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McCovey: 50 years as Giants icon

McCovey: 50 years asGiants icon

SAN FRANCISCO -- Willie McCovey would have been content to enjoy dinner in total anonymity on the evening of July 30, 1959. He already had announced his presence in his Major League debut by going 4-for-4 off future Hall of Fame right-hander Robin Roberts as the San Francisco Giants routed the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-2.

As it turned out, McCovey's budding fame followed him to the restaurant, where he joined Giants teammates Willie Kirkland and Leon Wagner. A nearby newsstand displayed copies of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, an afternoon paper. The Call-Bulletin's latest edition featured details of McCovey's big day. The bold-faced headlines grabbed his attention.

"That was the first time I had ever seen my name like that, so that was exciting," McCovey recalled recently. "I think I bought all the papers that were on that stand."

Information rarely traveled faster than that in the pre-Internet era. But unlike the long-defunct Call-Bulletin, McCovey remains as current as a blog entry.

He's an integral part of AT&T Park, the Giants' home. The portion of San Francisco Bay beyond the right-field wall is known as McCovey Cove, an homage to his penchant for pulling long home runs during his 22-year Major League career. A statue of McCovey completing his powerful swing stands at McCovey Point, across the Cove from the ballpark.

The Giants' highest team honor is the "Willie Mac" Award, given annually to the club's most inspirational performer in a vote by players, coaches and the athletic training staff.

Diners flock to a restaurant named for McCovey, a site festooned with sports photographs and memorabilia in Walnut Creek, about a 25-mile drive from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge.

McCovey attends almost every Giants home game, frequently visiting the clubhouse before settling into a booth on the broadcasters' level of the press area.

Most of all, anyone who saw McCovey play -- a group largely restricted to fans 40 and older -- will always remember him. His uppercutting swing, gargantuan home runs and ability to extend himself for throws at first base (earning him the nickname "Stretch") created enduring images of strength and grace. He hit 521 homers, including a National League-record 18 grand slams. And no statistic can measure how his friendly, easygoing nature has continued to engage fans.

So, it's somewhat stunning to realize that a figure who remains as fresh in people's consciousness as McCovey began his Hall of Fame career a half-century ago. Time simply cannot pass that quickly, can it?

"It doesn't seem like it's been 50 years," said McCovey, 71. "I don't even feel like I'm 50 years old yet, though I've had all these knee and back operations."

*****

McCovey already had endured his first knee surgery by Spring Training of 1959. That marked his first invitation to big league camp. Giants veterans sensed that it wouldn't be his last.

"I knew what he could do," third baseman Jim Davenport said. "I'm sure everybody on our ballclub knew how well he swung the bat."

McCovey swung it prodigiously for Triple-A Phoenix as the '59 season began. He was hitting .372 with 29 home runs and 92 RBIs in 95 games -- "I had nothing left to prove in that league," McCovey said -- when Phoenix manager Rosy Ryan informed him after a July 29 doubleheader that he was being summoned to San Francisco.

McCovey's initial concern had nothing to do with baseball.

"After I got over the shock, I think my first [telephone] call was how was I going to collect all my records," he said.

McCovey explained that having played in Phoenix the year before, he had befriended numerous people, including some who had borrowed his 33s, 45s and 78s.

"It didn't occur to me that they could mail them," McCovey said.

McCovey soon put aside that issue to focus on baseball.

"I was up all night with excitement," he said.

He wouldn't have slept much anyway, since Phoenix's doubleheader didn't end until late evening and he had to catch the first flight to San Francisco the next morning. Whisked to Seals Stadium for the 1:30 p.m. start of the Phillies-Giants game, McCovey immediately felt at ease upon entering the clubhouse, since he had met most of the Giants at Spring Training. The first player to greet him was left-hander Johnny Antonelli, who announced McCovey's appearance with the nickname he gave the rookie at training camp.

"Lovey-dovey McCovey!" Antonelli proclaimed.

McCovey's jersey awaited him. It bore the soon-familiar No. 44 -- a tribute to Hank Aaron, who already had established himself as a big league star and, like McCovey, hailed from Mobile, Ala. Finding other gear was a little more challenging.

"I had to borrow somebody else's pants," said McCovey, who possessed a slender 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame. "They were a little tight, but I didn't care."

McCovey missed batting practice, which might have been just as well because his bats hadn't arrived from Phoenix and the Giants had none of his in stock. He searched the rack for one that felt right and settled on an extra bat belonging to infielder Ed Bressoud.

"U1," Bressoud said, recalling the Hillerich & Bradsby model number. "Thirty-five inches, 33 ounces."

Finding lumber was a necessary step for McCovey, since manager Bill Rigney had informed him that he would start at first base. Orlando Cepeda, the NL Rookie of the Year at first base the previous season, switched to third base, the position he played when he signed with the Giants. Cepeda wasn't the only star McCovey displaced, as Rigney told him he'd bat third.

WILLIE MCCOVEY'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
Named National League Rookie of the Year in 1959
National League Most Valuable Player in 1969
Ranks 18th on MLB all-time home run list with 521
Ranks 39th on MLB all-time RBIs list with 1555
National League All-Star six times
Led NL in home runs three times
Holds NL record with 18 grand slams
Hit three home runs in eight postseason games
Inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1986
"You know who normally hits third," McCovey said.

That would be Willie Mays, widely acknowledged as the best player on the planet, who batted second that day.

*****

McCovey staged a pretty fair imitation of Mays. He singled twice and tripled twice off Roberts, who finished his career with 286 victories.

"He got four bloop hits off me -- tell Willie I said that," Roberts said.

Turning serious, he added, "You could tell that Willie was going to be a problem for a lot of guys, not just me."

Said McCovey: "All I know is I was just up there hacking. I remember that Robin had good control, so I knew he was going to be around the plate."

(Side note: Roberts gained a measure of revenge later that season on Sept. 11 by shutting out the Giants on three hits, breaking their stride in the pennant race. McCovey went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout.)

McCovey's pair of triples was the most intriguing aspect of his afternoon. Not only did knee problems limit his mobility for much of the rest of his career, but Seals Stadium also wasn't conducive to triples, since its cozy dimensions enabled outfielders to corral the ball quickly.

But McCovey's injury history hadn't yet lengthened, so he still had good speed.

"I think the marvel was to see how fast he was," said left-hander Mike McCormick, who complemented McCovey by pitching a complete game that day.

Said Lon Simmons, the beloved longtime Bay Area broadcaster who was behind the microphone for McCovey's debut: "Even though he had problems with his legs, he could go [from] first to third as well as anybody."

Playing pepper with the center field wall also helped McCovey leg out his extra-base hits.

"Stretch hit them off the batter's eye," Simmons recalled with relish. "They were such bullets that the fielders couldn't catch up with them."

For a while, the rest of the league couldn't catch up with the Giants. They lost four consecutive games to fall out of first place before McCovey's promotion, but his arrival had a definite effect. His debut, which ranks among the finest in any professional sport, launched a surge of 10 victories in 12 games that put San Francisco back atop the NL standings by three games. The Giants maintained the league lead until late September, when seven losses in their final eight games doomed them to a third-place finish.

"I kind of created a spark that resonated through the rest of the team," he said.

McCovey's pace barely slowed. He hit .354 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs, and though he played only 52 games, his performance was so overwhelming that he captured Rookie of the Year honors.

"I was pretty hot when I came up and it just carried over when I got up here," McCovey said. "I enjoyed hitting in the Major Leagues more than in the Minor Leagues. I didn't want to tell anybody it was easier, because I didn't want to sound cocky. But Major League pitchers had better control and most of them were around the plate."

Nobody knew it quite yet, but the Giants had minted another legend, one who would join the pantheon of Mays, Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell and Christy Mathewson while distinguishing himself on their talent-laden teams of the '60s.

"The Giants in those days had so many guys that made a big impact, you had to be great to stand out," Simmons said. "And he did."

*****

McCovey took a circuitous route to greatness. He was sent to Triple-A briefly in 1960 to refine his batting stroke. Desperately searching for a way to fit both Cepeda and McCovey in the lineup, manager Alvin Dark played McCovey mostly in left field from 1962-64. From his throne in center field, Mays helped McCovey as much as possible, sometimes with a form of tough love.

"Mays would let him run farther into left-center field than anybody else, just to give him the confidence that he could catch the ball," Simmons said.

Switching positions might have distracted some players at the plate. Not McCovey, who shared the NL home run lead in 1963 -- a doubly fitting development, since he hit 44 to match Aaron.

An injury to Cepeda in 1965, and his trade to St. Louis the following year, freed McCovey to entrench himself at first base. It also hastened McCovey's journey to Cooperstown. From 1965 to 1970 he averaged .291, 38 homers and 106 RBIs per season in an era dominated by pitching. McCovey was especially prolific in 1969 -- his Most Valuable Player season -- and 1970, totaling 84 homers and 252 RBIs despite drawing 258 walks. His 45 intentional walks in 1969 remained a Major League record until Barry Bonds eclipsed it in 2002. Late in that '69 season, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers even walked McCovey intentionally to open the 10th inning with the score tied.

"He was considered the most threatening left-handed hitter in baseball," McCormick said.

Unable to pay his superstars as the franchise encountered financial hardship in the early 1970s, Giants owner Horace Stoneham traded McCovey to the San Diego Padres before the 1974 season. Though he left the Giants, the Giants never left him.

"I pulled for them when I was with the Padres," McCovey said. When the opportunity arose to rejoin the Giants before the 1977 season, he seized it.

Starving for a leader, Giants players embraced him.

"When Willie came back, that boosted our team spirit," left-hander Gary Lavelle said. "We had a Hall of Fame player coming back to where he originated from. All of the young players looked up to him. He led by example and by his work ethic."

Before the 1978 season, McCovey convinced Bill Madlock to move from third base to second base, clearing the former spot for Darrell Evans and strengthening the Giants' lineup. This, of course, mirrored McCovey's early-'60s stint in left field.

"He was just unbelievable, with his professionalism and everything," Madlock said. "He was a pleasure to be with. I didn't want to play second base, but ... when somebody like that, who you know is a Hall of Famer, asks you to do that, how could you turn him down?"

Giants fans adored McCovey as much as his teammates did, hailing him as a hero through his final days as a player in July 1980.

"I've always had a connection here in the city from the first day I arrived," McCovey said, explaining his eternal rapport with local fans. "I stayed in the city. I made San Francisco my home. I was seen in the offseason at a lot of different functions and people liked that."

A lot can happen in 50 years. But a lot doesn't have to change.

"You never hear much about Willie anymore," Davenport said. "But people who've been around him know how great a player he was and how great a person he is."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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