The ‘other Willie’ and the early San Francisco Giants
Willie McCovey helped build a multicultural foundation for the franchise
San Francisco is in mourning. Last week, news broke of the passing of Willie McCovey, the Giants’ Hall of Fame first baseman, whose amiable presence remained a fixture at AT&T Park for the last 20 years. Apart from his on-field exploits over a 22-year career, 19 spent in a Giants uniform, McCovey’s name became synonymous with the stadium’s most recognizable feature — McCovey Cove, a small part of the China Basin, where left-handed sluggers like Barry Bonds launched monstrous home runs.
McCovey was one of a core of five Hall of Fame players whose success built a multicultural foundation for the franchise when it moved from New York’s famed Polo Grounds to San Francisco 60 years ago.
Willie Mays and McCovey, who left Jim Crow Alabama, formed the heart of the Giants’ potent lineup for more than a decade. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry compiled more than 300 wins and 3,500 strikeouts with the Giants and seven other teams. Juan Marichal of the Dominican Republic was the high-kicking hurler who became Major League Baseball’s first dominant Latino pitcher. And the “Baby Bull,” slugging first baseman and outfielder Orlando Cepeda, was the first Puerto Rican to be named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
Besides the Giants’ core players, the team’s roster was diverse. There were the three Alou brothers from the Dominican Republic — Matty, Felipe and Jesus — who once played all three outfield positions for the Giants during the same inning. And in the 1964-65 seasons, the Giants featured relief pitcher Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player to make it to the big leagues.
“People need to know how special the team was to our area,” said Bruce Macgowan, a longtime sports broadcaster who grew up watching the Giants with his father when they played their inaugural season at Seals Stadium. “They were actually the first big league team put here. Of course, we had the 49ers, who were good, with Y.A. Tittle, R.C. Owens, Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny. But the NFL was not nearly as big as it is now. Baseball was the national pastime.
“Willie Mays was the best player, the best all-around player in the history of the game. The Giants were contenders for the 15 years here in San Francisco. If those teams had played today, they’d have been in the playoffs every year.”
The Giants were an on-field sensation in their early years in San Francisco. The players’ off-field lives also reflected the enormous social forces that roiled the Bay Area, as well as the larger society.
After the Giants announced they were moving from New York in October 1957, Mays and his first wife, Marghuerite, flew out to San Francisco to look for a new home. The couple settled in a three-bedroom house in Sherwood Forest, a community in the affluent St. Francis Wood. They offered $37,000 in cash to owner Walter Gnesdiloff, who accepted. But some of the neighbors objected to the sale.
Martin Gaehwiler, who lived a few doors down, spoke to reporters. “I happen to have a few pieces of property in the area,” he said, “and I stand to lose a lot if colored people move in.”
The African-American population of San Francisco doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent during the 1950s, but most were confined to neighborhoods such as the Fillmore District, Bayview-Hunters Point, Western Addition and Potrero Hill.
“We expected that,” said longtime Bay Area resident and major league scout Jim Guinn. “It didn’t surprise us. We didn’t think much of it because we knew it could happen anywhere.”
San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, who helped negotiate the Giants’ move to his city, immediately sought to head off the controversy, even offering to put Mays in an upstairs bedroom in his own home. Mays, ever nonconfrontational, said little. The local NAACP chapter vowed to push for new legislation that subsequently ended racial discrimination in housing.
“There was an authenticity to playing baseball,” said Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, “but black people in the Bay Area could identify when they saw that Willie Mays couldn’t buy a home where he wanted [to] in San Francisco. He had a degree of visibility. This was at a time when there was a suppression of black people in the media and in the greater society. We didn’t exist, other than to open the doors at the hotels in downtown San Francisco or to hail a taxi for someone on the street.”
After a public confrontation between Gnesdiloff and Gaehwiler, Mays and his wife moved into their home at 175 Miraloma Drive. A year and a half later, a bottle was thrown through the front window of the couple’s home with a hate note attached. Marghuerite Mays forced her husband to move back to New York. Mays’ marriage subsequently unraveled and he moved back to San Francisco, first to an apartment in Pacific Heights and later to another home in Sherwood Forest. Mays’ new neighbors held a block party to celebrate him moving into his new home.
Mays and other Giants of color eventually gained entrance to the Bay Area’s most exclusive golf clubs, its finest restaurants and hotels.
The Giants played two seasons in San Francisco’s Seals Stadium before moving to an erector-set-inside-a-wind-tunnel called Candlestick Park. Initially an open stadium, “The Stick” was normally bathed in sunlight during day games but was regularly buffeted by chilly, swirling winds from the San Francisco Bay during late afternoons, or shrouded by fog during night games.
Despite the conditions, those early Giants were among the leaders in attendance, immediately doubling the number of fans they drew in their last season in New York. Baseball was still the national pastime, with Mays perhaps the game’s greatest star. Even though Mays remained an enigma to his fans, especially to the Giants, his presence and that of other black stars was inspirational to the club’s African-American fans, especially as the civil rights movement continued to grow apace.
“The first time the Giants played here locally, it was like mythology — it was like they came from another world away,” said Bill Drummond, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a native of Oakland.
“I was a fan of the Giants because of all the black players, because of Willie Mays and Leon ‘Daddy Wags’ Wagner. And the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants in those days was just as intense because of Los Angeles and San Francisco, even more than it was when the two teams were in New York. The early Giants weren’t that good. They had Willie Mays, but the Dodgers had the pitching, with [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale.”
Guinn, who has lived in the Bay Area for most of his life, said there was a special bond between those early Giants and black fans.
“Back in those days at Candlestick, you had the left-field bleachers,” said Guinn. “The left-field seats were cheap. I’m not going to say most of the fans for every game out there were black, but that’s where most of the blacks sat.”
Seeing Mays, McCovey and other Giants of color was special then, added Guinn, given the limited power and visibility of black people in public life.
Said Guinn: “You got to have somebody that looks like you out on the field for you to come to the park.”
Cepeda came to the Giants in their inaugural season in San Francisco and won Rookie of the Year honors. The next season, McCovey joined the team at midseason and was an immediate sensation.
“It was a very emotional thing,” recalled Drummond, who was attending Oakland’s famous McClymonds High School at the time. “I remember as a kid, I was listening on the radio to the very first game that Willie McCovey played in. They were a mediocre team, and this kid from Alabama comes up and goes 4-for-4 against the Phillies and [pitcher] Robin Roberts. That guy became a huge star.
“I remember one of the Giants’ play-by-play announcers, Russ Hodges, had a hard time pronouncing his name. He started calling him ‘McCU-vey,’ when it was actually, ‘Mc-COVE-y.’ It had always been pronounced the other way when Willie was growing up in Alabama, but the way Hodges pronounced it stuck.”
Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing 200 pounds, “Stretch” was an imposing player on the field, flashing the leather at first base or launching tape-measure home runs into the stands. But it was McCovey’s easygoing style that ingratiated him to adoring legions of fans in a way the enigmatic Mays never could.
A six-time All-Star, McCovey led the National League in home runs three times. He won the league MVP award in 1969 and Comeback Player of the Year in 1977. His No. 44 jersey was retired by the Giants, with whom he hit most of his 521 home runs. McCovey was a first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
It is McCovey, not Mays, whom San Francisco baseball fans hold closest to their hearts, argued Jerry Izenberg, columnist emeritus with The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, who has reported on baseball for more than 60 years.
“The only one [of the five early San Francisco Giants stars] who’s not important is Willie Mays,” said Izenberg, who grew up across the river from the Polo Grounds in New Jersey rooting for the Giants. “Willie was a superstar [San Francisco] had stolen. They never really took to Willie, and he never took to them. Cepeda was the fair-haired guy, but Willie McCovey was theirs, emotionally. He was adopted.”
While Mays is forever venerated in San Francisco — his statue stands in front of AT&T Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza — Izenberg argues that there has always been an emotional distance between the city and perhaps the greatest athlete to ever play there.
“To San Francisco,’’ added Izenberg, “Willie Mays was a New Yorker and was always a New Yorker. He understood that. That’s why he was eager to accept a trade back to Shea Stadium and the Mets at the end of his career. They didn’t like Willie because he wasn’t one of them. Willie McCovey and Cepeda were the ones they fell in love with. They were San Francisco Giants.”
To Izenberg, McCovey, who played more seasons in San Francisco than any other player, stands above the rest of the stars of those early Giants teams in the City by the Bay.
“Willie McCovey was tremendous. He was a power hitter, not like some guy that can hit .300. He could win a game at any time.”
McCovey also remains special to Macgowan, who first saw him as a 6-year-old sitting next to his father in Seals Stadium.
“The first major league homer I saw was hit by Willie McCovey,” said Macgowan. “He also drove in the first run I ever saw.
“For a time, for about four or five years from the mid-1960s, he was the most feared left-handed hitter of his time,” Macgowan added. “During his MVP year in 1969, that’s when the other teams came up with the ‘McCovey Shift,’ where they’d have everybody but the third baseman positioned on the right side of second base. And he was so powerful, he’d just hit the ball over their heads.
“Barry Bonds hit some long balls, but McCovey had the most vicious swings. It was quite a thing to see. He’d be there standing at the plate, swinging that big bat back and forth so languidly before a pitch, and then he cut at the ball so viciously. Everybody just loved Willie McCovey.”
Macgowan said McCovey, who used a wheelchair for the last several years, was a fixture at Giants home games.
“He was always around,” said Macgowan. “I used to go into his private box and see him. A lot of the times he’d be sitting alone. I thought he didn’t want to be bothered, but no, he invited me in, so I’d sit and watch a few innings with him in his private box. And he remained a student of the game. He made some very insightful comments about the players. He really knew the game, and he was an informal consultant to the Giants’ front office over the years.”
But, perhaps, the biggest thing McCovey, Mays, Cepeda, Marichal, Jim Ray Hart and some of those early Giants did was change racial mindsets.
“Most of my heroes growing up weren’t white,” recalled Macgowan. “My parents grew up in segregation in L.A. One of the reasons they moved up here was because it was more diverse, more tolerant. I thought it was cool. We had Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, from Alabama. We had Juan Marichal from the Dominican Republic, and we had Orlando Cepeda from Puerto Rico. It didn’t make any difference to me.”