They Called Him Stretch
My favorite baseball player ever died this month. Perhaps that is a rite of middle aged American male passage. Willie McCovey was a gigantic left-handed slugger who hit his first home run when Eisenhower was President and George Christopher was mayor of San Francisco, the city where McCovey played most of his career. He hit his last home run for the Giants when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Dianne Feinstein was our mayor. During his very long career, McCovey was often overshadowed by his more famous teammate with whom he shared a home state, Alabama, and the same first name. McCovey was not as good as Willie Mays, but almost nobody ever was. Nonetheless McCovey a formidable power hitter. When he retired in 1980 McCovey’s 521 career home runs tied him with Ted Williams for second most ever by a left handed hitter. At that time, the only player with more round trippers from the left side of the plate was Babe Ruth.
McCovey’s awesome power statistics only captured part of his appeal to Giants fans. Unlike the great Willie Mays, McCovey had never played for the New York version of the Giants, so was more quickly embraced by San Francisco. Additionally, after spending three years, from 1974-6 with the San Diego Padres and Oakland A’s, he came back to the Giants for the final four years of his career, making it possible for another generation of Giants fans, including me and many of my friends, to see him in the orange and black. McCovey never said much to the media, but seemed to exude a warmth and friendliness. He was broadly respected by his teammates and adored by the fans. When George Moscone, our mayor during those 1977 and 1978 seasons, said that McCovey was as much a local institution as the Golden Gate Bridge, we knew what he meant.
I have many memories seeing McCovey at Candlestick Park including seeing him hit many home long home runs into the right field stands, but one memory sticks out above all others. I was raised in San Francisco in the 1970s by a single mother who worked six days a week to provide for me and my late brother. Sometime around 1977, when I was 9 and my brother was 12, my mother discovered that if she gave each of us $8 we would very happily jump on the Ballpark Express and go to the Giants game and be out of the house for the whole day. We were both huge baseball fans, so we couldn’t get enough of those days at the ‘Stick. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we would get to 20 or more games a year watching some Giants teams that, with the exception of 1978, were not very good.
At one point early in the 1980 season, my mother decided she would go to a game with us because the Giants had become such an important part of our lives. My mother did not have much interest in baseball, but had grown up in New York in the 1950s rooting for Casey Stengel’s Yankees. By 1980 she had not been to a ballgame probably in over 20 years. My mother asked me to select a game and get tickets. I picked a Sunday day game because I knew my mother would not want to suffer through one of those famously freezing Candlestick Park night games. I also picked that day, June 29th, because the Giants would be playing their archrivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
My brother did not go with us, so this was one of the rare days of childhood where I was alone with my mother. We weren’t exactly alone as we settled into our upper deck reserved seats behind home plate, as there were probably another 40,000 or so people in the park with us. My mother spent most of the game reading the paper, enjoying the warm sun and paying cursory attention to the game on the field. For her, it was a day off in the sun. For her baseball obsessed younger son, the experience was very different. Future Dodger Hall of Famer Don Sutton and young Giants lefty Bob Knepper both pitched well. Going into the 9th inning of the tautly played game the score was knotted at three. Knepper retired the side in the 9th, so the Giants had one last shot in regulation play against right-handed Dodger reliever Bobby Castillo. Giants second baseman Rennie Stennett, an expensive free agent who proved to be a big flop with the team, led off with a single, but then Rich Murray, the younger brother of the great Eddie Murray, and Johnnie LeMaster, a player Giants fans loved to boo, got out bringing up the pitcher’s spot. With the Dodgers pitcher, BobbyCastillo, a right hander, Giants manager Dave Bristol had one move to make. Slowly the 42 year old McCovey, ancient in baseball years, made his way out of the dugout, his familiar frame and number 44 visible to all of Candlestick Park.
By this time the entire ballpark, except my mother, were on our feet pleading for the great McCovey to come through one last time. The Giants were not good that year whereas the Dodgers were a very strong team, but a big hit to beat the Dodgers always warms the hearts of Giants fans. Sure enough with the crowd still on its feet, McCovey lined a shot to right field and Stennett, running on contact, scored all the way from first. McCovey had a double, and the Giants a nice win. At that point my mother stood up, folded up the newspaper and said to me “I can see why you and your brother enjoy this so much.”
A few days later, on July 6th, McCovey played his last big league game. I called my mother, who still lives in San Francisco and now roots for the Giants, the day he died. She told me that she would save the local papers with the news for my next visit and then added, “they called him Stretch.”
Photo: cc/Nicki Duggan Pogue