no postseason then, so the team with the best record in the National League faced the team with the best record in the American League in the World Series prior to 1969.
The Giants had tied with their bitter rival the Los Angeles Dodgers of all teams after Game 162, forcing a three-game playoff. The two teams took one of each in the first two games, thus forcing the deciding game at Dodger Stadium. San Francisco won the pennant, 6-4, and it was onto the reigning and defending World Series Champion New York Yankees.
It was possible the Giants could have handed the Yankees their second World Series loss in the last three years. They forced a deciding seventh game with a 5-2 win in the sixth game, but McCovey was about to be part of the defining moment of that series.
The Hall of Famer, nicknamed “Stretch” stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth Oct. 16, 1962. Ralph Terry was trying to forget what happened two years earlier Oct. 13, 1960. He was the one who served up the bottom of the ninth walk off home run to Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski as the Pittsburgh Pirates stunned the Yankees, 10-9, in the only time Game 7 of the World Series has ever ended on a walk off homer.
McCovey had the chance to do something similar two years later in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead with two outs. Matty Alou stood on third base, Mays was on second and up came McCovey, who batted batted .293 with 20 homers and 54 RBIs in just 91 games, which is quite impressive and one might wonder how much higher those totals would have been had he played a full season.
New York decided to pitch to McCovey, who tripled in his previous at-bat in the bottom of the seventh. Terry served a pitch to him, and he drove a ball that landed foul in right field. McCovey made contact on another one, however, this one was lined right at Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson for the final out. Terry pitched a complete game shutout, was the MVP of the series and the Yankees repeated.
Such a moment has also had its place in pop culture. Charles Schulz, a big Giants fan, included it in one of his Peanuts comic strips with a screaming and crying Charlie Brown asking, “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?” Then, “Or why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?”
Richardson discussed the moment during a 2014 phone interview I conducted with him.
“I thought for sure they’d walk him and put the left handed hitter on first base, load the bases up and pitch to the right handed Orlando Cepeda,” he said.
Richardson said manager Ralph Houk asked Terry what he wanted to do, and Terry chose to pitch to McCovey. The second baseman moved over after McCovey’s foul ball before making the grab. Richardson said he did not see McCovey for 45 years until they were at an Old-Timers Game at Candlestick.
“I remember so well that the first time I saw him, his response to me was, ‘I bet your hand is still hurting,’ and I said, ‘You hit it hard, you really did,’” Richardson said.
That ball off McCovey’s bat was the closest he would ever get to a World Series Championship, and the Giants would not get back to the World Series until 1989, nor would they win it until 2010 for their first title after moving to San Francisco.
Lots of accolades came McCovey’s way after that moment, such as becoming a six-time All Star, the N.L. MVP in 1969, a member of the 500 home run club. To think, of those 521 home runs, 18 of them went for grand slams, an N.L. record. It’s hardly a surprise that he was enshrined as a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1986.
The Giants remained competitive for much of McCovey’s first stint with the team, but finished in second place in the N.L. pennant race for four straight seasons from 1965-1968, and also lost to the Pirates in the 1971 National League Championship Series.
The 1965 pennant race did not end in a playoff series, but the both the Giants and Dodgers had an insane September.
From Sept. 4 until and including Sept. 16, the Giants won 14 consecutive games. Certainly that would give them their second pennant in four seasons, right?
It just so happened the Dodgers started a 13-game winning streak Sept. 16, which ran through Sept. 30. Los Angeles would go on to win the pennant, and the World Series.
That World Series win eluded many deserving players who had illustrious careers. McCovey happened to be one of them.
He played for the San Diego Padres from 1974 through 1976 and finished the 1976 season with the Oakland Athletics. It’s a reality that some great players such as McCovey played for a team other than the one they are most synonymous with, but let’s be honest, seeing him in a uniform that wasn’t a Giants uniform just didn’t look right. He finished his career with the team he started with for a second go from 1977 through 1980.
His legacy lives on. McCovey Cove is the colloquial name for part of the body of water in the section behind right field at AT&T Park. Barry Bonds used to launch many balls into McCovey Cove during games, and it’s hard not to think of Bryce Harper’s splash home run during the fourth game of the 2014 National League Division Series.
It’s safe to say the Giants will be wearing memorial patches in McCovey’s honor for the 2019 season, and may he rest in peace.