Willie McCovey, RIP: Sweet Swing, Sweet Man

After Willie McCovey ended the 1962 World Series with a howitzer shot of a line drive that was caught almost inexplicably by Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, he ducked into a San Francisco nightclub where jazz titan Duke Ellington appeared. (McCovey had a lifelong passion for jazz.) Ellington spotted McCovey and instructed his singer to change a line in one of his most famous songs: "He hit it good, and that ain't bad."

McCovey retired as the National League's left-handed home run king with 521 such blasts. But he never retired from San Francisco, where he played most of his Hall of Fame career and made his home ever after. And in a way McCovey, who died last Wednesday at 80, wasn't as smart as some of his fellow major leaguers: he had to think before he spoke.

It was spoken so often that such big-swinging contemporaries as Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard belied their nicknames — Killebrew was the Killer, Howard was Capital Punishment, and they were so anomalous for such gentle giants — that you forgot what a gentle giant McCovey was. Sports Illustrated once described him as a man of impressive masculinity with the voice and manner of an elderly Southern black woman, and the magazine meant it the way McCovey took it, high praise.

In spring training 1978, McCovey actually sat down to dinner with two fans, one a 70-year-old and one a teenager; perhaps they were grandfather and grandson. At one point, pondering McCovey's continuing popularity in a San Francisco that didn't always embrace the Giants the way they did certain individual players, the older man said, "Maybe it's because you're such a nice guy, Willie. I think people sense that."

The tall first baseman nicknamed Stretch for his stride taking sometimes offline throws to the base pondered the remark a moment or two. Then, SI writer Ron Fimrite said, McCovey answered.

"I would rather be remembered as a decent human being than as a guy who hit a lot of home runs. I love San Francisco and the people of the Bay Area. I think people there consider me part of the city. San Francisco is identified with certain things — the bridges, the fog, the cable cars. Without bragging, I feel I've gotten to the place where people are thinking of me along those lines. I'd like to think that when people think of San Francisco, they also think of Willie McCovey. It's where I want to be, where I belong. I hope the people there love me a little in return."

He didn't have to hope. He had the evidence. Two years after the struggling Giants dealt likewise struggling Willie Mays to the Mets, to enable that legend to finish his career in the city where he first became a baseball immortal, they traded McCovey to the Padres, where San Diego took to him almost as warmly. (Fimrite noted McCovey once receiving a singing telegram in spring training with the Giants on his 40th birthday — from a San Diego fan club.) After a stop in Oakland, McCovey became a free agent after the 1976 season. He signed with the Giants. On Opening Day 1977, McCovey's was the longest ovation during pre-game introductions.

The Giants also gave him a Willie McCovey Day near the end of the 1977 season. If you were in San Francisco at the time, you'd have thought they were either crowning a king, celebrating a Nobel Prize for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or electing and inaugurating Tony Bennett as the mayor. Even San Francisco State University professor of literature Eric Solomon got into the act.

"We all want to come to the edge of the Pacific," Solomon said before the Candlestick Park throng, "find success when young, and discover success again, gain another chance before it's too late. In an era of hard, financially aggressive, contract-minded athletes, Willie McCovey seems free, kind, warm, the way we like to think of San Francisco itself, a bit laid back, no New York or Chicago, cities always on the make. Let New York have the brawling power of Babe Ruth, let Boston have the arrogant force of Ted Williams. Let us have the warm strength of Willie McCovey."

You can only imagine how Joe DiMaggio, a native San Franciscan whose post baseball life was one in which he cultivated an image as a baseball royal but otherwise lived in a morass of foolishly ended friendships and alienation even from his family, must have felt about that. DiMaggio was held in awe; McCovey was a guy you considered your friend. Even in a 1977 during which he broke Hank Aaron's National League record for career grand slams, hit 28 home runs on the season — his most since his previous term as a Giant, Fimrite noted — and tied Lou Gehrig on the all-time home run list with 428. He won the National League's Comeback Player of the Year award while he was at it.

His swing hadn't really abandoned him — that arc which began from the top rear of his shoulders, as he stood almost like a monument in the batter's box, looked as though his upper body were curling a bit as he began the swing, then came down in a smooth curving sweep and sent a baseball somewhere close to earth orbit when the barrel of the bat met the ball just right. Fimrite wasn't the only man to notice its similarity to Ted Williams's swing; McCovey picked up enough of it the year the Giants and the Red Sox trained adjacently in Arizona and Williams apparently offered him a little batting counsel.

But by that time McCovey began feeling the effects of arthritis in his knees and hips. In the years following his election to the Hall of Fame, he'd be at the annual Hall induction ceremonies in obvious pain, to the point where he even began having to walk on crutches. Unlike most aging baseball stars, in his final seasons McCovey instructed his mind to override his body's basic desire to tell him where at last to shove it.

He reflected on Mays, his former longtime teammate by then retired, who'd spent his last three or four seasons a shell of what he'd formerly been and unhappy about it while he was at it. Too kind, too empathetic to remind his questioner that Mays had also suffered assorted financial indignities in the years that followed a bitter divorce, McCovey thought a lot of it was in Mays's head. "An older player loses his interest before his body goes," McCovey told Fimrite. "I really think Willie Mays could've played longer. What he couldn't quite handle was coming down to the rest of the league from where he'd been. He was so much above everyone else that it bothered him to know he wasn't still ten times better than the rest of us. He couldn't handle that mentally, but he still had a super body when he quit. A guy who's been that good never really loses all of his ability. The only thing he does lose is his desire."

So maybe Sandy Koufax was smarter than people thought at the time when he retired not at the top of his game, but somewhere several dimensions beyond the top — at age 30. Maybe DiMaggio wasn't such a dope when, as his older brother Tom put it, "He quit because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio anymore." (DiMaggio was offered his same $100,000 salary for 1952, but his back finally broke him down to where he couldn't stand up straight at the plate any longer.) Maybe Mays let on more than he wanted when he told a Willie Mays Day throng at Shea Stadium, "I look at these young kids fighting for themselves and it tells me one thing: Willie, it's time to say goodbye to America."

The son of an Alabama railroad worker and church deacon, and a mother who ruled the roost with Biblical command, McCovey avoided the traps that consumed other ballplayers. He may have spent only a little time at places like nightclubs but he didn't make a fetish of it. He had to will himself to become the outfielder he was in his early Giants seasons because Orlando Cepeda wasn't about to surrender first base and played the outfield like a tractor with a flat tire. It took Cepeda's trade to the Cardinals for 1967 to put McCovey on first base for keeps.

And he wrestled with the presence of Mays, who'd never been as completely accepted in San Francisco having been a New York star first as McCovey and Cepeda were for having come up by the Bay from the outset. He let Mays drag him along socially for awhile and the two became friends if not always close ones. But McCovey went his own way and was more comfortable for it. Still, Mays genuinely liked McCovey and respected his ability enough that, often enough, Mays would slow down a run toward second base the better to keep the opposing pitcher from putting McCovey on intentionally and taking the bat out of those sweet swinging hands.

"Where do you want to pitch him," Casey Stengel, then the manager of the hapless early Mets, once asked his pitcher Roger Craig, eventually a pennant-winning Giants manager. "Upper deck or lower deck?" What put the fear of God into opposing pitchers and managers wasn't so much McCovey's distances as his strength. No National League big bopper hit harder balls than McCovey and made it look so effortless; he had the most elegant power swing of any hitter pre-Darryl Strawberry. McCovey credited Williams' springtime mentorings.

"I used to talk to him around the cage," McCovey told the San Francisco Chronicle last winter. "He loved to talk. For some reason, he kind of took a liking to me. We were always kind of the same in stature. He said the first thing is bat selection. At first, I used a little lighter bat. He said it was best to have a bat too light than too heavy." But McCovey eventually went to a heavier and longer bat, to his occasional regret. "You'd be amazed how much difference that little half inch makes," he said. "It doesn't sound like much, but it is. It's hard to get to that inside pitch. I've got long arms, anyway, so why do I need a long bat?"

When McCovey returned to the Giants, he wasn't always wild about being fabled for remaining a baseball presence at his advancing age, but he knew it could be worse. Better to be known as the elegant old bombardier than the guy who made the last out of a Series, though McCovey apparently loved to joke about it. After his Hall of Fame induction in 1986, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. "As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson's head in the seventh game," he cracked.

McCovey's own brief enough first marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1960s, and apparent issues remaining between the couple alienated him from his daughter. He throve on promoting the Giants in off-seasons but liked to befriend people who weren't directly involved in baseball almost more than he did fellow players such as Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, an Oakland native. As fan friendly as he was, McCovey still sometimes pondered that he hadn't always achieved the pure recognition afforded other greats. When he retired just before the 1980 All-Star Game, the reception surprised him.

"I don't think I've ever gotten the recognition that my type of career deserves," he said after his final start in Candlestick Park. "I was shocked that my retirement caused this much commotion. Too bad I had to retire to find that out."

In retirement, McCovey lived as pleasantly as he strove to live while he played. He reconciled and became close to his daughter, Allison. He served as a Giants' senior advisor and became a concurrent popular draw on the memorabilia circuit, even if the latter got him into trouble alongside fellow Hall of Famer Duke Snider. In 1996, the two pleaded guilty after they somehow forgot to include $10,000 each in income from 1988 and 1990 memorabilia shows. Put on probation and fined $5,000, McCovey was eventually pardoned by President Barack Obama as Obama was on his way out of office; Snider died in 2011.

His health finally betrayed him. Wheelchair-bound for several years, after he could no longer fight the arthritic hips and knees and doctors had to remove his knee implants, McCovey nearly died from an infection following surgery in 2014. And he'd been hospitalized during this year's World Series for another infection. He married his long-time girlfriend Estela Bejar in August; they'd met in 2010. "Every day is a blessing," she said last January, around McCovey's 80th birthday. "Every day, every year."

San Francisco felt that way about having McCovey for 19 of his 22 major league seasons and for the years that followed. As the Duke himself once put it, he hit it good, and that ain't bad.

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