Hall of Famer Willie McCovey remembered for awesome power, hitting skill

Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series
Written by: Craig Muder

His power was so extraordinary that Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson thought he could shatter every home run record there ever was.

At the end of his career, he was one of only 13 men to total at least 500 homers. And he did it all during one of the lowest run-scoring eras since the introduction of the lively ball.

Willie “Stretch” McCovey died Wednesday, Oct. 31, at the age of 80. He leaves behind a legion of fans – many of whom remember the gentle giant as one of the men who helped start San Francisco’s love affair with big league baseball.

“A tremendous hitter known for his prodigious home run power, Willie McCovey was also one of baseball’s true gentlemen,” said Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board Jane Forbes Clark. “With great class, he proudly represented the Hall of Fame at numerous Induction Weekends, and in his beloved San Francisco. The entire Hall of Fame family mourns his passing, as we remember his wonderful impact on our National Pastime. Willie’s legacy will be forever celebrated in Cooperstown.”

Born Jan. 10, 1938, in Mobile, Ala., McCovey signed with the New York Giants as a free agent in 1955, then followed the franchise to California. He made his big league debut on July 30, 1959, and tore up the National League for two months – winning Rookie of the Year honors with a .354 average, 13 homers and 38 RBIs in just 52 games.

McCovey settled into his role over the next three years, helping the Giants win the NL pennant in 1962 by hitting 20 home runs in just 91 games.

The next year, McCovey won the first of three NL home run titles by belting 44 long balls – a season that also earned him his first of six All-Star Game selections.

By the second half of the 1960s, McCovey had established himself as the NL’s top power threat – leading the loop in home runs and RBIs in both 1968 and 1969. The latter year, McCovey had his best season with 45 home runs, 126 RBIs and a .320 average – earning NL Most Valuable Player honors.

McCovey also drew 45 intentional walks in 1969, and followed that up with 40 more in 1970 – pacing the league both times.

“Here’s a guy who is the most feared in baseball, but everyone pitches around him,” said Anderson, who at the time was managing the NL All-Stars in 1971. “If you let him bat 600 times and pitched to him instead of around him, he’d hit 80 home runs.”

McCovey never did get 600 at-bats in a season, but drew 1,345 walks, drove in 1,555 runs and scored 1,229 runs.

In 1978, McCovey hit his 500th career home run, becoming just the 13th player to reach the milestone. He finished his 22-year big league career after the 1980 season with 521 home runs.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986 in his first year of eligibility.

“Baseball has lost a giant, in every sense of the word, with Willie McCovey’s passing,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “There wasn’t a batter more feared by opposing pitchers than Willie Mac, who hit 521 mammoth home runs during a dominating 22-year career that included 19 seasons in a Giants uniform.

“One of five Hall of Fame players from Mobile, Ala., Willie was a regular in Cooperstown for many years after his 1986 election and, more recently, a fixture at AT&T Park, where he was most happy watching his favorite team play. The Hall of Fame mourns the passing of a legend who had a heart of gold.”

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

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Part of the BASEBALL HISTORY series