As Willie McCovey sat in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse at Candlestick Park last Friday, blissfully contemplating the start of his 20th major league season, he was approached by a curious figure attired entirely in red. A mechanical monkey clutching cymbals hung from the intruder's neck, and in his right hand the man held a kazoo. "I have a telegram for Willie McCovey," he announced, heralding his arrival with a kazoo chorus. "Are you that gentleman?" McCovey identified himself, and the stranger, from Grams-n-Gags Singing Telegram Service, began to warble, with simian accompaniment and more or less to the tune of Seventy-Six Trombones, "How d'ya do, Willie McCovey/ the Riviera Rats have asked me here/ to express best wishes to you...."
McCovey exploded with laughter. "That's from my fan club in San Diego," he told his teammates at the ditty's conclusion. "I used to live on Riviera Drive when I was playing down there. The Riviera Rats were my neighbors." Because the Padres were the Giants' Opening Day opponents, was it not odd that he should be celebrated in song by San Diegans? "Oh, no, they're just good friends. They root for me wherever I am," McCovey said. "I have fans down there. Nothing like here, though. This is something special. There's nothing really like it." True. Remarkably true.
Not many professional baseball players today are actually loved by their fans. Admired, certainly; encouraged, naturally; respected, possibly. But loved? Not on your life. People just do not go around loving guys with $3 million, 10-year contracts. And players these days are rarely considered integral to the life of the community they supposedly represent. How can they be when they constantly seem to be talking about playing out their options and "getting the hell out of this lousy ball park to someplace where they'll appreciate me"?
What truly sets McCovey apart from the run of modern athletes, then, is not so much that, at 40, he is the oldest of major league regulars but that in a time when cynicism is rampant in the clubhouses he embodies the ancient virtues of love and loyalty. He recalls simpler times, older sentiments—Enos Slaughter weeping at the news that he had been traded away from St. Louis, Lou Gehrig sobbing out his farewell to the Yankee faithful. During spring training last month McCovey was having dinner in a Phoenix restaurant with two fans, one nearly 70, the other in his teens. Both the man and the boy were wrestling with the anomaly of McCovey's wondrous popularity in a city, San Francisco, that has hardly clasped its baseball team to its communal bosom in recent years. "Maybe it's because you're such a nice guy, Willie," said the older fan. "I think people sense that."
April 17, 1978
McCovey is not one for hasty responses. Among his good qualities is a penchant for thinking before speaking. And his speech itself is distinctive; though there can be no questioning his impressive masculinity, he has the vocal mannerisms of an elderly Southern black woman. Speaking softly, employing homespun phrases, he is reminiscent of Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding. He considered the older man's compliment for a moment, set his napkin aside and said, quietly, "I would rather be remembered as a decent human being than as a guy who hit a lot of home runs. I love San Francisco and the people of the Bay Area. I think people there consider me a part of the city. San Francisco is identified with certain things—the bridges, the fog, the cable cars. Without bragging, I feel I've gotten to the place where people are thinking of me along those lines. I'd like to think that when people think of San Francisco they also think of Willie McCovey. It's where I want to be, where I belong. I hope the people there love me a little in return."
Do they ever! Traded to San Diego in 1974, McCovey returned home in triumph last season. When he was introduced with the rest of the Giants' starting lineup on Opening Day of 1977, he was cheered for a solid five minutes. When he stepped to the plate for the first time, there was another standing ovation. The applause continued all year long. It was an outpouring of affection unparalleled in the city's athletic history. And on Willie McCovey Day last Sept. 18, it achieved idolatrous dimensions. If McCovey harbored even the faintest doubt about his place in the life of the community, it was quickly dispelled by this love feast. Newspaper editorials extolled him, television news programs recapitulated his life story. Even academe joined the celebration with a paean composed for the San Francisco Examiner by San Francisco State University English professor Eric Solomon. "He has always been one of ours, as boy and man," the professor wrote of the player, "and he typifies San Francisco's ambiguous relationship to youth and age.... We all want to come to the edge of the Pacific, find success when young, and discover success again, gain another chance before it's too late.... In an era of hard, financially aggressive, contract-minded athletes, Willie McCovey seems free, kind, warm, the way we like to think of San Francisco itself, a bit laid-back, no New York or Chicago, cities always on the make.... Let New York have the brawling power of Babe Ruth, let Boston have the arrogant force of Ted Williams. Let us have the warm strength of Willie McCovey."
McCovey responded to this encomium with a splendid season. He hit 28 home runs, the most since he last played as a Giant. He drove in 86 runs and batted .280. He broke Henry Aaron's National League record for career grand-slam homers by hitting his 17th and 18th. He got his 2,000th hit. His 493rd home run put him in a 12th-place tie with Lou Gehrig on the alltime list. And because he had batted only .203 with San Diego and .208 with Oakland in 1976, he was named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year. It was the stuff that dreams are made of.
And now, at 40, he is prepared to do it again. "I can't rest on my laurels," he said after a strenuous workout at the Giants' spring training camp. "I have to approach this season the way I approached the last. People will be looking."
McCovey still hears it said that he is too old and infirm—he has arthritis in both knees and in his hips and is in more or less constant pain—to duplicate or even approach last season's feats. Such talk mildly irritates him—nothing severely irritates him—for, like many a middle-aged man of parts, he considers age merely a condition of the mind.
"A lot of it is up here," he says, tapping his hairpiece with long fingers. "An older player loses his interest before his body goes. I really think Willie Mays could've played longer. What he couldn't quite handle was coming down to the rest of the league from where he had been. He was so much above everyone else that it bothered him to know he wasn't still 10 times better than the rest of us. He couldn't handle that mentally, but he still had a super body when he quit. A guy who's been that good never really loses all of his ability. The only thing he does lose is his desire.
"The same thing that happened to Mays happened to Aaron, only Aaron let himself get heavy. This is where I feel I have the advantage. I still do the things that are necessary to stay in shape. My weight, about 220, has been the same for a long time. I haven't lost that desire yet. When I get to the point where I say, 'Aw, I don't need to do that,' then I'll know I'm in trouble. But this is all I ever wanted to do, all I'd ever prepared myself to do. People say I've made sacrifices to stay in shape, but I can't really call them sacrifices, because the so-called bad things in life don't interest me anyway. Staying out in bars all night is not my style. Oh, I guess I do a little of everything everybody else does. I just don't do as much. I was raised that way. When you first leave home, you start doing things you wouldn't do at home but, deep down, you know what's right."
McCovey learned his moral code growing up in Mobile, Ala., the seventh of 10 children, eight boys and two girls. His father, Frank, a railroad man, was a church deacon, and his mother, Ester, ruled the brood with Old Testament authority. "We went to church every Sunday," says McCovey, "and nobody ever smoked in front of my parents, even when we were all grown up. Of course, I never smoked anyway." Willie grew to be the largest of the children and, curiously, the only one remotely interested in sports. He was anchor man on his high school mile relay team, a center in basketball and an end on the football team. There was no baseball team at Central High, but McCovey and his friends played on the playgrounds of the Maysville district. Across town, two other Mobile youngsters, Aaron and Billy Williams, pursued similar athletic lives. The three would later account for 1,674 major league home runs, two Most Valuable Player awards and three batting titles.
McCovey's talents were first recognized by Jesse Thomas, a playground director in Mobile who acted as a bird dog for the Giants. With scores of other youngsters, including Orlando Cepeda and Jose Pagan, McCovey was invited to a Giant tryout camp at Melbourne, Fla. in the winter of 1955. "All the minor league managers in the system were there, and they'd watch us. We'd just choose up sides and go at it," McCovey recalls. Alex Pompez, a pioneer scout of Latin and black players for the Giants, was responsible for informing each player whether he would be signed to a contract or sent home. "You could tell if you'd made it or not by the way he looked," McCovey says. "I didn't think I'd impressed anyone that week, and when Pompez came into my room, sure enough, he had that look on his face. He watched me with sadness in his eyes and asked, 'Why you no hit?' I told him I guessed I was just too nervous. I was waiting for him to send me home when he said, 'For some reason, they're gonna sign you anyway.' "
And they have been glad ever since. After batting .305 in his first four minor league years, McCovey started the 1959 season in Phoenix and finished it in San Francisco. In 95 Pacific Coast League games, he hit .372 with 29 homers and 92 RBIs. The Giants summoned him, and on July 30, 1959 he made a major league debut that is still a topic of conversation among Bay Area baseball fans, most of whom say they were there that day in old Seals Stadium. Against future Hall of Fame Pitcher Robin Roberts, McCovey went 4 for 4—two singles and two triples, one of which reached the centerfield backdrop on a searing line. To San Francisco fans, still flushed with pride over the team they had had only a year, the spectacular arrival of the tall youngster was occasion for civic celebration. McCovey became an overnight celebrity. His uneventful life story was dutifully printed in all the newspapers. National magazines sought him out. And he was incessantly interviewed on television and radio, often to the regret of the interviewers, because McCovey at 21 was not much of a talker.
Despite the boffo beginning, McCovey's future with the team was scarcely assured. The Giants already had a first baseman in Cepeda, and he, too, was immensely popular. He had been the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1958, a title McCovey was to earn with a .354 batting average in 1959. Bill Rigney, then the Giants' manager, remains convinced that if Cepeda could have been persuaded to move to the outfield, San Francisco would have won the pennant that year. But Cepeda had territorial rights he was reluctant to surrender. He did take an occasional turn in the outfield and at third base, but his play away from first was less than inspired. "I could see his point," says McCovey. "Why should he make a fool out of himself playing out of position. The thing is, we both couldn't be on first." So it was McCovey who moved to the outfield. He made the transition without complaint, even though he had never played in the outfield before. "I knew I wouldn't be a Willie Mays," McCovey says, "and anybody who saw me play there could tell that right away. But I learned. I think I played it adequately."
The dilemma of who's on first was not resolved until Cepeda was traded to St. Louis in 1966. McCovey would enjoy some of his finest seasons thereafter (he won the league's Most Valuable Player award along with the home run and RBI titles in 1969). Although McCovey and Cepeda were good friends, Willie's relations with the enigmatic Mays were much more complex. The premier ballplayer of his generation, Mays was never as fully accepted by San Francisco fans as Cepeda and McCovey were. There was too much of New York about him, and while the younger players appeared publicly about town, Mays was virtually invisible away from the park. And yet he craved attention and was frequently peevish when others, obviously less deserving, received it in his stead.
When McCovey joined the Giants in San Francisco, Mays seemed to regard him not as a protègè but as a satellite. "He'd even take me along on dates with him. He'd drag me everywhere. I looked up to him. All of us did. He was such a great player. I found myself spending so much time with him that I was getting to be a lot like him. I was copying his ways. I knew that wasn't me. I couldn't go on like that, so I deliberately took myself away from him so I could create my own identity. Some people took that as feuding, but we've always been friends. I guess I was as close to him as anyone can be, but I don't think anyone can get real close to him. We're neighbors now. I live in Woodside and he lives in Atherton, but we hardly ever see each other."
McCovey was not the transcendent all-round player Mays was, but with his great reach he has always been an effective first baseman and he was—and still may be—one of the most feared power hitters the game has known. Gene Mauch, the Minnesota Twins' manager, has described McCovey as "the most awesome hitter I've ever seen." Indeed, standing at the plate, his left shoulder dipped, feet spread far apart, bat waving menacingly, he gives an impression of size that exceeds even the 6'4", 220-pound reality. His home runs are majestic, for sheer distance the equal of any stroked by the legendary tape-measure sluggers—Ruth, Foxx, Mantle, Howard, Stargell, Kingman and Luzinski. His reactions may have slowed after 20 years, but the swing is as vicious and perfect as ever. McCovey was an early student of Ted Williams, in the days when the Red Sox were training in Arizona, and his swing is a slightly uppercutted copy of the Splendid Splinter original.
He should hit his 500th home run this spring, and if he can hit 20 for the season he will pass Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott and Ernie Banks on the National League home run ladder and reach third place behind Aaron and Mays. He needs only 36 RBIs to pass Mathews, who has 1,453, and advance to seventh place behind Rogers Hornsby in that category. Plagued throughout his career by a daunting assortment of injuries that have involved nearly every section of his elongated corpus—neck, shoulder, arm, hip, leg—McCovey has contrived, nevertheless, to string together some imposing seasons. In the six from 1965 through 1970 he averaged 37.6 homers and 106 RBIs. He drove in 126 runs in both 1969 and '70, hitting 45 and 39 homers and batting .320 and .289, respectively. He tied Aaron for the home run championship in 1963, when he hit 44, and won the title outright in 1968 and '69 with 36 and 45. He also won the RBI championship those two seasons.
His decline in recent years is, in his opinion, more a result of injuries and the Padres' insistence that he was only a part-time player than to any marked erosion of his skills. His performance last year would seem to bear him out. It dismays McCovey that after so many brilliant seasons he should now be famous outside the Bay Area only for his age, but he concedes that even that is an improvement over his former reputation as the man who ended the 1962 World Series so dramatically with a line drive to the Yankees' Bobby Richardson while the potential Series-winning runs died on second and third. His assured election to the Hall of Fame will not rest, it is reasonable to say, on either age or an out.
It is often said of McCovey by those who have known him through the years that he has never changed. He is as unaffected by stardom as anyone of his stature can be. He denies vigorously that he has ever been a superstar, ever been "on top of the heap." He loves jazz but, instead of listening to it after a game, he now prefers, at his relatively advanced age, to crawl into the whirlpool bath he has had installed in his new home. He was married in 1964, but only briefly, and he rarely sees his former wife and daughter. He seldom socializes with baseball folk, preferring the company of people with more varied interests. The once tongue-tied youngster is now an able and frequent speaker on the banquet circuit, an indefatigable promoter of his ball club.
Few love affairs have been as satisfactorily consummated as the one between McCovey and his fans on his "Day" last September. Smiling back tears before the microphone, McCovey seemed to be trying to thank everyone in the stands individually—Master of Ceremonies Lon Simmons feared he might actually succeed—but in the end it was, fittingly, his bat that did the talking. Struggling all afternoon to reward his followers with a home run, he was hit-less when he came to bat in the ninth inning with two outs, the score tied and the winning run on third. He hit the first pitch thrown by Cincinnati's Pedro Borbon on a line to left center for a clean single that won the game for the Giants 3-2.
"I think Willie showed everyone today just what kind of an individual he is," said Manager Joe Altobelli. It was hardly necessary, because everyone there already knew what kind of an individual McCovey is. They just need reminding from time to time.