Willie McCovey was one of my childhood heroes. His death at the age of 80 makes me feel old, old, old. I was too young to be gutted by the savage line drive he hit for the final out of the 1962 World Series but I’m crushed in retrospect. Charlie Brown was crushed at the time:
Willie McCovey was a tall and graceful man whose nickname was Stretch. Previous players had been called that, but it fit Willie Mac like a glove; a baseball glove.
I was a baseball nerd in my youth. I loved going to the ballpark early to watch batting practice. The main attraction was Willie McCovey. His swing was savage yet still elegant. One could almost feel the breeze stirred up by his mighty swing. Of course, that was at Candlestick Park where the wind was so ferocious that I once saw a small pitcher blown off the mound.
I was lucky enough to meet Stretch several times when he was still an active player. He was always gracious and friendly. It’s one of many reasons he belonged to San Francisco Giants fans in a way that his teammate Willie Mays never did. Mays remains the greatest all-around player I’ve ever seen but interacting with fans, especially kids, was not his forte. Willie Mac always had a smile on his face as well as the firmest handshake I’ve ever encountered. Crunch.
Stretch was one of those players who played in difficult circumstances. He played in a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s era but still hit 521 career homers, led the league in homers 3 times, and was National League MVP in 1969. If he’d played in the 1990’s, he might have hit over 700 homers and made vast sums of money, but it never bothered him. Willie McCovey’s picture was in the dictionary next to Gentle Giant.
I learned patience and fortitude growing up a Giants fan. We were always in contention but always fell a bit short. I’ll never forget then Giants owner Horace Stoneham’s 1972-1974 fire sale when he traded Mays and McCovey. He was trying to keep the lights on and the liquor flowing. His liquor: Stoneham was rumored to have traded Gaylord Perry to Cleveland for Sudden Sam McDowell to have a drinking buddy. Perry went on to win 2 Cy Young Awards and 180 more games. McDowell won 19 more games and drank his way out of baseball by 1975.
I attended Willie McCovey’s return to Candlestick as a San Diego Padre. He got a standing ovation and we all commented how terrible he looked in the Padres shit brown uniform of that era. Mercifully, Stretch returned to the Giants for the last four years of his career. Back where he belonged.
I also attended Stretch’s final home game. Willie’s knees were giving out and word got out that he planned to retire mid-season. It was Thursday July 7, 1980. They played the Cincinnati Reds. I hopped on the bus and saw his last home game alone. I wasn’t really alone: I had 26,133 friends with whom to cheer Willie’s every move. It was a big crowd for a Thursday afternoon game for a mediocre Giants team destined for fifth place. The Giants won 4-3 and Stretch knocked in a run. Everything he did merited a standing ovation. I was hoarse from hollering for my favorite player. Our favorite player.
There have been ballplayers with gaudier stats but Willie McCovey was one-of-a-kind. He was a genuinely modest superstar who lived a long life and was loved by the Giants fan base. The man even has a statue and a cove named for him at the Giants’ current ballpark. He will be missed but McCovey Cove is eternal as are my memories.
The last word (image?) goes to Willie McCovey’s hall of fame plaque: