Updated: May 4, 2021
When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, they already had a franchise star in Willie Mays. He was one of those once in a generation type players who are almost mythical in their athletic exploits. Surprisingly, San Francisco never truly embraced him as their own until well after his career had ended. He came to the city with the Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and a World Series ring already in hand. He came with the hardware of which the city had not personally taken in part. They had not been a part of the struggle and the glory of those accomplishments. The city needed a star of their own and they would not have to wait long for one to arrive.
Willie “Stretch” McCovey arrived in 1959 and made an impact immediately, getting four hits in four plate appearances along with two triples against Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. Over the course of his career, he became known for his long home runs. However, his teammates nicknamed him “Stretch” because of his 6’4” frame. As a tribute to him, when the Giants opened what is now called Oracle Park back in 2000, they named the water area just beyond the right field bleachers after him. McCovey Cove is a fan favorite as booming home runs drop from the heavens and into the awaiting hands of the kayakers below.
What made him such a sensation for San Francisco fans of all ages? While he did win the National League MVP in 1969, he never won a World Series. His fame speaks to the heart of San Francisco before the city started claiming world championships. A great talent long chasing that elusive championship, never to be claimed, and yet the city falls in love with him despite his eternal failure to bring his beloved city it's eternal glory.
Born on January 10, 1938 in Mobile, Alabama, McCovey exhibited a rare athletic ability at an early age. He signed with the Giants in 1955 at the age of 17. His career skyrocketed and after hitting an incredible .372 with AAA Phoenix Giants he was called up to the majors for the rest of the 1959 campaign. In just 219 plate appearances, McCovey hit .354 with 13 home runs while unanimously winning the National League Rookie of the Year award despite having only played in 52 games.
Unfortunately, that early success could not translate to the destructive winds of Candlestick Park, the Giants’ new home starting in 1960. In the following three years, while battling fellow first baseman and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda for playing time, McCovey only hit .171 with only one home run against left-handed pitchers.
World Series Heartbreak
Towards the end of McCovey’s early struggles at Candlestick, the Giants made the World Series against the New York Yankees. In a historic series which stretched on for seven games, McCovey was only in the starting lineup four times because Hall of Fame left hander Whitey Ford started the three other games. McCovey did not disappoint in his first World Series appearance in Game 2. Batting against Ralph Terry, McCovey hit a home run which helped the Giants get a 2-0 victory and evened the series.
When McCovey faced Terry again in Game 7, he hit a triple but was stranded at third base when Terry struck out Orlando Cepeda, ending the inning. History was made in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Giants trailing 1-0. With Matty Alou and Willie Mays standing on third and second bases respectively, McCovey had a chance to give San Francisco it’s first World Series championship. Instead his hit was intercepted by second baseman Bobby Richardson, ending McCovey’s only World Series.
Establishing a Legacy
Following the World Series heartbreak, McCovey continued to build his legacy in San Francisco. In 1963 he was moved to left field where he remained for the rest of his career. He responded to the move by recording a NL leading 44 home runs, 158 hits and 102 RBI. He had a slump the following year but starting in 1965 he began a streak where he did not hit less than 31 home runs for six straight years. His best year was the second to last of those years, 1969, his MVP year. In that year he recorded a career best 45 home runs, 157 hits and 126 RBI. He set a major league record with 45 intentional walks during his MVP campaign, a record which stood for 33 years until it was broken by fellow Giant, Barry Bonds.
He was hurt with bothersome knee injuries for large portions of the next two years and never hit more than 29 home runs in a season again. He bounced around between leagues in the mid 1970’s, spending a few years with the San Diego Padres and a half year with the Oakland Athletics. He came home to San Francisco for the final four years of his career before retiring in 1980. He finished his career with 231 home runs in Candlestick, his old adversary, which was the most by any player in that ballpark’s history. He retired with 2,211 hits, 1,555 RBI and a .270 batting percentage. In all, he played 19 of his 22 seasons with the Giants and at when he retired his 521 career home runs were tied with Ted Williams for eighth all time.
Later Life and Legacy
Following his retirement, McCovey served as a senior advisor to the Giants for 18 years. Over the years many retired baseball players have followed similar pursuits such as Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. Few have served in that sort of role for so long. In 1986, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2003 McCovey opened a restaurant in Walnut Creek named McCovey’s Restaurant. The establishment closed in 2015. He passed away from natural causes on October, 31 2018.