The term "legend" fits Willie McCovey as easily as the Giants cap that rests almost perpetually atop his regal head.The extraordinary became commonplace for McCovey during his 22-year Major League career (1959-80). The Hall of Fame first baseman, who turns 80 on Wednesday, routinely walked with the greats.When McCovey sought
The term "legend" fits Willie McCovey as easily as the Giants cap that rests almost perpetually atop his regal head.
The extraordinary became commonplace for McCovey during his 22-year Major League career (1959-80). The Hall of Fame first baseman, who turns 80 on Wednesday, routinely walked with the greats.
When McCovey sought hitting advice, he called upon more than batting instructors. He approached fellow left-handed hitters Ted Williams and Stan Musial, who combined to win 13 batting titles.
When a youthful McCovey initially visited New York, the Giants didn't assign some front-office person to shepherd him. His chaperone was Willie Mays. Or as McCovey called him, "Mr. New York."
If there's a Mr. San Francisco among the Giants, it's McCovey. By playing in four decades, he bridged generations of fans. His career total of 521 home runs ranks second all-time among National League left-handed batters, exceeded only by Barry Bonds' 762. McCovey's 18 grand slams set an NL record. He played in more games (1,086) and hit more homers (236) at Candlestick Park, the Giants' previous home, than anybody.
The team's most inspirational player award was conceived in 1980 and named the "Willie Mac Award" in his honor. The portion of San Francisco Bay that extends beyond AT&T Park's right-field wall is known as McCovey Cove, since if he were still playing, he'd deposit pitches there regularly.
To say that those distinctions reflect McCovey's popularity is a gross understatement. He's loved, cherished, embraced, adored and respected to a degree that astounds the man himself.
"I'm still amazed how much you can touch people and how much you mean to them," McCovey said in a recent interview. "I don't know how to explain it. I've met people who tell me, 'You were the only reason my grandmother or somebody lived the last few years, because of you.' Things like that, you listen to it, and you wonder, 'God, that's amazing.'"
To celebrate McCovey's milestone birthday, the Giants have scheduled a private party for him on Thursday at AT&T Park.
"When I was growing up, that seemed ancient, to be 80," McCovey said genially. "But I don't feel any different than when I turned 40, really."
McCovey, who's employed by the Giants as a senior advisor, appreciates his continued recognition.
"It's flattering to still be thought of in that vein when you've been here for so long," he said. "Sometimes you fade away from the people."
When offense began to fade in the Majors, McCovey thrived. From 1965-70, he batted .291 and averaged 38 homers and 106 RBIs per season. He and Hank Aaron of the Braves led all big leaguers with 226 homers apiece in this span. McCovey stood alone at the top with 636 RBIs.
Bob Gibson, the era's most intimidating pitcher, acknowledged McCovey's looming presence. Citing the Giants' talent-laden lineups of the '60s, Gibson said in Lonnie Wheeler's book, "Sixty Feet, Six Inches," "None of the others put the fear in me that McCovey did. Not even Mays."
McCovey's ascent began on July 30, 1959, when he went 4-for-4 off another future Hall of Famer, Philadelphia's Robin Roberts. That has been well-documented. A lesser-known aspect of McCovey's debut involved the bat he borrowed from teammate Ed Bressoud -- a 35-inch, 33-ounce Hillerich & Bradsby Model U1. McCovey's own bats hadn't yet arrived from Phoenix.
Trivial as this might seem, it's the sort of subject that McCovey frequently discussed with Williams, the renowned hitting guru.
"He said it was best to have a bat too light than too heavy," McCovey said.
Early in McCovey's career, while the Giants spent Spring Training in Phoenix, the Red Sox were based in Scottsdale, Ariz. This afforded him opportunities to talk hitting with another slender, stylish practitioner of the art.
"I learned from Ted Williams about getting a good pitch to hit," McCovey said. "He was really my mentor as far as hitting. I talked to Ted a lot. For some reason, he kind of took a liking to me."
McCovey also recalled a pregame chat at Candlestick Park with the peerless Musial. Approaching the end of his career, Musial happily shared his expertise with the earnest McCovey.
"He talked to me for a long time," said McCovey, who added with a chuckle, "I think he went out and got five hits that day."
Let the record show that Musial went 5-for-5 at Candlestick on Sept. 27, 1962.
Of course, the performer McCovey complemented most was Mays, the enduring face of the franchise. They met before joining forces on the Giants. McCovey needed knee surgery after the 1957 season, which he spent at the Giants' Double-A affiliate in Dallas.
"I think that was the first of many," McCovey said. "I've had so many surgeries, I can't count them. These knees have been through hell and back."
Because the Giants' move to San Francisco was in progress, many of their connections remained in New York. McCovey went there for his procedure and stayed with Mays for a few days.
"He was everything in New York at the time," McCovey said.
McCovey came to enjoy such elevated status. Consider the events of Oct. 16, 1962, after the Yankees' World Series-clinching 1-0 triumph over the Giants in Game 7 ended with McCovey's vicious line drive to second baseman Bobby Richardson. It stranded Matty Alou on third base and Mays on second, and haunted the Giants' efforts to win it all until 2010.
That night, McCovey slipped into Fack's, a trendy San Francisco nightclub featuring the Duke Ellington Band. A couple of musicians recognized McCovey -- at 6-foot-4, he cut a distinct figure -- and saluted his gallant attempt to record a Series-winning hit. The band changed the lyrics from its popular song, "She's Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," and made it a homage to McCovey's smash: "You Hit It Good (And That Ain't Bad)."
McCovey's incomparable Major League career could have faded into silence on July 6, 1980, when he appeared in his last game. McCovey maintained his run-producing rhythm, launching a pinch-hit sacrifice fly in the eighth inning of the Giants' 7-4 victory at Los Angeles.
But the band played on for McCovey. During the game, McCovey learned that Frank Sinatra, who was scheduled to perform that night in nearby Universal City, planned to dedicate his concert to McCovey and honor him in person. McCovey recalled how Ol' Blue Eyes informed him of his tribute:
"He had his guy call the dugout. Who else would be able to ring the dugout during a game but Frank Sinatra?"
Few besides Willie McCovey would prompt such an august invitation.
Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast.