In honor of the upcoming Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the July Vintage Athlete of the Month was the hero of the Midsummer Classic 40 years ago.
Despite his immense stature (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), Willie McCovey was often overshadowed by more flamboyant teammates. He blasted 521 home runs in his 22-year major league career and truly epitomized the concept of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
Spending most of his career with the San Francisco Giants, McCovey was a fixture in a lineup that at various points included Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda, and superstar Bobby Bonds.
McCovey made an immediately impact in the majors when he joined the San Francisco Giants on July 30, 1959. The left-handed batter went four-for-four in his big league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite playing in just 52 games during his rookie season, McCovey was the unanimous choice for National League Rookie of the Year as he hit .354 with 13 home runs and 38 RBI.
After four seasons of part-time duty, McCovey became the starting left fielder for the Giants in 1963 and led the National League with 44 home runs while also driving home 102 runs.
He became the full-time first baseman for the Giants in 1965 and hit 39 home runs that season.
That year started a streak of six straight years in which he blasted at least 30 homers.
In the 1969 All-Star Game, McCovey became just the fourth player in All-Star history to launch two home runs in the Midsummer Classic. He earned MVP honors as the National League won 9-3 for their seventh straight win in the series.
McCovey parlayed his All-Star success into the best full season of his career. He led the league with career-highs of 45 home runs and 126 runs batted in to earn the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
After 15 seasons with the Giants, McCovey was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1974 and later spent part of the 1976 season with the Oakland A’s.
He returned to the Giants in 1977 and responded with his best season in several years with 28 home runs and 86 RBI.
In 1978 he became just the 12th player in Major League history to surpass the 500 home run milestone.
McCovey retired in 1980 with 521 career home runs, 1,555 RBIs, and a career .270 batting average. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Nearly 30 years after his retirement, McCovey is still one of the most beloved players in San Francisco Giants history.
The section of the San Francisco Bay located just beyond the right field fence at AT&T Stadium is known as “McCovey Cove.”
The inflated home run stats of the last 15 years have overshadowed the great performances of McCovey and other great sluggers of earlier eras, but there is no doubt that McCovey was one of the great power hitters in the history of Major League Baseball.
Each month, Sports Then and Now celebrates and remembers the accomplishments of a notable athlete from past generations. If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Vintage Athlete of the Month, send me a nomination by e-mail.