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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,395

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This is the grave of Willie McCovey.

Born in 1938 in Mobile, Alabama, McCovey grew up as part of the Black working class trying to survive in the era of Jim Crow. His father worked on the railroad, he had a ton of brothers and sisters, and he dropped out of school when he was 12 to help support the family.

But the kid was, uh, pretty good at the ol’baseball. He could pound that ball. In 1955, the San Francisco Giants invited him to try out and signed him. They assigned him to Sandersville of the Georgia State League, which was Class D ball, right at the end of leagues like that (the GSL folded after the 56 season). Now, it is worth taking a second and remembering that baseball might have desegregated by this time, but Georgia sure as hell hadn’t. I’ve read plenty of stories about how Black players were treated by these small town peckerwood crowds and it wasn’t much better at home than it was on road. I mean, I’ve never seen anything from McCovey talking about this, but I’ve read stuff by Bob Gibson and other great Black players talking about this and it just sounds horrifying. McCovey was from Alabama, so I am sure none of this exactly surprised him, but the thing about being in Mobile is that at least you could spend most of your time around your family and it was a large town. Sandersville? Well, at least Washington County was a majority Black county though I doubt the ballpark crowd reflected that. In any case, McCovey dominated that season, hitting for a high average, with power and leading the GSL in runs. He was not sticking around Sandersville for long. But when he was in AA, he refused to play in Shreveport when they were on the road in that awful town because of the segregation there.

McCovey got called up to the majors in 1959. This was a midseason call up and he still won Rookie of the Year since in 52 games, he hit .354/429/656. In fact, that .656 slugging would end up being tied for a career high! Joining a team that already had Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda was hardly fair for opposing pitching. Yeah, I’d say that was a good rookie campaign. His second year was also typical (see Julio Rodriguez this year) when pitchers made adjustments and he hadn’t quite figured out how to do that. So the numbers weren’t very good. But then in years three and four, he got better and better. It was in 1963 when he began living up to that rookie year potential. He made his first All Star Game and led the league in homers with 44. He had a very crappy 1964. But between 1965 and 1971, McCovey was one of the great players in the league. He led the league in slugging between 1968 and 1970. In 1969, he had his greatest year (8 WAR using the Baseball Reference version of the stat), hitting .320/453/656 with a league leading 45 homers and 126 RBIs. Scored 101 runs that year too. 1970 was almost as good, with the average slightly down, but also leading the league in walks with 137.

Now, in 1972 Stretch started to slip but he was not one to retire by choice. He was 34 years old at this time. He played until he was 42. Some of these years, he hit well enough to be a positive player, others not. He could still send the ball over the fence, so he had value for sure. But at times, he probably should have been a pinch hitter more than an everyday player. Injuries were a part of this, but so was Father Time. After the 1973 season, the Giants traded McCovey to the Padres. He was unhappy in San Diego because he wasn’t always the regular first baseman, even though his knees were so shot that he could barely play defense. During the 1976 season, the As traded for him toward the end of the season. But in 1977, the Giants brought him back. An appropriate way to end his career. He actually had a good year in 77, playing full time, hitting .280/367/500 with 28 home runs. He slowly diminished after that and finally gave it up after the 1980 season when in a mostly pinch hitting role, he only managed one home run in 116 at bats. He ended his career with a remarkable 521 home runs.

As Mr. Giant, the team kept McCovey on in the organization after his retirement, He could just be Willie McCovey, Beloved Giant. Good job. In 1986, McCovey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, in 1996, he and Duke Snider got convicted for a scam to not report their income from baseball card shows. They both got probation, but it looked bad. President Obama gave him a pardon in 2017. That was shortly before McCovey’s death after years of bad health. That happened in 2018. He was 80 years old.

Willie McCovey is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other first basemen, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, McCovey ranks 14th all time, which seems about right to me. Incidentally, Joey Votto is 12th and he’d better make the Hall, but I don’t know if he will since he played on years of bad Reds team far away from the spotlight and walked a lot in all of them. In any case, Johnny Mize, who is ranked 9th (10-13 are Thome, Cabrera, Votto, and Palmeiro), is in Demorest, Georgia and George Sisler, ranked 19th (15-18 are Helton, Murray, Goldschmidt, and McGwire) is in Frontenac, Missouri. Interesting how dominant relatively recent first basemen have been historically. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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