When I was in Viet Nam I got hit in the arm and had to spend a few days in the walking wounded ward at the base hospital. Most of the guys there were baseball fans so we talked a lot of ball. One of the doctors was a Giants fan and would join us for a few minutes when he made his rounds. He kept talking about how much he was impressed by “Willie” and of course we all presumed he meant Mays. It took a couple of days to figure out he was a big fan of Willie McCovey.
Let’s be honest here, no one ever wanted McCovey for his glove. “Stretch” played because he could pound the ball harder than anyone in captivity, including teammate Mays. He was a pure power hitter, a run producer, and has slipped out of the conversations about baseball today.
Over a 22-year career, mostly with the Giants, McCovey personified pure raw power. At the height of a great pitching era, he led the National League in slugging, and home runs three times each, in RBIs twice, and in home run percentage five times. And he wasn’t doing it with only 25 homers a year.
Personally, I will never forget the first time I saw the famous 1962 World Series play where Bobby Richardson snagged McCoyey’s drive to end the Series. I’m still surprised Richardson’s glove didn’t end up in right field. Actually, I’m surprised his entire left arm didn’t end up somewhere out around where Roger Maris was playing. Maybe it’s part of McCovey’s perception problem that his most famous play was an out.
McCovey came up in 1959 at age 21. He played quite a bit, but not full-time at first base through 1961. In 1962 the Giants got the great idea of putting him in left field. Not a brilliant move, but not as bad as some people thought it was going to be. The problem was the Giants had two big power hitting first basemen who were, to be charitable about it, mediocre glove men: McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. The idea was to get both in the lineup at the same time. For you kiddies, this is back in the pre-Designated Hitter age of baseball, so the current solution wasn’t possible. After a couple of seasons it became obvious that something had to be done. They chose to trade “Cha Cha” to the Cardinals in 1966 (he’d been hurt in 1965). That made McCovey the regular first baseman through 1973. His career on the downside, he went to San Diego, then to Oakland, and finally back to the Giants in 1977. It was his last big year. He hung on into 1980, finally retiring tied with Ted Williams in career home runs and setting a NL record with 18 grand slams.
A great misconception about the 1960s is that pitching absolutely dominated. No question pitching was paramount, but take a look at McCovey in the 1960s. He played 130 or more games seven seasons in the decade (1963-1969). he hit 249 home runs and drove in 666 runs. My guess is that a lot of pitchers kept trying to figure out why they weren’t being dominant as McCovey (or Aaron or Mays for that matter) circled the bases.
I do love McCovey’s walk-strikeout ratio. In 22 years he struck out exactly 205 more than he walked. Not great, but not bad for a modern power hitter. After he left the Giants in 1974 he struck out 126 more times than he walked. So it you study only his beginning and prime Giants years he struck out only 79 more times than he walked, for an average of 5.27 per season. That’s exceptional in the modern age of all or nothing swings.
But he’s still gotten relegated to the backbench of Hall of Fame players. My guess is there are a number of reasons. First, he played in the shadow of Willie Mays for his great years (despite winning the 1969 MVP award). Secondly, his team never won. With all the firepower that was McCovey, Mays, Cepeda, Felipe Alou, and the staff that was Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, the Giants won exactly one NL pennant (1962) and one divisional title (1971). They were always in the shadow of the Dodgers or the Cardinals (or the Miracle Mets) the reasoning seems to go that if you couldn’t beat the banjo hitting Dodgers or the so-so Cardinals how good could the players (aside from Mays) actually be? Finally, it has just been a while since Willie McCovey played. Most of the people who read this will have never seen him play. That’s a shame. You really missed a heck of a player.