'I can still hear that sound,' MLB's loudest HR?

January 10th, 2022

Tim McCarver was on the other end of the phone talking about Willie McCovey, who would have turned 84 today. He was talking about how even on a team that had Willie Mays on it, how much Giants fans in San Francisco cherished McCovey because, as McCarver said, “He was theirs,” from the time that the big man known as Stretch hit the big leagues in 1959 and won Rookie of the Year after playing just 52 games.

“There’s a lot of reasons to remember Willie fondly,” McCarver said, “starting with what a gentleman he was. Every inch a gentleman. Six-four and looking even bigger. But that’s not what I remember best.”

I asked him what he did remember best. It is still the beauty of talking baseball, especially with a master storyteller of the game like McCarver. Sometimes all you have to do is ask a question.

“He hit the hardest ball off any pitch I ever called for,” McCarver said. “That’s what I remember best.”

“The hardest?” I asked.

McCarver laughed, but then spoke very slowly.

“The. Hardest. Ball. Off. Any. Pitch,” McCarver said. “At least that I ever called for.”

He was catching for St. Louis in 1966, in that era when the Cardinals went to three World Series, winning won two of them, and were three games to one ahead of the Tigers in ’68 before Detroit came back to beat them. Al Jackson was pitching for the Cardinals against the Giants.

“They hadn’t even finished Busch Stadium at the time,” McCarver said. “Some of the outfield was still under construction which I guess, in retrospect, is a good thing, because the ball didn’t break anything.”

McCarver said it was a breaking ball he called for from Al Jackson in September 1966. It’s been described as a changeup, too. Whatever. All that matters is that it was a hanger. Even McCovey would say it might not have been the longest home run he ever hit -- even though the distance was called at 515 feet -- but agreed that it was the hardest. Mike Shannon, who was playing right field that day for the Cardinals always said it was the longest home run he’d ever seen, and what many still described as the longest home run in the history of old Busch Stadium.

“Terrifying,” McCarver said.

Then he was laughing again as he recalled the moment and said, “Disgraceful!”

Two years earlier, McCarver had been behind the plate in the bottom of the 9th of Game 3 of the World Series against the Yankees, when Mickey Mantle hit a walk-off home run against knuckleballer Barney Schultz that went over Mike Shannon’s head and ended up in the third tier of the old Yankee Stadium. McCarver would talk later about a knuckleball that didn’t knuckle, that did “nothing,” except sit there like “bait on a hook.”

The hanger that Jackson threw to McCovey that day was close enough.

I asked McCarver what it was like to stand there and watch the trajectory of the ball.

“There was no trajectory!” McCarver said. “There was just that sound of the ball on his bat.”

For years afterward, McCarver and Jackson were able to joke about the pitch, McCarver asking why Jackson threw it and Jackson responding by saying, “You called for it, you dummy.”

“And that’s not even the end of the story,” McCarver said. “For the first and only time in his life, Al called a guy who’d hit a home run off him.”

I asked, “What did he say?”

“He congratulated him!”

McCovey hit 521 home runs in his big league career. He was a giant of the game in all ways at Candlestick Park, and it is a wonderful baseball thing that all this time after he was a kid at Candlestick, showing up in the big leagues to hit .354 in those 52 games in 1959, the water behind the right-field wall at Oracle Park is known as McCovey Cove. And every time a hitter catches a hanger now and tries to hit a ball out of sight, the name of Willie McCovey is very much alive.

“He was such a big, big man,” McCarver said, “especially when he was digging in right in front of you. He picked up one of my bats one time and I swear, it looked like a toothpick. And, man, did they ever love him in San Francisco.”

They loved him even after another time when he tried to tear the cover off a baseball, and Giants fans had their hearts broken. It was the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, the Yankees leading 1-0. Ralph Terry was still on the mound two years after giving up Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 walk-off against the Yanks in the ’60 World Series.

Two on -- one of them Willie Mays -- and two out. McCovey ripped a line drive that nearly tore the glove off Bobby Richardson’s hand, but Richardson held on to the ball. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would be nearly a half-century before the Giants won a World Series in San Francisco.

That’s just not the ball McCarver remembers. So many memories about Stretch McCovey, today a good day for them. That’s Tim’s. That’s his story.

“I can still hear that sound,” McCarver said.