CHICAGO -- About three weeks before Spring Training would begin, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Hank Aaron would get together at a park near Toulminville, Ala., that was right around the corner from where Aaron lived. They reached out to other ballplayers in the area like Tommie Agee, Amos Otis,
CHICAGO -- About three weeks before Spring Training would begin, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Hank Aaron would get together at a park near Toulminville, Ala., that was right around the corner from where Aaron lived. They reached out to other ballplayers in the area like Tommie Agee, Amos Otis, Cleon Jones and George Scott.
"We called around and said we were going to take some batting practice and take some infield and do stuff like that," Williams said Thursday. "Everybody would get a couple rounds of hitting. Then we'd go sit in the stands and just chitchat. We used to have a great time.
"And after the three weeks, we'd head to Spring Training and say, 'We'll see you down the road,'" he said.
On Wednesday, that tight group lost one of its members as McCovey passed away. He was 80.
"It was a sad day," Williams said. "You never want to hear that about a person you knew for so many years."
Williams, 80, and McCovey were teammates briefly in 1976 on the Athletics, but they knew each other well before that because of their Alabama roots.
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"We had three or four Rookies of the Year with Agee, myself and McCovey," Williams said of the talent from the Mobile area. "We had guys who won batting titles in myself, Henry Aaron -- and home run titles with McCovey and Aaron. We've done a lot for this game. We made a lasting impression -- I know [McCovey] did."
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What was it about that area that created so many great ballplayers?
"People asked, 'Why are you guys such good hitters?' I said, 'It's the water,'" said Williams, who was born in Whistler, Ala. "'You have to go into the woods, and find a nice spring and you see the water bubbling up. You have to drink it, but it has to have a crawfish in it. If there's not a crawfish, you won't be as good a hitter.'
"That was an old folk tale," he said, chuckling. "All the guys from down there, we played a lot of baseball. We enjoyed the game of baseball and played hard."
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McCovey met Williams' brother, Frank, before he knew Billy -- McCovey and Frank played together in the Georgia State League on the Valdosta team. Once Williams and McCovey were in the big leagues with the Cubs and Giants, respectively, and their teams faced each other, they'd always get together after games for dinner.
"That's what boys from Mobile do," Williams said.
Williams said he won't forget McCovey's swing.
"He was aggressive at the plate," Williams said. "I played first base my last couple years with the Cubs and I'm holding a guy on and when he or [Willie] Stargell were hitting and the pitcher left the ball inside, they could pull it down the right-field line. If the pitcher left the ball inside, we knew what they were trying to do. We'd call timeout and go in and talk to the pitcher and say, 'Throw the ball outside. This guy is going to knock the ball right through me.'"
McCovey and Williams were both terrific hitters. In 1968, McCovey led the National League with 36 home runs. Williams was fourth with 30. McCovey paced the NL with 105 RBIs that season while Williams was tied with teammate Ron Santo for second with 98.
Williams said one of his fondest memories was getting together with McCovey to play golf in Cooperstown before the Hall of Fame ceremonies began.
"He could hit that ball a long way," Williams said.
They'd talk about hitting now and then as well as how they helped their teammates.
"Many years, when [McCovey] played with Willie Mays, Mays would hit singles," Williams said. "He could hit a double but Willie would stop at first base so they would pitch to McCovey. Willie would say he slipped, but he didn't slip. He didn't want them to walk McCovey."
And McCovey took advantage of those opportunities.
It's appropriate that McCovey finished his career with San Francisco, Williams said.
"Everywhere you saw him, he had a Giant hat, a Giant jacket," Williams said. "He was just a Giant in and out."
And a giant in the game, too.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.