Willie Lee McCovey (1938-2018), a native of Mobile, Mobile County, was feared throughout Major League Baseball (MLB) for his tremendous hitting power and was a staple of the San Francisco Giants franchise throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His baseball career spanned some 22 years as a first baseman. A left-handed hitter and thrower, “Stretch” (so nicknamed for his peculiar batting stance) amassed 521 home runs, was a six-time All-Star, and MLB’s National League Most Valuable Player in 1969. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Willie McCovey McCovey was born in Mobile on January 10, 1938, to Frank and Esther McCovey; he was the seventh of ten children. Frank McCovey supported the family as a railroad worker, and Esther raised the children at home. As African Americans, Willie and his family were subjected to racial oppression in segregated Mobile. As an adult, McCovey recalled the bitterness he felt at hearing a young white man address his father as “boy” inside the McCovey home. He fell in love with baseball listening to the evening radio shows in which Major League games would be recreated with dramatic play-by-play announcing and sound effects. He began playing baseball on a local playground, excelling as a pitcher and first baseman. The playground director was impressed with McCovey’s hitting power and brought him to the attention of Alex Pompez, a former team owner in the Negro Leagues who was then scouting for the New York Giants.
Having dropped out of Central High School (where fellow Mobile native Hank Aaron also attended) to help support his family, McCovey delivered newspapers, worked at a bakery, and briefly cleared tables at a whites-only restaurant. He eventually took a railroad trip (courtesy of his father) to visit an older brother in Los Angeles, became enamored with the city, and decided to stay. But Pompez, through McCovey’s mother, was able to reach him and convince him to try out for the New York Giants at their training camp in Melbourne, Florida, in 1955.
McCovey initially struggled at the camp, but the 17-year-old regrouped and performed well enough to earn a roster spot with a Giants minor league team. In 107 games, he hit .301 with 19 home runs and showed speed by stealing 15 bases. He later injured his knee during a slide into home plate, an omen of the knee problems that would plague him throughout his career. By 1958, he had risen to the Giants’ top minor league team, the Phoenix Giants in Arizona, and played well despite his sore knee. He had an excellent season in Phoenix in 1959, hitting .379 with 29 home runs in 95 games, and the Giants decided to move him up to the major leagues. They switched 1958 Rookie of the Year Orlando Cepeda from first to third base, allowing McCovey to make his Major League debut against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 30, 1959, at first base. It was a stellar debut, as McCovey hit two singles and two triples in his four at-bats.
In the 54 games he played in 1959, he hit .354 with 13 home runs and 38 runs batted in (RBIs). He won National League Player of the Month that August and was named National League Rookie of the Year. By 1962, the Giants were in the World Series. They came within one play of defeating the New York Yankees for the title and making McCovey a clutch hero. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, the Giants had runners on second and third with two outs, trailing 1-0. McCovey was at the plate and smashed a line drive towards center field. Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, however, was there for a dramatic catch, sealing the World Series for the Yankees.
The following season, McCovey hit a National League-best 44 home runs, tying him with Hank Aaron and earning his first All-Star selection. McCovey struggled in 1964, however, due to a foot injury and his father’s death in January. His marriage to Karen Billingsley that year produced a daughter but lasted only two years. McCovey erupted again in 1965, hitting 39 home runs, and settled into a pattern of consistent, powerful hitting. From 1965 until 1970, he never hit fewer than 31 home runs in a season. He was named an All-Star in 1966 and again from 1968-1971. He led the National League in home runs and RBIs twice and batting percentage three times. His best season was in 1969, in which he hit .320 with 45 home runs and 126 RBIs, and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player at the end of the season.
Willie McCovey, 2012 McCovey suffered a knee cartilage tear during a spring training game in 1971, and his hitting would never be the same. His power declined significantly, totaling 18 home runs that year. In 1972, McCovey only played in 81 games, managing 14 home runs and a .213 batting average. The Giants traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1975, who in turn dealt him to the Oakland Athletics the following year. He returned to the Giants in 1977, and hit a respectable .280 with 28 home runs. On June 30, 1978, he hit his 500th home run and early in the 1980 season announced that he would retire at the season’s end.
After retirement, McCovey remained in San Francisco and maintained a strong relationship with the Giants franchise. He occasionally served as a spring training instructor and worked in the Giants’ front office. McCovey Cove became the unofficial name of a water basin just outside the right field fence of the Giants’ stadium, a tribute to his hitting power. In 1986, McCovey was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a first-ballot selection.
Later in life, McCovey was plagued by knee and back injuries. He also dealt with scandal in 1996, when he and a former Giants teammate were charged with evading taxes on money earned from selling autographs and memorabilia. McCovey was fined and sentenced to probation but was pardoned by Pres. Barack Obama on January 17, 2017. McCovey married his second wife, Estela Bejar, at the San Francisco Giants stadium, on August 1, 2018. He died less than three months later on October 31, 2018, in Stanford, California, after a long struggle with various infections and long-term health issues. His 521 career home runs currently rank 20th all-time, tied with Frank Thomas and Ted Williams.