Willie McCovey, gentle(man) Giant
For a certain generation — my generation — Willie McCovey was our Giant.
The favorite. The beloved. The larger-than-life baseball idol. We were the ones who were too young to really remember Willie Mays as a real-life Giant. Maybe we had heard his exploits on the radio as little children, had seen the occasional televised game, were told tales by our parents, but Mays wasn’t our firsthand experience. He was Giants lore, just like McCovey’s line drive to Bobby Richardson in 1962. Things we knew about but hadn’t seen for ourselves.
Still, even in those early days, our parents talked about the Willies in two different ways: Mays was idolized, McCovey adored.
Maybe that’s because McCovey was a San Francisco Giant through and through, arriving in 1959. We’re a provincial folk — we like the athletes we think we “discovered,” those who weren’t first anointed by New York.
But it was also because anyone who ever came in touch with
McCovey — and, back then, San Francisco was a much smaller place and athletes were far less insulated from the real world — had the same experience. McCovey was one of the nicest people to ever walk the Earth, not just onto a ball field.
A year after Mays was traded, in 1973, McCovey was traded to the Padres. He, too, seemed to be sealed away in history for my generation. It looked like his career might be ending after the Padres sold him to the A’s in 1976.
But then, in 1977, McCovey returned to the Giants, without a guaranteed contract, earning a spot on the team. And suddenly part of that revered Giants lore was my generation’s very own. “Stretch” was back. A legend that we actually got to see and experience.
He returned to a Giants team that had lost its way from the star-filled days of his original tenure. In the three seasons prior to his return, the Giants had finished out of first by 30, 27½ and 28 games. For much of the early 1970s, they had ceded Bay Area baseball relevance to the Oakland A’s.
McCovey played most of his final 3½ years on so-so teams. There were good players on those teams — Bill Madlock, Darrell Evans, Jack Clark, John Montefusco.
But there was only one legend. Only one giant of a Giant. It was a thrill to see that tall presence at first base or at the plate. To know that a little bit of Giants’ glory was accessible to my generation.
The night he died I was at a Halloween party with friends, people of my era. Everyone spoke of McCovey as though they’d just lost a friend. Because, you know what? They had. A staple of their youthful summers and fond memories.
As a reporter in the Bay Area, I eventually became accustomed to seeing my childhood idols hanging around at the ballpark, often in clubhouse manager Mike Murphy’s office.
One of the dark sides of being a sportswriter is meeting a player one worshiped as a kid. Too often they can be rude, crass, dismissive or arrogant. All of us in the business have tales of disappointment.
But McCovey was everything he’d always been portrayed as — a gentle, humble man. There are very few athletes of his immense talent who fit that description.
Despite the discomfort McCovey was clearly in for many years, he always had a smile on his face. Despite the effort it took to get to the ballpark, he was there as often as he could be, and clearly took joy from the experience. And the fans and current players took joy from seeing him there.
I love McCovey’s line after he made the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He was asked how he’d like to be remembered. “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game,” McCovey said.
My limited experience with him was that he didn’t mind talking about that heartbreaking moment. It was part of Giants lore, and he was a living piece of that history. At the same time, I’m not sure that all of the players in uniform got any more delight out of the Giants’ three World Series championships than did McCovey. He had been carrying the burden of that Game 7 loss for a long, long time.
Because he was always there, sharing a tale and a smile, generation after generation of Giants players understood exactly what it meant to vote on, or even better to receive, the Willie Mac Award. There is no higher honor.
Because there has never been a better Giant.
The Giants’ Willie McCovey awaits his turn at the batting cage in spring training in Phoenix in the 1970s.