Willie McCovey: He hit 521 that were high enough


Willie McCovey, who died last week at age 80, once said he'd "like to be remembered as the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson's head in the seventh game." If he had, the Yankees' Ralph Houk would be remembered as the manager who didn't walk McCovey with a base open instead of the only manager to win World Series in his first two seasons (the Senators' Bucky Harris came close, losing a seventh game in 1925 after winning one in 1924, and Boston's Alex Cora could match him next season). Instead McCovey hit the ball hard, but Richardson didn't have to go far to his left to catch it and the Yankees won the 1962 Series in seven games. McCovey never returned to the World Series, and did to the postseason only in 1971, when he homered twice in four games off that year's Series hero, Pittsburgh's Steve Blass. That did little to diminish how McCovey is remembered -- as one of the greatest power hitters of a generation full of them. McCovey hit 521 homers, which tied him for eighth all-time with Ted Williams when he retired. Like Williams, who missed all or most of five seasons to military service, it's fair to ask how many home runs McCovey would have hit but for his home park (Candlestick), which discouraged homers, and arthritic knees. Eighty in one season was opposing manager Sparky Anderson's guess -- “If you pitch to him, he’ll ruin baseball. He’d hit 80 home runs.” -- but given that Sparky once said Mike Laga, "would make you forget every power hitter who ever lived,” including McCovey presumably, it's fair to say Sparky was prone to exaggeration. (For the record, Laga hit 505 fewer homers than McCovey, whom he was was supposed to make us forget.) But Sparky also had a point -- opponents who pitched to McCovey were in peril. Mets pitcher Roger Craig said his manager, Casey Stengel, came out to the mound with McCovey up and asked: "Where do you want to pitch him? Upper deck or lower deck?" Dodgers manager Walter Alston walked him intentionally in the 10th inning of a September 1969 game (the Dodgers and Giants were in a five-team NL West race the Braves won) -- with two outs and the bases empty. "I didn't want to get beat with one swing," Alston said, according to sports writer Joe Posnanski's blog, joeposnanski.com. That Alston's Dodgers got beat by the intentional walk, two more walks and an error doesn't mean Alston was wrong. McCovey was walked 45 times intentionally in his MVP season of 1969 -- and this was a year before Anderson became a major league manager -- the most in a season of any player not named Barry Bonds. (The son of McCovey's teammate was walked intentionally 120 times in 2004.) McCovey ranks fourth all-time in intentional walks with 260, behind Bonds (688), Albert Pujols (310) and Hank Aaron (293). Anderson, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story, walked McCovey 37 times intentionally in his career. McCovey, according to the Chronicle, “I’d be sitting in our dugout, and (Anderson would) walk by putting four fingers up, telling me he was going to walk me. Sparky, he didn’t want to pitch to me.” Who did? McCovey went 4-for-4, with two triples, in his very first game in 1959 against Robin Roberts, a Hall of Famer. Asked after the game, according to his obit at sfchronicle.com, if there was any difference between Roberts and minor-league pitchers, McCovey said: "It didn't seem so today." He hit 12 homers and had a career 1.117 OPS in 151 plate appearances vs. Don Drysdale, another Hall of Famer. "Against Drysdale," wrote Robert Creamer in 1963 in Sports Illustrated, "McCovey is a left-handed hitting Paul Bunyan, a legend in a baseball suit." McCovey hit 30 homers or more for six straight seasons from 1965-70, and for the last three seasons he was the best power hitter in the game. There might be no greater evidence of 1968's Year of the Pitcher than McCovey's MLB-leading .923 OPS. The next year, with the mound lowered, the strike zone trimmed and four more teams added, McCovey's OPS was 185 points higher, and his 1.108 led runner-up Reggie Jackson by 90 points. McCovey led MLB in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ for all three seasons, and his 209 OPS+ is the 30th-best for a single season (three players -- Bonds, Babe Ruth and Williams, have 17 of the seasons better, and four others are from the 19th century). Alston: "When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority, it seems like an act of God. You can't cry about it." Watching McCovey take batting practice, as Jim Bouton described in Ball Four, was akin to a fighter getting psyched out befrore the opening bell. From, Ball Four: “A group of terrorized pitchers stood around the batting cage watching Willie McCovey belt some tremendous line drives over the right-field fence. Every time a ball bounced into the seats we’d make little whimpering animal sounds. ‘Hey, Willie,’ I said. ‘Can you do that whenever you want to?’ He didn’t crack a smile. ‘Just about,’ he said, and he hit another one. More animal sounds.” The Giants, whom McCovey joined in 1959, were full of talent over the next decade but never sure how to deploy it or value it in trade. Willie Mays, McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry were Hall of Famers. Matty Alou. Felipe Alou. Jim Ray Hart. Bobby Bonds. McCovey won the Rookie of the Year in 1959 in 52 games (.354/429/656), slumped in 1960 and then struggled to get plate appearances. Manager Bill Rigney tried Cepeda at third in '59, and then Alvin Dark tried both Cepeda and McCovey in the outfield, defense be damned (on the Giants' 1961 team page at baseball-reference.com, Cepeda is listed as a utility player because he played 82 games at first, 63 in left field and 18 in right field. Cepeda led the NL with 46 homers and 142 RBIs). McCovey slugged .590 in the pennant-winning season of 1962, but got only 262 PAs and just 12 vs. lefties. In the Series, he sat all three games vs. Whitey Ford as Harvey Kuenn went 1-for-12. McCovey led the NL in homers in 1963 for the first of three times with 44 -- his uniform number -- slumped to .220 in 1964 and then began the first of six seasons in which he would 226 homers, 37.8 a season, in 1965. After failing to solve the lineup riddle for almost three-quarters of a decade, the Giants traded Cepeda to St. Louis in early 1966 with seemingly disastrous results. The Giants got back Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games for the Cardinals' 1964 World Series winners, but led the NL with 18 losses for the '68 Giants. To be fair Sadecki pitched better than the results -- he had a 2,78 ERA in '67 and a 2.91 ERA, .636 OPS against and eight shutout losses in '68. But the Giants traded him to the Mets after the '69 season after Cepeda won an MVP and the Cardinals the World Series in 1967.

Willie McCovey, who died last week at age 80, once said he’d “like to be remembered as the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.” If he had, the Yankees’ Ralph Houk would be remembered as the manager who didn’t walk McCovey with a base open instead of the only manager to win World Series in his first two seasons (the Senators’ Bucky Harris came close, losing a seventh game in 1925 after winning one in 1924, and Boston’s Alex Cora could match him next season). Instead McCovey hit the ball hard, but Richardson didn’t have to go far to his left to catch it and the Yankees won the 1962 Series in seven games. Cartoonist and Charles Schulz lamented that McCovey wouldn’t be remembered as wished: “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?” Charlie Brown asks in anguish in a December 1962 Peanuts strip, and, “Or why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball even TWO feet higher?” Charlie Brown asks, still anguished, five weeks later. McCovey never returned to the World Series, and did to the postseason only in 1971, when he homered twice in four NLCS games off that year’s Series hero, Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass. That did little to diminish how McCovey is remembered — as one of the greatest power hitters of a generation full of them. McCovey hit 521 homers, which tied him for eighth all-time with Ted Williams when he retired. Like Williams, opposing teams repositioned defenders against McCovey into what is today’s common shift. “We’ll happily give him four singles any time he wants them,” Padres manager Preston Gomez said, according to sports writer Joe Posnanski’s blog, joeposnanski.com. And like Williams, who missed all or most of five seasons to military service, it’s fair to ask how many home runs McCovey would have hit but for his home park (Candlestick), which discouraged homers, and arthritic knees. Eighty in one season was opposing manager Sparky Anderson’s guess — “If you pitch to him, he’ll ruin baseball. He’d hit 80 home runs.” — but given that Sparky once said Mike Laga, “would make you forget every power hitter who ever lived,” including McCovey presumably, it’s fair to say Sparky was prone to exaggeration. (For the record, Laga hit 505 fewer homers than McCovey, whom he was was supposed to make us forget.) But Sparky also had a point — opponents who pitched to McCovey were in peril. Mets pitcher Roger Craig said his manager, Casey Stengel, came out to the mound with McCovey up and asked: “Where do you want to pitch him? Upper deck or lower deck?” Dodgers manager Walter Alston walked McCovey intentionally in the 10th inning of a September 1969 game (the Dodgers and Giants were in a five-team NL West race the Braves won) — with two outs and the bases empty. “I didn’t want to get beat with one swing,” Alston said, according to joeposnanski.com. That Alston’s Dodgers got beat by the intentional walk, two more walks and an error doesn’t mean Alston was wrong. McCovey was walked 45 times intentionally in his MVP season of 1969 — and this was a year before Anderson became a major league manager — the most in a season of any player not named Barry Bonds. (The son of McCovey’s teammate was walked intentionally 120 times in 2004.) McCovey ranks fourth all-time in intentional walks with 260, behind Bonds (688), Albert Pujols (310) and Hank Aaron (293). Anderson, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story, walked McCovey 37 times intentionally in his career. McCovey, according to the Chronicle, “I’d be sitting in our dugout, and (Anderson would) walk by putting four fingers up, telling me he was going to walk me. Sparky, he didn’t want to pitch to me.” Who did? McCovey went 4-for-4, with two triples, in his very first game in 1959 against Robin Roberts, a Hall of Famer. Asked after the game, according to his obit at sfchronicle.com, if there was any difference between Roberts and minor-league pitchers, McCovey said: “It didn’t seem so today.” He hit 12 homers and had a career 1.117 OPS in 151 plate appearances vs. Don Drysdale, another Hall of Famer. “Against Drysdale,” wrote Robert Creamer in 1963 in Sports Illustrated, “McCovey is a left-handed hitting Paul Bunyan, a legend in a baseball suit.” McCovey hit 30 homers or more for six straight seasons from 1965-70, and for the last three seasons he was the best power hitter in the game. There might be no greater evidence of 1968’s Year of the Pitcher than McCovey’s MLB-leading .923 OPS. The next year, with the mound lowered, the strike zone trimmed and four more teams added, McCovey’s OPS was 185 points higher, and his 1.108 led runner-up Reggie Jackson by 90 points. McCovey led MLB in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ for all three seasons, and his 1969 209 OPS+ is the 30th-best for a single season (three players — Bonds, Babe Ruth and Williams, have 17 of the seasons better, and four others are from the 19th century). Alston: “When he belts a home run, he does it with such authority, it seems like an act of God. You can’t cry about it.” Watching McCovey take batting practice, as Jim Bouton described in Ball Four, was akin to a fighter getting psyched out befrore the opening bell. From Ball Four: “A group of terrorized pitchers stood around the batting cage watching Willie McCovey belt some tremendous line drives over the right-field fence. Every time a ball bounced into the seats we’d make little whimpering animal sounds. ‘Hey, Willie,’ I said. ‘Can you do that whenever you want to?’ He didn’t crack a smile. ‘Just about,’ he said, and he hit another one. More animal sounds.” The Giants, whom McCovey joined in 1959, were full of talent over the next decade but never sure how to deploy it or value it. Willie Mays, McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry were Hall of Famers. Matty Alou, Felipe Alou, Jim Ray Hart, Bobby Bonds were all skilled and above-average, or better, regulars. So much talent, but so few championships. McCovey won the Rookie of the Year in 1959 in 52 games (.354/429/656), slumped and was demoted briefly in 1960 and then struggled over the next few years to get plate appearances. Manager Bill Rigney tried Cepeda at third in ’59, and then Alvin Dark tried both Cepeda and McCovey, natural first basemen, in the outfield, defense be damned (on the Giants’ 1961 team page at baseball-reference.com, Cepeda is listed as a utility player because he played 82 games at first, 63 in left field and 18 in right field. Cepeda led the NL with 46 homers and 142 RBIs). McCovey slugged .590 in the pennant-winning season of 1962, but got only 262 PAs and just 12 vs. lefties. In the Series, he sat all three games vs. Whitey Ford as Harvey Kuenn went 1-for-12 (Kuenn batted .304 in 1962 and .303 for his career but homered only 87 times in 15 seasons. Eighty-seven homers were two good seasons for McCovey). McCovey led the NL in homers in 1963 for the first of three times with 44 — his uniform number — slumped to .220 in 1964 and then began the first of six seasons in which he would hit 226 homers, 37.8 a season, in 1965. After failing to solve the lineup riddle for almost three-quarters of a decade, the Giants traded Cepeda to St. Louis in early 1966 with seemingly disastrous results. The Giants got back Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games for the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series winners, but lost an NL-high 18 in 1968 for the second-place Giants. To be fair, Sadecki pitched better than the results — he had a 2.78 ERA in ’67 and a 2.91 ERA, .636 OPS against and eight shutout losses in ’68. But Cepeda won an MVP and the Cardinals the World Series in 1967, and the Giants dealt Sadecki to the Mets after the ’69 season, probably glad to be rid of the memory. Nearly 50 years later, it still lingers. Four seasons later, McCovey, making $125,000 and coming off a 29-homer, 105-walk, .966 OPS season in 495 plate appearances, was himself traded. He was 35, and the Giants, having traded 41-year-old Willie Mays early in the 1972 season, moved him to San Diego under the guise of saving salary. It was tanking 1970s style — the Giants went from 88 wins in 1973 to 72 in 1974. though the Padres won the same 60 in both seasons even with McCovey hitting 22 homers, walking 96 times and putting up a .922 OPS in a pitching-friendly stadium. The Giants had returned Mays to New York, where he first starred, and three years after trading him, they brought back McCovey through the new-fangled free agency. Like the Mets bringing back Mays, the Giants’ motivation may have been sentimentality (and ticket sales). But at age 39, McCovey hit .280 with 28 homers, a .500 slugging percentage and .867 OPS. It may not have been Williams hitting .388 at age 38, but on two bad knees, it was an impressive senior accomplishment. McCovey played parts of three more seasons, hit 28 more homers, including his 500th, and then retired to a standing ovation from Dodger Stadium fans, whom he had tormented the most. McCovey was one of the stars who made the uniform number 44 the most famous of the era. Between Aaron, McCovey and Reggie Jackson, there were 1,839 home runs hit by three sluggers wearing No. 44 from 1954-87, even today the second- (Aaron’s 755), 14th- (Jackson’s 563) and tied for 20th-most (McCovey’s 521) all-time. Jerry West, No. 44, was such an NBA star he became the model for the NBA logo; Jim Brown, Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis and Floyd Little immortalized the number as Syracuse running backs, and Little and Leroy Kelly, wearing 44, rushed to 1,000 yards in the NFL. Thirty-two gave it competition — Sandy Koufax, Brown with the Browns, O.J. Simpson, Magic Johnson — though O.J. didn’t add much glamour to it with his post-NFL career. McCovey’s career numbers: .270 average, 521 homers, 1,555 RBIs, 353 doubles, 2,211 hits, 1,229 runs, 1,345 walks, 1,550 strikeouts, .374 on-base percentage, .515 slugging percentage, .889 OPS, 147 OPS+, 58 home runs off Hall of Famers (Drysdale 12; Don Sutton 8; Phil Niekro 8; Bob Gibson 7; Jim Bunning 6; Tom Seaver 6; Ferguson Jennkins 4; Steve Carlton 3; Koufax 1; Warren Spahn 1; Nolan Ryan 1; Rollie Fingers 1), NL-best 18 grand slams, 64.5 WAR, 10 times earning MVP votes (including 22nd as a rookie at age 21, and 20th in 1977 at age 39), 81.4% of the vote in his first time for eligibility to the Hall of Fame.

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