Tribute to the 60th Anniversary of Willie “Stretch” McCovey’s Debut

On this day 60 years ago the great Willie “Stretch” McCovey broke in with a sensational maiden game that rivals any debut in baseball history!  To pay tribute to this cherished man in San Francisco Giants history I’m posting my unfinished preface in my upcoming biography of McCovey, “Stretch! A Profile in Baseball Courage”

I’ve included a few unpublished photos of Willie Mac’s debut. Thank you to my dear friend Steve Okano for these fantastic photos.

The elated 21 year-old Willie McCovey after his sensational debut of July 30, 1959

Preface

On July 30th 1959 two important events took place in the Bay Area. One of those events changed the world in profound ways that are still reverberating even today. The event I’m referring to was the patent application for the first practical mass-producible integrated circuits by Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View. The invention of the first practical integrated circuit is what led to: Apollo 11 successfully landing on the moon less than 10 years later, the personal computer, the iPod and the iPhone that you probably own.

The second event on July 30th 1959 was definitely not as earth shaking as the integrated circuit. But, if you were a fan of the San Francisco Giants, as I was as a 7 year-old, it was just as earth shaking in a baseball context. That was the day that Willie McCovey, most likely the most popular player in San Francisco Giants history, made his major league debut in sensational fashion!

The 21 year-old McCovey was facing a fellow future Hall of Fame member, Robin Roberts. The young first baseman was already known to his teammates by his very appropriate nickname as “Stretch.” The long, lanky “Stretch” went 4 for 4 with two triples in his debut! Not only that, but all four of his hits were screaming line drives. One his hits was a bullet that hit the right field wall so fast that he was held to a single. Another future Hall of Famer, Richie Ashburn was quoted after the game, “McCovey must be a hell of a hitter to run Cepeda off first base” he added that he knew he was in for a busy day in centerfield when he saw McCovey take batting practice, “and looked real good!”

It not only was McCovey’s maiden game in the big leagues, it was the first time he ever saw a big league game. “I tell you – it was the greatest thrill of my life!”, the new Giants hero described his debut.

“Sure, I was nervous out there at first. But, I got over it after the second time at bat.

Robin Roberts? I’d heard of him.”

“Was there any difference between Roberts and some Coast League pitchers?”

“It didn’t seem so today.”, McCovey grinned.

“Did the Phillies say anything to you out there?”

“After my second triple, I pulled into third and their man (Gene Freese) told me to lighten up on them and not hit the ball so hard.”

There were six future Hall of Fame players on the field that day. On the Giants; Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and McCovey – on the Phillies; Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and … George Anderson. I hear you laughing, George Anderson is not in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps, you know George Anderson better by his nickname, Sparky Anderson! Sparky was playing second base that day in his lone season in the majors as a player. Sparky 12 years later when managing the 1971 NL All Stars had this to say about McCovey, “Here’s a guy who is the most feared in baseball, but everyone pitches around him. If you let him bat 600 times and pitched to him instead of around him, he’d hit 80 home runs.”

McCovey went on to be a huge reason the Giants remained in contention until the final day of the season in 1959. “Stretch” had these amazing numbers at the end of his brief 52 game rookie campaign: Batting Average .354, Home Runs 13, Triples 5, RBI 38, OPS 1,085! The capstone of his season was his unanimous selection as the National League Rookie of the Year.

Highlights of Willie Mac’s career includes the following accomplishments:

  • 1959 – unanimous National League Rookie of the Year
  • Leading the National League in home runs three times.
  •  1963 – Willie was co leader with Henry Aaron in home runs with 44. That number is a numerologist’s dream because 44 is the uniform number of both Aaron and McCovey! The coincidence goes even deeper … both these sluggers were from Mobile, Alabama and McCovey chose that number in honor of his hometown hero, Henry Aaron!
  • 1968 – In the Year of the Pitcher “Stretch” still belted 36 homers
  • 1969 – 45 home runs
  • 1969 – National League MVP award. His MVP year included two home runs in the All Star game in Washington’s RFK Stadium. During the years of 1968 through 1971 McCovey was far and away the most feared hitter in the major leagues. His legendary teammate Willie Mays said this about his powerful teammate, “He could hit a ball farther than anyone I ever played with.”
  • Currently McCovey holds the National League record for career grand slams with 18.
  • Willie Mac holds the San Francisco Giants record for games played with 2,256.
  • Most career home runs at Candlestick Park: 236
  • 1986 – Induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. Willie was named on 81.4% of the ballots and was the only inductee that year.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 they began a streak of 14 years of winning seasons and perennially contended for a World Series championship. McCovey was a huge presence on those good Giants teams.  Teaming with such stars as Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Ray Hart, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry the Giants were always in it.

That 14 year streak of winning ended in 1972 with “Stretch” only playing in 81 games. The next year, 1973, with Willie Mac back playing in 130 games the Giants were back to their winning ways.

Willie would go on to play in four decades over a 22 year Hall of Fame career. But, his baseball career doesn’t come close to defining this quiet, humble, generous man at all. Off the field McCovey was always helping worthy charities with golf tournaments and other charity work. His work was invaluable to the Giants Jr Giants program that enables thousands of children to play baseball, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.

Willie set a fantastic example to his teammates by playing through myriad serious leg and hip injuries without complaint.  He was so respected by his teammates, fans and Giants ownership that after his retirement in July 1980, the Giants created the highly coveted Willie Mac Award as voted by the Giants players. This annual award is given to the Giants player who “on and off the field best exemplifies the competitive spirit, ability and leadership” shown by the former Giant first baseman.  The winners of the Willie Mac Award holds a special place in Giants history.

In the pages that follow I hope to thoroughly retell the story of  Willie Lee McCovey’s life on and off the field from his childhood in Mobile, Alabama until his untimely death on Halloween 2018. “Stretch” was arguably the most beloved and cherished player in San Francisco Giants history. His quiet dignity, generosity and courage to overcome serious leg injuries that would’ve had most players on the bench, endeared him to Giants fans above all others  Even his death on Halloween in 2018 was symbolic. The traditional Halloween colors of Orange and Black was a fitting salute to his beloved Giants. If it had to happen, as untimely as it was, that was the perfect day for the beloved “Stretch” to take his leave from us.

Here’s a few quotes by Willie Mac and about him.

Willie McCovey.

“I’m not afraid of any pitcher,” said McCovey. “I’ve been pitched almost every way, and I’ve hit every kind of pitch. There wasn’t much else to do in Mobile.”

Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Walter “Smokey” Alston.

“McCovey didn’t hit any cheap one(s),” said longtime Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walter Alston. “When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God. You can’t cry about it.”

Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson.

“Baseball has lost a giant, in every sense of the word, with Willie McCovey’s passing,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “There wasn’t a batter more feared by opposing pitchers than Willie Mac, who hit 521 mammoth home runs during a dominating 22-year career that included 19 seasons in a Giants uniform.

“One of five Hall of Fame players from Mobile, Ala., Willie was a regular in Cooperstown for many years after his 1986 election and, more recently, a fixture at AT&T Park, where he was most happy watching his favorite team play. The Hall of Fame mourns the passing of a legend who had a heart of gold.”

Giants announcer Lon Simmons.

“McCovey was going to hit them in any ballpark, whether the wind was blowing or not,” Simmons said. “He didn’t need any help getting it out of the ballpark.”

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