Homer Happy: Willie McCovey
What was most impressive about slugger Willie McCovey – beyond the career hitting statistics that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility – was his consistency as a power hitter throughout his 22-season career, even though he battled injuries in nearly half of them. Twelve times he hit 20 or more home runs in a season, and in the six seasons from 1965 through 1970, he hit no fewer than 31.
From 1965-1969, Willie McCovey led the National League in home runs twice. He averaged 37 home runs and 102 RBIs during those five seasons.
His total of 521 career home runs – clearly Hall of Fame worthy – was limited by his opportunities to play during the first five years of his major league career. McCovey was signed by the New York Giants in 1955 and made his debut with the San Francisco Giants on July 30, 1959. In the remaining two months of that season, McCovey batted .354 with 13 homes runs and 38 RBIs – all in what was essentially a third of a season. He also posted a .656 slugging average, and was named National League Rookie of the Year.
As good as he was, McCovey wasn’t good enough to find a place in the Giants’ everyday lineup, a lineup that included Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou and Willie Kirkland. By the end of the 1960 season, McCovey had earned a starting spot at first base.
With only 260 official at-bats in 1960, McCovey finished the season with 13 home runs and 51 RBIs. But the first base job went back to Cepeda in 1961, and McCovey returned to the role of part-time outfielder for the next two seasons. He hit 18 home runs in 1961 and 20 in 1962.
In 1963, McCovey was tabbed to be the team’s regular left fielder, and he responded with a league-leading 44 home runs and 102 runs batted in. A foot injury limited his playing time and productivity in 1964, when he batted .220 with 18 home runs and 54 RBIs. He rebounded in 1965 with 39 home runs, and hit more than 30 homers in each of the next three seasons, leading the National League in home runs (36) and RBIs (105) in 1968.
McCovey’s best season came in 1969, when he batted .320 and led the National League in home runs (45), RBIs (126) and slugging average (.656). He was selected as the National League Most Valuable Player that season.
McCovey bashed 39 home runs in 1970, the most he would hit in a single season over the rest of his career. Dogged by injuries over the next few years, he managed 29 home runs and 75 RBIs in 1973. He was traded to the San Diego Padres, and after two years split the 1976 season between the Padres and the Oakland Athletics. He returned to San Francisco in 1977 and had a strong comeback season at age 39, batting .280 with 28 home runs and 86 RBIs. He hit only 28 more home runs as a part-time player over the next three seasons, and retired in 1980. He finished with a career batting average of .270.
McCovey was a six-time All-Star, and was the Most Valuable player in the 1969 All-Star game. He hit 231 home runs in Candlestick Park, the most by any player. And McCovey was the first major league player to twice hit two home runs in a single inning.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
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