The Original Big Mac
It seems strange that nearly fifty years have passed since a young man from Mobile, Alabama first took his position at first base for the Sandersville Giants. As a young boy, all Willie Lee ever wanted to do was to play baseball. Growing up in the shadows of the legendary Hank Aaron, the young man idolized the ability, desire and undaunting courage of Jackie Robinson as he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. When he signed a professional contract, he told a reporter that he would have paid the team to let him play baseball. He loved the game that much. Over his twenty five-year career in baseball, the tall lanky and powerful young man, affectionately known as “Stretch” for his ability to snare and scoop incoming infield throws, became the most prolific left handed home run hitter in the history of the National League, that is until his record was eclipsed by a fellow Giant Barry Bonds. McCovey was a man of natural power, found not in a bottle, but in the desire of his heart. This is the story of Willie Lee McCovey, who began his professional baseball career as a member of the Sandersville Giants in 1955.
Willie Lee McCovey was born on January 10, 1938. While most kids his age were about to complete the requirements for graduation from high school, Willie packed his careworn bat and glove and headed to Melbourne, Florida for a try out with New York Giants. Giants scouts couldn’t help but notice his slender 6 foot four inch powerful physique and his ability to catch anything thrown at him. In addition to signing future Giant greats Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda, the Giants signed Willie to a minor league contract and assigned him to the organization’s Class D farm team Sandersville of the Georgia State League. His contract provided that he would be paid $175.00 a month or about six dollars a game. Willie started his career at the bottom of the Giant’s farm system. Though he grew up in the South and experienced the atrocities of racial segregation in the 1950s, Willie was the first black player ever to play for Sandersville, which was in its eighth year in the league. He was joined by two other black players, Robert L. Reed and Robert Scott, a former Negro league player.
It has been said that the Giants sent Willie to Sandersville just to get rid of him. He was such an unknown that the Sandersville Progress first called him “Willie McCoohren.” It was April 25, 1955 when the young seventeen-year-old slugger was to play his first game for the Sandersville Giants. The Giants opened the 1955 season at home versus the Dublin Irish. Mayor Tom Carr of Sandersville threw out the first pitch to Mayor Felton Pierce of Dublin. Georgia State League President was the ceremonial first batter. Furman Bisher, the legendary sports columnist of the Atlanta Constitution was present to witness the birth of a legend. McCovey reached base in his first plate appearance and scored a run. The Giants went on to defeat the Irish 4-1.
The Giants and the Irish would face each other 21 more times during the season. In those games the Giants took an 11-10 advantage. McCovey batted just under .300, driving in 15 runs and smacking five home runs. The highlight of his games against the Irish came on May 26, when he belted two home runs. When he was a young man, Dublin resident Melvin Hester, witnessed one of those mammoth McCovey wacks. I remember it as if it was yesterday when Hester, my Sunday School teacher, told a group of us boys that McCovey hit one over Telfair Street. Whether on several bounces or on the fly, that was a real good knock, well over 500 feet.
McCovey led the Giants to a second place finish in the Georgia State League. Though his batting average (.305), home runs (19) and runs batted in (113) in 107 games were very impressive, they were nowhere near league records. McCovey did lead the league in rbi and putouts. He ended his first season 5th in runs scored, 3rd in total bases and 4th in extra base hits. Playing that season with McCovey in Sandersville was Julio Navarro, a journeyman infielder, who made it to the major leagues in the 1960s.
Willie McCovey rapidly climbed the steps of the big leagues. After successful seasons in Danville, Va. And Dallas, Tx. , he was elevated to Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League. In 1958 and the first half of the 1959 season, Willie batted .319 and .372. The Giants were in the midst of a pennant race with their arch rival foes, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants needed Willie’s left handed big bat in the lineup.
He was immediately sent into the starting lineup to replace another young star and powerful hitter Orlando Cepeda, who moved to the outfield. In his very first game, McCovey went 4-4 against future Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. He finished the season with a startling record of 13 home runs, 38 rbi and .354 batting average in 52 games, a feat which earned him a unanimous selection as National League Rookie of the Year. In 1962, with a company of heavy hitters including Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou, McCovey led the Giants to the National League Championship and a berth in the World Series. McCovey nearly became a legendary series hero only to have a series winning line drive snared by Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, who preserved the American League powerhouse’s victory. Willie achieved his best season to date when he belted 44 home runs and drove in 102 runs in 1963.
It was during the seasons of 1968 through 1970 when Willie McCovey began his journey to baseball immortality. In that three-year span, McCovey hit 36, 45 and 39 home runs and batted in 105, 126 and 126 runs. His 1969 season, deemed by most to be his best, led to his election as National League Most Valuable Player.
Following three seasons at the top of his game, McCovey limped through the rest of his career, frequently playing in excruciating pain. He missed a third of the ‘71 season as well a half of the ‘72 campaign. Much to the dismay of Giant fans everywhere, McCovey was sent down the Pacific Coast to the San Diego Padres for two seasons. In 1976, the aging star was again traded, this time to the Oakland A’s, across the bay from San Francisco. To the cheers of thousands of adoring fans, McCovey returned to the Giants in 1977. The height of his active baseball career came in Atlanta in 1978, when Willie McCovey became only the 12th man and the 3rd Giant ever to hit 500 home runs.
In 1986, Willie McCovey was elected to Baseball Hall of Fame with a highly respectable 81% of the ballots in his first year of eligibility. Willie was selected to a half dozen all star games and played in two world series in 1962 and 1971 with a .310 batting average. In his 2588 game career, Willie McCovey safely hit 2211 times with 521 of those hits being home runs. He drove in a remarkable 1555 runs and all the while hitting for a career average of .270, all of this accomplished by a young kid who began his dream in the lowest levels of baseball right here in East Central Georgia, trumped the doubters and when he retired in 1980 was the 12th greatest home run hitter in baseball history.