SAN FRANCISCO -- For Willie McCovey, the 1969 All-Star Game wasn't an exhibition. It was part of an affirmation.That Midsummer Classic was the last one played in our nation's capital until Tuesday's clash between the National and American Leagues. Though the 1969 All-Star rosters featured 19 future Hall of Famers,
SAN FRANCISCO -- For Willie McCovey, the 1969 All-Star Game wasn't an exhibition. It was part of an affirmation.
That Midsummer Classic was the last one played in our nation's capital until Tuesday's clash between the National and American Leagues. Though the 1969 All-Star rosters featured 19 future Hall of Famers, McCovey towered over every participant like the Washington Monument. The Giants first baseman hit two home runs for the NL in a 9-3 victory, and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
This performance accented McCovey's finest season. He finished 1969 with 45 home runs and 126 RBIs, both league highs, along with a prodigious .320/.453/.656 slash line. Predictably, he won the NL's Most Valuable Player Award.
Such statistics and distinctions only hint at McCovey's impact upon baseball in general and that season in particular.
In 1969, McCovey changed the basic managerial approach toward elite power hitters. In previous years and eras, prolific sluggers might get pitched around. But rarely were they completely bypassed through use of the intentional walk. McCovey, however, intimidated opponents so much that they simply refused to pitch to him. Thus did the intentional walk, which became an official stat in 1955, enter baseball's strategic lexicon.
McCovey drew a record 45 intentional passes in 1969. His total represented a quantum increase over the previous record of 33, which Ted Williams set in 1957. And the only player to get more free passes in a season than McCovey is Barry Bonds, who did it every year from 2002 through 2004.
"All the teams feared me," McCovey said matter-of-factly. "I just couldn't get a good pitch to hit. Whenever there was a base open, they put me on."
On Sept. 21, 1969, Dodgers manager Walter Alston reached new extremes of respect -- and terror -- by walking McCovey intentionally in the 10th inning with two outs, nobody on base and the score tied, 3-3, in San Francisco. The ploy backfired, as the Giants proceeded to load the bases and win on an error by shortstop Maury Wills.
Nevertheless, many managers might have done the same thing. One skipper who regarded McCovey as highly flammable was Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson. McCovey recalled seeing Anderson stroll past him by the batting cage or dugout before games, raise his hand and wiggle four fingers to signify an intentional walk. The start of the game might be hours away, and already Anderson was informing McCovey how he'd be pitched.
One day, after Anderson automatically sent him to first base yet again, McCovey finally lost his patience. Frustrated over losing another chance to swing the bat, McCovey bellowed at Anderson, "Who do you think I am, Babe Ruth?" "No," Anderson yelled back. "You're better."
Reminded of that anecdote, McCovey chuckled. "That's a true story," he said.
In 1969, the backdrop for McCovey's peak year already was in place, as it came after the "year of the pitcher," which led to MLB lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. And expanding from 20 to 24 teams diluted the pitching talent, to boot. As a result, runs per game jumped from 3.42 to 4.07, and McCovey had his best statistical season.
However, one pitcher who got the best of McCovey was Oakland's John "Blue Moon" Odom, who struck him out in the 1968 All-Star Game at Houston. As McCovey began to return to the dugout, he said loudly enough for Odom to hear, "I'm gonna get you." And at the 1969 All-Star Game, he did.
This Midsummer Classic was distinctive from the rest. MLB observed the 100th anniversary of professional baseball in 1969, which called for special festivities that included a trip to the White House.
"At that time, Richard Nixon was president," said Larry Dierker, then the Astros' ace.
"As unpopular as he was, everybody was still thrilled to get to go to the White House." McCovey concurred. "[Nixon] signed baseballs for all of us. That was kind of a big deal, to go to the White House."
Steady rain forced postponement of the game, scheduled for July 22, until the next afternoon. (Amazingly, the All-Star Game hasn't been postponed since.)
McCovey batted fourth, one spot behind Hank Aaron and one ahead of Ron Santo. Though this was McCovey's fourth All-Star selection, he did not take his assignment for granted. "For me to hit cleanup in that lineup was amazing," he said.
McCovey grounded out against Yankees right-hander Mel Stottlemyre in the first inning. Then came the third inning and a rematch against Odom, whose strikeout McCovey had promised to avenge. Odom was equally determined.
"What was on my mind was striking him out again," Odom said. But McCovey got the best of it, clearing the center-field barrier for a two-run homer that ignited a five-run NL outburst.
"He was a man of his word," Odom said.
One inning later, McCovey went deep against Denny McLain, pulling a drive to right field that lengthened the NL's lead to 9-2. The final was 9-3. McCovey joined Arky Vaughan, Al Rosen and Williams as the only players to homer twice in an All-Star Game. Gary Carter later joined the list.
This was part of a run in which the NL won 19 of 20 All-Star Games from 1963-82.
"The National League was much deeper at that point in time with talent," said former Dodgers right-hander Bill Singer. "Billy Williams couldn't make the All-Star team and he made the Hall of Fame."
McCovey, who turned 80 in January, remains a fiercely proud National Leaguer.
"We wanted to prove to the American League that we were the better league," McCovey said. "So that's the way we approached it every year."
It was almost as if McCovey hit that second home run for emphasis.
"He was that good," Singer said.
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.