McCovey caps 1969 season with MVP Award

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

Willie McCovey got a late start to the 1969 season. But he quickly made up for lost time with a campaign for the ages.

On Nov. 20 of that year, the San Francisco Giants first baseman was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player following a campaign where he led the league in home runs (45), RBI (126), on-base percentage (.453) and slugging percentage (.656). McCovey also topped all big league players with 45 intentional walks, more than double the total of American League leaders Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew (20 apiece).

Widely acclaimed as the most dangerous slugger of the time, McCovey did not sign his 1969 contract until March 13.

But following a short holdout, McCovey agreed to a two-year deal – joining Willie Mays as the only Giants players to that point to sign a multi-year contract.

In 1968, McCovey led the NL with 36 home runs and 105 RBI in a season that came to be known as The Year of the Pitcher.

“I don’t know just how I happened to have this great year (in 1969),” McCovey told the San Francisco Examiner. “I signed late, reported late and thought everybody else would have a jump on me. Instead, I got off to the greatest start of my career and had my best April ever.”

McCovey hit .315 in the first month of the 1969 season, clubbing eight home runs and recording 22 RBI.

He was hitting .350 as late as June 22 before a variety of injuries began to take their toll.

“Both my wrists were hurting me in the last month, and (during) the end of this past season I know I wasn’t swinging good,” said McCovey, who had only one home run in his last 19 games of 1969. “But (in 1970), I’m capable of having another year as good. If anything other than winning MVP could make me happier, it would have been winning the pennant. That comes first.”

McCovey outpointed the Mets’ Tom Seaver – who pitched New York to the NL pennant and the World Series title in 1969 – 265 to 243 in the MVP balloting. Both McCovey and Seaver received 11 first-place votes, but McCovey’s nine second-place votes – to Seaver’s four – proved the difference.

In 1970, McCovey kept bashing NL pitching to the tune of 39 home runs, 126 RBI and a big league-best 137 walks, 40 of which were intentional. But McCovey’s reputation as a hitter likely peaked during his MVP season.

Reds manager Dave Bristol, according to the Examiner, deployed four outfielders during a McCovey at-bat in 1969. And Cubs manager Leo Durocher intentionally walked McCovey twice in the first inning of games before later issuing McCovey a free pass in a scoreless game in the bottom of the eighth – with the bases empty and future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins on the mound.

The day after that, Durocher again ordered McCovey walked – this time in the bottom of the third inning with no one on base in a scoreless game.

“Willie McCovey,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, “is the most dangerous hitter in baseball with a game at stake. I say that you could destroy the Giants if you walked him every time at bat.”

McCovey retired during the 1980 season, finishing his career with 521 home runs, 1,555 RBI and 260 intentional walks.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986, and passed away on Oct. 31, 2018.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series