A San Francisco landmark: Giants community gathers to mourn Willie McCovey

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A San Francisco landmark: Giants community gathers to mourn Willie McCovey

SAN FRANCISCO — Thirty two years ago, Willie McCovey stood on the stage on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, New York and spoke about his family.

At a Hall of Fame ceremony designed to commemorate McCovey’s career and honor his on-field accomplishments, the San Francisco Giants first baseman turned the tribute around and shined the spotlight on those he felt closest to.

“Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars, I’ve been made to feel like a landmark too,” McCovey said with gratitude.

McCovey thanked his family from Mobile, Alabama, his family that proudly wore the Giants uniform alongside him and the city of San Francisco, a family that made him its most beloved adopted son. Family from all corners of the world made McCovey feel like the living legend he had become.

Thirty two years later, McCovey’s family gathered to shine the spotlight back where it belongs.

Along the waterfront that bears his name and inside a stadium where his No. 44 will hang forever, McCovey’s life was celebrated Thursday. After a long battle with ongoing health issues, McCovey passed away Wednesday, Oct.31, at 80 years old.

McCovey became the 16th player in baseball history to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility thanks to a career that featured 521 home runs, six All-Star appearances and one MVP award. Those accomplishments are all noted on McCovey’s bronze plaque at Cooperstown, but they didn’t need to be echoed in front of hundreds of fans who arrived at AT&T Park Thursday.

The Giants community fell in love with McCovey the player for his smooth swing and quiet confidence, but they idolized McCovey the man for the way he carried himself.

“I have never been around a more humble man,” 1989 Willie Mac Award winner Dave Dravecky said. “I have never been around someone who lifted up others around him more than himself. I’ve never been around a man who loved so deeply and cared so much about wearing the Giants uniform.”

With legends such as Willie Mays, Barry Bonds and Orlando Cepeda in attendance Thursday, Giants CEO Larry Baer said no player “has ever been more beloved in our community than Willie McCovey.”

McCovey was one of five Hall of Famers including Hank Aaron and Ozzie Smith born in Mobile, but he was the first Hall of Famer to start and finish his career playing for a club based in San Francisco. Though fans around the Bay Area traveled to Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park to watch McCovey play, his godson Jeff Dudum said McCovey once refused his request to consider moving to the East Bay.

“I’m a Giant,” McCovey told Dudum. “What would my fans think if I lived over in the A’s territory?”

Even after his retirement in 1980, McCovey remained a pillar of the San Francisco community and attended nearly every home game at AT&T Park. His desire to connect with fans never wavered, as he often entertained guests who stopped by to share memories of watching McCovey play in his suite during games.

“Stretch McCovey was more than just a great baseball player, he was a San Franciscan through and through,” mayor London Breed said. “A man of incredible warmth, humility and kindness. And that made him one of our most beloved citizens.”

McCovey’s determination to remain a fixture in the community into his retirement endeared him to future generations of players and fans, but those who knew the left-handed slugger best shared some of their favorite memories from his playing days.

Former outfielder and Giants manager Felipe Alou recalled begging McCovey to play winter ball with him in the Dominican Republic, only for McCovey to say he felt homesick and express a desire to return to the United States. Alou salvaged the situation by moving in with him and the duo wound up rooming together in the minor leagues, too.

Cepeda described the scene when he and McCovey arrived the same day to try out for the Giants in Melbourne, Florida, in the late 1950s. They both competed for repetitions at first base, but coaches eventually asked Cepeda to move to the outfield to make way for McCovey.

A conflict could have arisen and a rivalry might have developed, but Cepeda said McCovey was too kind to let that happen. Eventually, they lived next door to each other in San Francisco and enjoyed spending evenings in North Beach listening to jazz music.

“What he did on the field, everybody knows,” Cepeda said. “But as a human being, Willie McCovey was very special. He was very quiet, he didn’t say much, but he had a big heart.”

Bonds wasn’t listed on the official program as a speaker, but felt compelled to address the crowd about a man he called “Uncle Mac.” The hitter who helped make McCovey Cove famous by launching balls into the bay echoed a popular sentiment: He wanted to play just like him.

“I idolized Willie Mays, but I was born left-handed and my first glove was left-handed,” Bonds said. “So as much as I always wanted to be like Say-Hey, I stretched like Mac.”

It wasn’t just McCovey’s love for the game that resonated so widely, but his genuine love for life.

No one brought that love to life quite like Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, who gave the final remarks Thursday. Before he spoke, Krukow called the seven other Willie Mac Award winners in attendance to stand behind him in the middle of the diamond.

The pitcher-turned-broadcaster took the audience on a journey from his childhood in Southern California where he practiced running around the bases after a home run just like McCovey did to the experience of watching McCovey interact with fans as he left the ballpark.

With a cane in hand, Krukow shared the inspiration he took from seeing McCovey roll out of games in a wheelchair and eventually on a bed, smiling the whole way to the exit.

“I would watch him and I would hold my cane,” Krukow said, while pausing to fight back tears. “And I would say, ‘I want to be like him.’ ”

It’s a feeling that will continue to echo on the shores of McCovey Cove for years to come. Though few can swing like McCovey or stretch like McCovey, his extended family will carry on his memory by trying to be just like him.

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A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey
A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey
A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey
A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey
A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey

A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey

A San Francisco Landmark: Giants Community Gathers To Mourn Willie McCovey

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