Willie McCovey has died at age 80. He was the younger slugging sidekick to Willie Mays on the 1960s San Francisco Giants, a great team that had the bad luck to only make it to one World Series. Mays, McCovey, and Marichal were the three Ms. Heck, the 1965 Giants even had a Japanese M, Masanori Murakami.
You can kind of see why African Americans started making up unusual first names: with only a moderate number of surnames and first names, blacks used to wind up with a lot of names that sounded alike, such as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. (Their rival Los Angeles Dodgers had two Willies as well, Davis and Crawford. “Willie” remained a stereotypical name for black ballplayers as late as the 1989 movie “Major League,” in which Wesley Snipes plays Willie Mays Hayes.)
Although Mays was more famous, most of my childhood memories of watching LA Dodger – SF Giant games from Candlestick Park on television involve Dodger pitchers letting a couple of batters (such as Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays) get on base, followed by Vin Scully saying, “And here comes McCovey,” as the camera showed black kids from the Hunter’s Point housing project pouring into the empty space behind the chainlink fence in right field. Then the towering McCovey would pull a mighty blast over the wall and the youths would scramble to come up with the ball.
Looking up his stats, I see the Dodgers actually had more success pitching to him than any other team in the league had (while McCovey owned Don Drysdale, he struggled against Don Sutton and Claude Osteen, and couldn’t touch Sandy Koufax). But he still was a nightmare to Dodger fans, especially in Candlestick.
The Giants’ superb current ballpark was built on the San Francisco Bay in such a way that prodigious blasts by lefthanded pull hitters sometimes land in the part of the Pacific Ocean dubbed McCovey’s Cove.
The Giants had a famous problem of too much talent at one position. Orlando Cepeda was Rookie of the Year in 1958 and Willie McCovey in 1959. Both were natural first basemen (i.e., bad at any other position, even left field). Finally, in 1966, the Giants traded Cepeda to the Cardinals, where he was MVP in 1967. However, McCovey was MVP for the Giants in 1969. Both made the Hall of Fame despite post-career legal problems.