AT&T PARK — When Willie McCovey first arrived in San Francisco in 1959, he did what most ballplayers new to the city would do. He would go down to John Dudum’s store on Mission to get linens for his new home.
After McCovey bought his, unlike the other players, he came back the next day, and for 14 days afterwards, before night games. He would sit with Dudum, and eventually, Dudum invited him back to his home for dinner. The Dudums were the first San Francisco family to adopt him.
“They were the first family that took him in, and the first family that made him one of us,” said Dudum’s grandson Jeff, who would eventually become McCovey’s godson. “He loved those meals. He told me they reminded him of all those home meals back in Mobile, Alabama. ‘Good home cooking,’ he’d say.”
It’s said you never forget your first, and for a generation of baseball fans, Willie McCovey was the first true San Francisco Giants superstar. McCovey, who died at the age of 80 on Halloween, was the West Coast’s Mickey Mantle, whistling tape-measure shots through the wind at Candlestick Park. He introduced himself to San Francisco with his 1959 debut, going 4-for-4 at Seal Stadium, with a pair of triples. On Thursday, San Francisco said goodbye, in a public celebration of life featuring McCovey’s teammates, friends and Giants greats.
In a city steeped in baseball history, from Joe DiMaggio to Dante Benedetti to the Pacific Coast League, McCovey stood out, and not just because of his prodigious altitude.
“Willie got here in 1959, and he never left,” Giants CEO Larry Baer said. “No Giants player has ever been more beloved in our community than Willie McCovey. He immediately made himself a part of the city. He loved people. He had a quiet humility that put everybody at ease. He’d go out into the neighborhoods, he’d play golf at Lake Merced, greet the regulars around North Beach by name. He was so warm and gracious, that soon after meeting him, you’d swear he was a regular guy, and he was.”
That regular guy’s statue now sits on McCovey Point, overlooking McCovey Cove. A fire boat sprayed jets of water into the air from that cove in his honor at the conclusion of Thursday’s proceedings, as Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” played on the public address system.
“I want to thank the Giants for giving Mac that cove out there,” said Barry Bonds, who was not among those scheduled to speak, but felt compelled, after McCovey attended his number retirement ceremony in September. “I want to thank Mac for letting me hit a bunch of baseballs in his cove.”
Before Barry and Bobby Bonds, before Bochy and Buster, before Will Clark and Matt Williams, before J.T. Snow and Tim Lincecum, there was Willie McCovey.
While Willie Mays and Stu Miller were imports from the New York era, McCovey was the first of a group that included Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and Gaylord Perry, who made their major league debuts as San Francisco Giants. Their legacies weren’t tied up back east. They belonged to the City, but none more than McCovey, who spent 19 of his 22 seasons as a Giant. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he said, “Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars, I’ve been made to feel like a landmark, too.”
“Willie represented the rhythms of our community, growing up in the 60s and 70s in San Francisco, as I did,” Baer said.
Of that group that developed into stars in San Francisco, Cepeda, 80, has just survived a devastating stroke. Marichal is 81. Alou, 83, just had knee surgery, but made sure to not only attend the memorial, but speak. Perry — who arrived to a nice round of applause from the 2,000 or so in attendance when he arrived on a covered golf cart — is 80. Mays — who did not speak at AT&T, but was in attendance — is 87.
This is not the end of tears for Giants fans. This is not the end of grief. McCovey’s passing is only the beginning. It’s said that one’s childhood ends when one loses all four grandparents. His passing marks the beginning of the end for an entire city’s baseball childhood. On Thursday, mortality was at the forefront, but so was reflection, and above all, love.
“Even if that line drive had gotten past Bobby Richardson and driven in the winning run, that one moment would never have defined Willie’s legacy,” Baer said, of the line-out to end Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, a line drive that could have been one of San Francisco baseball’s defining moments. “His legacy transcends baseball.”
“My hope and my prayer is that when I get to heaven, there will be a baseball field like AT&T, and the greatest gift that God could give me is having the opportunity to pitch to Willie McCovey,” said Dave Dravecky, who won the Willie Mac Award in 1989, after returning from the cancer that would eventually take his left arm. “The greatest joy in my life in heaven will be watching him hit that hanging slider into the universe. I love you, Willie.”
For Alou, the most prescient memories were tied to being roommates with McCovey in winter ball, the minor leagues and in San Francisco, sharing an $80 used car and being perfectly fine with the Giants wanting this long, thin kid to play first base instead of him.
For Perry, the most defining memories were of how McCovey was such a stickler for the rules, and for honor and integrity. So much so that McCovey didn’t much like him when he first arrived, even though he wanted only to use McCovey’s bat, and had worn his hand-me-down jerseys during his first two years at Triple-A Tacoma.
“If you did things wrong at the right time, he would see you, and you would pay for it,” Perry said. “He was a guy that was honest, so we got along fine after I stopped throwing the spit ball.
“We finally got together, and we had a special pickoff play when he was playing first base,” Perry continued. “He would say, ‘Hey, dummy, he’s getting too big a lead.'”
Until the day he died, McCovey kept the same Woodside home he moved into when he arrived in 1959, a home kept immaculately clean and neat, said former teammate Orlando Cepeda, who remembered that McCovey always shined his shoes, and always kept his ashtrays the same distance apart.
Baer recalled that, at the age of seven, his parents took him to a Home Savings and Loan on 19th and Geary to sit on McCovey’s lap at a promotional appearance.
“I could barely breathe, I was so in awe,” Baer said. “Decades later, when I mentioned that to Willie, he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s why I had all those knee surgeries.'”
Broadcaster Mike Krukow, born in Long Beach and raised in Southern California, tried to model his swing and his backyard home run trot after McCovey.
“I wanted to be like him,” Krukow said. “My idol on the Dodgers was Don Drysdale, and Willie McCovey used to wear him out. I didn’t like it, but I wanted to be like him … Can you imagine inspiring a kid in Southern California? Imagine what he did here.”
For mayor London Breed, McCovey was an inspiration.
“He was a champion for, and a reflection of the hopes and dreams of the thousands of African Americans that migrated to the Bay Area, including my grandparents, in the decades after World War II,” said Breed, who, as a young softball player for the Galileo Lions, wanted to hit the ball as far as McCovey.
For underprivileged youth like Breed, McCovey started his Stretch Drive, for fans to donate gloves to young ballplayers.
McCovey taught the Dudum children values and respect, and, Jeff said, “how to be humble, no matter what achievements you had received.”
For Bonds, he was Uncle Mac.
“Mac loved our family unconditionally,” said Bonds. “When I got back to San Francisco in 1993, I asked if I could call him Uncle Mac, because I’d always admired him as much as Willie and my father. Mac said, ‘I wouldn’t want anything more.'”
Early in his retirement, McCovey still came to the ballpark and dressed in his uniform at a locker, and boned bats that would never make it into a big league game. Krukow’s locker was right next door.
“You talk about the presence of a veteran in a clubhouse, especially with all the young ballplayers that we had back in the day — Chili Davis, Bob Brenley, Tom O’Malley, Danny Gladden, and guess what? They all used that bone,” Krukow said. “They all wore their socks like Willie. I think that’s what he gave all of us: In some small way, we wanted to be like him.”
As he got older, McCovey rarely missed a game at AT&T Park — whether in a wheelchair or a gurney.
“When he was pushed in a cart out of this ballpark at night, or pushed in a bed, you knew it was painful. He never, ever complained,” Krukow said. “Not once. You’d ask him how he’s doing, and he’d always give the same answer: ‘Aw, I’m fine. Got a ballgame. It’ll all be good.’ When he left the stadium, there was an endless parade of people giving him high fives and knuckles. They just wanted to touch him. They just wanted to tell him how much they loved him. As I watched him, he wheeled away with that attitude, and I would hold my cane […] I would say, ‘I want to be like you.'”
He was the most feared left-handed hitter of his era, a pillar of the community, a man born in Mobile, Alabama, who made this weird, quirky City his home, who went out to listen to jazz and shop for groceries in North Beach. McCovey was a man who lent his name to an award given to the most inspirational San Francisco Giant, every year. Ten of those winners were in attendance on Thursday.
Upon the occasion of his retirement ceremony at Candlestick Park, McCovey said, “If there is a second life, I’d like to come back as a Major League Baseball player.”
He was more than that. For a whole generation, he was their first. And you never forget your first: A true Giant, in every sense of the word.
“There is no person like him,” Baer said. “Here in San Francisco, he will live forever.”