Willie McCovey: 1959 Rookie of the Year Hit Home Runs and Sold Automobiles

Harold FriendChief Writer IJuly 1, 2011

Time Takes its Toll
Time Takes its TollEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Willie Lee (Stretch) McCovey made his major league debut on July 30, 1959. He tripled twice and singled twice in four at-bats against the Philadelphia Phillies, driving in two runs and scoring three in the San Francisco Giants' 7-2 win.

It was, as Steve Allen once wrote, the start of something big.

In a significant move, Giants manager Bill Rigney moved the National League's best first baseman, Orlando Cepeda, to left field because the only position McCovey could play was first base.

Cepeda, in his second season, had been the Rookie of the Year, batting .312/.342/.512, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 96 runs.

It was a difficult situation for Rigney, but Cepeda was willing to move off first if it meant it might help the Giants win the pennant. Cepeda told John Drebinger of the New York Times his feelings.

"Well, let's put it this way," Cepeda said. "Suppose I am as good a first baseman as they say I am but we don't win the pennant. That is not so good. Now Rigney says if we get Big Willie in the lineup we got a great chance to win. That means I've got to move. How can a real ball player refuse?"

When the Giants brought up McCovey, who had been leading the Pacific Coast League in batting (.372), home runs (29) and RBI (92), they found themselves in second place, one-half game behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers.

After beating the Phillies in McCovey's debut, the Giants won nine of their next 11 games. At the end of play on August 11, they led the Dodgers by three games.

The Giants couldn't hang on and finished third, two games behind the second place Milwaukee Braves and four games behind the pennant winning Dodgers, but Willie McCovey was chosen the National League Rookie of the Year.

Drebinger wrote, "It was Willie, called the Stretch because because he towers above nearly everyone else, who burst out of virtually nowhere on July 30 and with his devastating bat breathed new life into the Giants."

McCovey batted .354/.429/.656. hitting 13 home runs during his two months of play. Despite being only 21 years old, McCovey knew baseball quite well. He praised Orlando Cepeda, recognizing how gracefully he had switched to left field to make room for McCovey's bat.

It is difficult to believe in 2011, but after the season, Rookie of the Year Willie McCovey worked as an automobile salesman. He was not nearly as successful at selling cars as he was at hitting baseballs. It took Willie one month before he made his first sale.

The day after he was announced as the National League Rookie of the Year, a San Francisco dentist, who had several ball players as patients, told reporters, "San Francisco can't have a Rookie of the Year going hitless in any league." He bought a car from Willie.

In 1960, McCovey suffered the sophomore jinx. He batted only .238 with 38 home runs and spent part of the season in the minors, but he came back with better seasons in 1961 and 1962 before his breakout season in 1963.

McCovey is remembered for hitting a scorching line drive that New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson caught to end the 1962 World Series. Everyone, including McCovey, was surprised that Yankees manager Ralph Houk didn't walk him.

Matty Alou was on third, Willie Mays was on second, there were two outs, and the Yankees led, 1-0. Orlando Cepeda, a right-handed hitter, batted behind the left-handed McCovey.

But Houk, despite not having a book of computer statistics similar to the one current Yankees manager Joe Girardi uses, knew that Cepeda had hit 46 home runs in 1961 and followed that with 35 in 1962. Cepeda hit over .300 in each of those years.

McCovey batted .271 with 18 home runs in 1961 and .293 with 20 home runs in 1962 in limited action. Cepeda was considered the greater threat by everyone.

Cepeda and McCovey are Hall of Famers, but when they were both Giants, Cepeda was considered the better and more consistent of the two.

Today, with the perspective time often provides, McCovey is considered to have been the greater player.



References:

Drebinger, John. "Sports of the Times: History May Repeat." New York Times. 9 Aug. 1959. p. S2.

Drebinger, John. "Ace Rookies Saluted: McCovey of Giants Chews Over 1959" New York Times. 30 Oct. 1959. p.21.

"McCovey Gets a Sale With Assist From Fan." New York Times. 20 Nov 1959. p. 43

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