Top 10 moments in McCovey's HOF career

January 7th, 2022

A version of this story originally ran in January 2022.

There are a handful of sluggers in Major League history whose tape-measure blasts would have been perfect for today's Statcast tracking technology. Babe Ruth, Bo Jackson, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds all come to mind.

But one hitter you might not think of right away -- but should -- is Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. Giants legend Willie Mays, who played alongside McCovey for parts of 14 seasons in San Francisco, used to say McCovey "could hit a ball farther than anyone I ever played with." Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson both called McCovey the "scariest" hitter in baseball, while manager Sparky Anderson estimated McCovey could hit 80 homers in a season if teams pitched to him more instead of around him.

McCovey's prodigious power was often swallowed up by the winds at Candlestick Park, or overshadowed by the overwhelming gravitas of Mays, but those who watched and played with "Stretch" during his heyday knew all about how talented McCovey truly was.

As a tribute to the late Bay Area legend on his birthday, here's a look at the top 10 moments from McCovey's celebrated career.

1. A sensational entrance
Long before prospect rankings and publications could prepare the public, McCovey arrived in the Majors as an absolute force. On July 30, 1959, the lanky 21-year-old from Mobile, Ala., went 4-for-4 against Phillies ace Robin Roberts (a future Hall of Famer) with a pair of triples and two RBIs. McCovey quickly proved he was more than a flash in the pan, finishing '59 with a .354 average, 13 homers and 38 RBIs over 52 games to unanimously capture the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Those 52 games are still the smallest resume for any rookie position player who's claimed the honor.

2. The summer of '69
McCovey began reaching the peak of his powers in 1968 as he paced the NL with 36 homers and 105 RBIs. He was even better in '69, crushing 45 round-trippers and driving in 126 while topping the Majors with a .656 slugging percentage and a 1.108 OPS. McCovey's numbers were enough to edge Mets ace Tom Seaver for the NL MVP Award, but that wasn't the only MVP honor Stretch received that year. In one of the greatest All-Star Game performances, McCovey smacked a two-run homer off Blue Moon Odom and followed up with a solo shot off Denny McLain the next inning, making him an easy choice for the Midsummer Classic's best player.

3. No. 500
The 500-homer club was much more exclusive in McCovey's day, and he joined it on June 30, 1978 -- amid his second stint with the Giants -- with a blast off Braves lefty James Easterly. McCovey was just the 12th player to reach 500 dingers at the time, and in '80 he hit his 521st and final career homer to tie the great Ted Williams on the all-time list. McCovey, Williams, Rickey Henderson and Omar Vizquel are the only players to hit at least one homer in four different decades.

4. Lightning strikes twice -- again
There's a reason McCovey led the NL in intentional walks four times, and perhaps Anderson's Reds should have issued one in the sixth inning of their matchup against the Giants on June 27, 1977, at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. McCovey knocked a solo homer off Reds starter Jack Billingham, and then he came up later in the inning against Joe Hoerner and knocked another dinger -- this time a grand slam.

That made McCovey the first player in MLB history to homer twice in an inning on two separate occasions. Stretch also went deep twice in the fourth inning against the Astros on April 12, 1973.

5. The hardest out
The Giants came just short of a World Series title in 1962, but McCovey's series-ending out against the Yankees in Game 7 ranks among the most famous outs in baseball history. San Francisco trailed the mighty pinstripes, 1-0, with two out in the bottom of the ninth and a pair of runners on. It was the ultimate do-or-die moment, and McCovey looked like he might have the championship hit when he scorched a line drive off Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry.

Unfortunately for McCovey, the ball went right to second baseman Bobby Richardson, who gloved the scorcher for the final out. The Giants came as close to winning as any World Series loser in history, but while McCovey was ultimately out, his liner became one of the most famous reminders of his All-World power at the plate.

6. No. 44
The Giants are one of baseball's oldest franchises, tracing their origins to New York in 1883. Through all that time, the franchise has retired just 11 numbers (not including Christy Mathewson and John McGraw, whose accomplishments predated uniform numbers), including McCovey's No. 44. McCovey wore 44 in honor of fellow Mobile native Hank Aaron, and on Sept. 21, 1980, San Francisco made sure no player would wear that number for the Giants again.

7. Cooperstown bound
In McCovey's day, 500 homers meant nearly automatic election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- and the six-time All-Star was more than deserving. The Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) made McCovey a first-ballot Hall of Famer by selecting him on 81 percent of their ballots in 1986. McCovey was the BBWAA's only selection that year, and he was enshrined alongside Veterans Committee selections Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi that summer in Cooperstown.

8. Splash!
Oracle Park ranks as one of the Majors' most beloved ballparks, and its right-field border constitutes one of the game's most famous areas. McCovey was known for using his left-handed pull swing to park baseballs into the seats, and so when San Francisco's ballpark opened in 2000, it was only right that homers that reached the junction of Mission Creek and the San Francisco Bay past the right-field seats would be named in Stretch's honor.

Numerous "splash hits" have reached McCovey Cove since Oracle Park opened, and the Cove provided a picturesque target for participants in the 2007 Home Run Derby.

9. Plenty left in the tank
When the Giants traded a 35-year-old McCovey in the winter of 1973, Bay Area fans figured they had seen the last of their beloved slugger in a San Francisco uniform. Stretch posted a pair of 20-homer seasons for the Padres in '74-75, but he logged just 82 combined games for San Diego and Oakland in '76. The Giants' fortunes plummeted without McCovey, but in the winter of '76, they re-signed their former star from the free-agent market.

At 40 years old, McCovey rewarded San Francisco with a vintage year by hitting .280 with 28 homers and 86 RBIs to claim The Sporting News' NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. He played parts of two more seasons by the Bay before retiring midway through the 1980 campaign.

10. First of three crowns
McCovey shook off the disappointment of 1962 to knock a career-high 44 home runs -- the number on the back of his uniform -- and claim his first of three career NL homer crowns in '63. Those 44 homers marked the fifth-most by any Giants player at the time, and second only to Johnny Mize's 51 in '47 among Giants lefties.