Longtime Arizona State manager Bobby Winkles—who coached on Alvin Dark’s A’s staff in 1974 and 1975, and managed the team for Charlie Finley in 1977 and 1978, passed away last week at age 90.
Winkles’ impact on the A’s stretched far beyond his stints as coach or even as manager. It was at his collegiate position, in which he won three national championships over 13 seasons in Tempe, where he made the most impact. That’s because it was at ASU that Winkles shepherded Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson toward the big leagues. (Monday and Bando were on the 1965 championship team.) In fact, Winkles planned to convert Bando to catcher for his senior season, but the player ended up signing with Finley’s Kansas City Athletics instead.
Winkles went 24-15 in 1978 with an A’s club that had lost 98 games the previous season and made no marked improvements while trading Vida Blue. Unable to stomach the requisite interference from Finley, however, he quit that May and never managed in the big leagues again. “Winkles was going nuts, and one day during the season he quit,” wrote his predecessor and successor as A’s manager, Jack McKeon, in his book Jack of All Trades, “We all tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge.” (After Winkles departed, the A’s went 45-78.)
One player who especially appreciated Winkles was Oakland second baseman Dick Green, whose defense during the 1974 World Series was so spectacular that many said he would have won Series MVP had he gotten even a single hit. (He went 0-for-13.) Green attributes much of that success to Winkles.
“About middle of September, Bobby says to me, ‘Dick, the World Series is coming up and you’re going to have to start taking some infield practice,’ ” Green said in an interview for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. “I say, ‘I haven’t taken infield practice for months.’ He says, ‘I know you can catch the ball, but most people can’t turn it on and off and on again.’ So I started taking infield practice the last couple of weeks. Well, of course, I didn’t make any errors in that World Series, and that extra infield helped me.”
Leave the last word on Winkles to Reggie Jackson, who described him in his book, Reggie:
Bobby Winkles was an Army type guy, a tough little southerner from Arkansas with a crew cut who’d spit tobacco on your shoe if you didn’t watch yourself. He was very regimented. He was the boss, and he let you know that from the get-go. There was no swearing when Winkles was around. You didn’t give him any lip. Ever. And he worked us. If you played for Bobby Winkles, you had to run everywhere, run like an animal. Before we ever took the bat and ball at practice, we would run for 45 minutes every day. His favorite was something called the Floor Drill. Run. Stop. Put your arms straight up over your head and jump straight up into the air. Sprint now. Stop. Jump.”
And, of course he won. Three titles with ASU. One as an A’s coach. Unexpected success with a stripped-down roster several seasons later.
Bobby Winkles may have been wildly underappreciated by outsiders, but those who knew him—and especially those who played for him—are deeply feeling this loss.
I didn’t like pitching to (Al) Kaline. Nothing against Al. He was a hell of a guy. I just hated the way umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt on almost every close pitch late in his career. I once threw him five straight strikes and walked him. He took a three-and-two slider that started on the outside corner and finished down the middle of the plate. The ump gave it to him. As Kaline made his way to first, I yelled at him, ‘Swing the bat, for Christ’s sake. You’re not a statue until you have pigeon shit on your shoulders.’ Al laughed at me. After the game I complained about the call to the home-plate umpire. He said, ‘Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.’ —Bill Lee, The Wrong Stuff
Hall of Famer Al Kaline, the man who came to define the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s and ’60s, passed away today at age 85. He was noteworthy for being esteemed within the game as much for his personality as for his ability, which is saying something given that he was one of the best players ever.
For me, the power of Kaline’s mystique was distilled in a story told to me by former pitcher Dick Bosman for The Baseball Codes. It took place in 1974, Kaline’s last year, when Bosman pitched for Cleveland. During the game in question, the pitcher’s Indians teammate, Oscar Gamble, got into a little bit of trouble.
“Oscar hit three home runs in Tiger Stadium,” Bosman said. “He hit them upstairs pretty good, and stood and watched them a little bit. I had a 7-0 shutout going in the eighth inning. Ralph Houk’s managing over there, and he brings in Freddy Scherman, who puts his first pitch right into Oscar’s ribcage. Oscar, he’s a little guy, and it hurt him, boy.”
Bosman, of course — as was the way in baseball those days, felt the need to retaliate.
“The inning gets over with, and I get back out there on the mound,” he said. “And guess who the first hitter is? Al Kaline. The thing was, Al was about three hits from 3,000 at the time. So I’m thinking, where am I going to drill him? I don’t want to break his hand or anything like that. If I hit him in the ribs, that might put him out. The guy was a legend. So I figured I’d hit him in the ass. That’s the way it was supposed to be done.”*
Bosman was duty-bound, but determined to execute his task as gently as possible owing to Kaline’s standing. He ended up merely brushing Kaline back.
Baseball has lost a legend.
* As with many baseball stories from the distant past, the details for this one are somewhat different than memory might suggest. Gamble hit only one homer that day, Sept. 9, 1974, the opener of a two-game series. When the teams had met for a three-game set less than a week earlier, however, Gamble homered twice in one game and once in another, so Detroit’s patience may have been tried. Also, it wasn’t Scherman who drilled Gamble, but Vern Ruhle, in his fourth inning of work. Scherman, who had spent the previous five seasons in Detroit, had been traded to Houston the previous winter. At the point Bosman brushed him back, Kaline was 15 hits from 3,000. He would finish the year, and his career, with 3,007.
Irv Noren died over the weekend, just shy of his 95th birthday. He played for 11 big-league seasons, notably winning World Series with the Yankees in 1952, 1953 and 1956, and earning a spot on the American League All-Star team in 1954.
He was significant to me as the third base coach for the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s under Dick Williams, and, for a time, Alvin Dark. I visited his home in Southern California as part of my research for “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” and he regaled me with detailed stories of his time in the Bay Area. (As I departed, he handed me a copy of an old photograph, taken during his minor league days with the Hollywood Stars, alongside a teenage batboy named Sparky Anderson.)
From the book:
“Noren was Dick Williams’ guy. The two had grown up together in Pasadena, and though they were separated by four years as schoolkids, they stayed close through their professional lives. Both were signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Noren in 1946 (following a one-season stint in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA) and Williams a year later. When Williams was assigned to Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1948, he moved into Noren’s house. Noren advanced to the big leagues with Senators and then the Yankees, where he was an All-Star and won three World Series. After four more stops as a player, he became player-manager of the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League (where he implemented a $50 fine for any player irresponsible enough to show up too sunburned to play). After Williams was fired as manager of the Red Sox in 1969, he promised Noren that he would reserve a spot for him on his next coaching staff. Sure enough, when Finley hired Williams in 1971, Noren was one of the manager’s first calls.”
Actually, only part of the above made it into the final copy. I detailed a fair amount of Noren’s journey with the A’s, but much of it—mostly having to do with the team’s transition from Williams to Alvin Dark—was cut for reasons of length. Noren’s tenure in Oakland ended with a mid-season dismissal in 1974, and the old coach was insistent on making sure the record was correct when it came to his perception of things. So I give you an unpublished excerpt from “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic”:
Despite having played with Noren on both the Cardinals (1957-58) and the Cubs (1959), Dark got off to a rocky start with him at the beginning of the [1974 season]. Noren had been one of the front-runners to replace Dick Williams, and it was assumed that Dark’s hiring would not sit well with him. (The reality, of course, was that Noren’s long friendship with Williams virtually eliminated him from the competition before it even started.) Noren’s case was not helped when he was nowhere to be found upon Dark’s arrival in Mesa for spring training. It was easy to leap to conclusions, but Noren said that hurt feelings had nothing to do with his absence.
“I was really sick the day that spring training opened,” he said, looking back. “The doctor didn’t want me to fly or drive. I called Alvin and [A’s owner Charlie Finley] and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t report—I’m in bed.’ Alvin thought I wanted his job, and that I was pissed off because I didn’t get it. I had no inkling at all about wanting his job. I was just sick. I had the doctor write me out a note and reported three days later.”
Over the season’s first six weeks, Dark’s suspicions of his third-base coach ballooned to the point that he thought Noren was ignoring signs in order to make the manager look bad. Dark’s instructions for bunts and stolen bases were summarily overlooked to such a degree that he took the problem to Finley. The Owner, seeking solutions, theorized that perhaps Dark’s signs were too complex. He asked for a demonstration.
Dark explained to him about things like the indicator sign, before which everything else is subterfuge, and the complex methods with which the indicator can be utilized. Finley asked for the entire routine. Alvin did it, wiping across his chest, tapping his way down his arms, touching his wrist, his chin, his ear. It was all standard fare—but not for Finley.
“No wonder he misses signs,” said the Owner. “Your signs are too complicated. Make it simple. Touch your hat for a bunt. Touch your earlobe for a steal.” With a sigh, Dark explained that signs—his and every other manager’s—must be complex lest they be too easily deciphered.
Noren’s explanation, offered decades after the fact, was a bit different.
“Alvin came in and wanted me to use his signs, not my signs, so I had to learn a whole new set in a very short amount of time,” he said, looking back at Dark’s crash-course introduction to the club. “He also wanted me to relay signs to the guy on deck, which made things especially complicated. I missed the sign on the hit-and-run one time, and Alvin got mad. I said, ‘Alvin, I’m doing the best I can.’ ”
Noren paused to think about the lunacy of it all. “I’m going to do that to players?” he said, referring to the reports that Dark thought he’d been missing signs intentionally. “These guys won two World Series and I get along great with them. I’m going to screw them up because I don’t like the manager? Come on.”
Nonetheless, Dark was so disillusioned with the coach that he eventually tried to shift first base coach Jerry Adair to Noren’s position on the third base line. Adair demurred, pointing out that he was not a third-base coach, never mind that the team had won two straight championships with Noren giving the signals.
Noren appeared doomed from season’s start. He was popular with the players—a number of whom, including Bando, Hunter, Rudi and Lindblad, came out for a promotion at his liquor store in Arcadia, Calif., timed to coincide with an A’s trip to nearby Anaheim—and many were upset by his sudden departure. (The fact that he owned a liquor store may also have soured him in the eyes of the teetotaling Dark, despite the fact that Noren did not drink, either.)
The coach knew something was wrong before the game, when sportswriter Jim Street of the San Jose Mercury News, who was married to Noren’s daughter, Debbie, informed him that he had seen A’s minor league coach Bobby Hofman getting off a plane at the Oakland airport that afternoon. Throughout the game, Noren said, Dark refused to so much as glance in his direction. “Every pitch I’d look into the dugout for a sign, and he’d just look away,” he said. After the bottom of the seventh inning, Noren’s wife beckoned him to her seat in the stands. She was sitting with Debbie, whose husband had just confirmed the news. “It’s you,” she said. “You’re getting fired.” Noren’s rage was given two innings to build, and when Dark called him into his office after the game to deliver the news, the coach unleashed a bitter tirade. “I’m not a fighter, but I was ready to fight,” he said, looking back. “I tore into him. Alvin just sat there and didn’t say a word.”
Sure enough, Noren (who was fired along with fellow coach Vern Hoscheit) was replaced by Hofman. It was his last big league coaching job.
Longtime big league player and broadcaster Ron Fairly passed away on Wednesday at age 81. He played for six teams, primarily the Dodgers, starting in 1958, making two All-Star teams over a 21-season career (including in 1977, at age 38) and being a part of three World Series winners.
Fairly sat for an extensive interview for The Baseball Codes in which he proved himself to be unyieldingly old-school. The conversation took place in 2008, four years before Yasiel Puig’s debut with the Dodgers, back when bat flipping and excessive posturing was still relatively taboo, when Barry Bonds was more outlier than influencer. Even by those standards, Fairly’s outlook provided a charming glance into the way comportment once was held within baseball, and the type of man for whom such things mattered.
You don’t embarrass, you don’t show up the other team. And you don’t make fun of them by hitting a home run and flipping the bat and doing a twirl or jumping up in the air. … It used to be that when you hit a home run, you didn’t do anything—you just ran around the bases. By hitting the ball out of the ballpark, you’d done all the damage you needed to do. You’d hit a home run, so run around the bases and get off the field. That’s changed. Today it’s a more fancy, more showboat-type of play. Take an easy play and make it look a little tougher than it really is. That changed probably when they started doing the sports highlight shows. They don’t put routine plays on the air—only if someone makes a fancy play of some sort. It’s become habit with a lot of players. Instead of just making the play and throwing the guy out, they have to do something to make the play appear to be more difficult than it really is. The best example I can give you is, if you think back just a few years ago, watching Alan Trammell field a ball at shortstop and throw somebody out, versus watching some of the same type of plays today. I thought Alan Trammell’s fundamentals were as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He was a fantastic shortstop. And he didn’t feel the need to be fancy.
He also offered some philosophy about pitchers intentionally throwing at batters.
There has to be a reason to knock you down. Good golly, if you’re making out after out after out, why in the world would they throw at you? You’re an out man! Why would they throw at you and wake you up? It’s when you’re doing something against the opposing team like hitting the ball out of the ballpark, like getting base hits with runners in scoring position, when you’re doing something to hurt them like driving in runs—then they’ll turn around and say, “Well, let’s find out a little bit more about this guy.” Then you’re liable to be knocked down. The idea is to see how you react to being knocked down. If it doesn’t bother you, they’ll turn around and say, “Well, if it doesn’t bother him, we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way to get him out.” …
Don Drysdale was the best at protecting his hitters. Don said, “You go up and swing as hard as you want to, because if they throw at you they’re only going to do it once. I’ll take care of it.” Don always said it was two for one—two of theirs for every one of ours—so I never had to say a word to anybody, ever.
In addition to playing alongside one of the sport’s great enforcers in Drysdale, Fairly played against the only guy in Drysdale’s class when it came to that sort of stuff:
I talked to opponents all the time [while playing first base]. There were some guys who didn’t like it, like Bob Gibson. I said, “Hi, Bob. How are you tonight?” And he says, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” That was the last time I talked to Bob at first base.
In the years since that interview, I’ve used the phrase “He’s an out man!” countless times. From a personal standpoint, I remember Fairly best as a Giants broadcaster in the late-1980s and early 1990s. He was a capable describer of game action, even though his stories—and there were a lot of them—tended to be about the Dodgers. (Then again, why wouldn’t they, considering that he spent his first dozen seasons in LA, which included four World Series.)
I want to take a moment to remember Charlie Silvera, best known as Yogi Berra’s backup on the Yankees, but known to me as the crusty old scout who I loved talking to over the years in the press box of Oracle Park. Charlie, who was already a notably old man when I first met him nearly 20 years ago, died on Saturday at age 94. On one hand, this is longer than any reasonable human could hope for, but on the other it is still shocking for a guy who I assumed would live forever.
“They hated the Yankees,” he once told me. “They respected us, but they hated us.” That hatred might have had something to do with the fact that New York won six championships during Silvera’s tenure with the team, including five straight from 1949 to 1954. (He was the final survivor of the dozen men who played on all five clubs.) He spent nine years with the Yankees, during which time he started only 114 games, accumulating 484 plate appearances and a single home run. (Berra, after all, rarely took days off.) After a single season with the Cubs (and 13 more games started), Silvera followed Billy Martin to three teams—the Twins, the Tigers and the Rangers—where he served as a coach under his former teammate.
Charlie was at the center of a wonderful story about friendship, which involved growing up in San Francisco and playing against two men at rival high schools who would one day be teammates in New York: Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown. Their relationship ended up spanning 70-odd years.
Charlie once told me the amazing story of Ralph “Pine Tar” Buxton being recruited for the Yankees by Casey Stengel based at least in part on his ability to teach pitchers on the staff how to cheat. That ended up in The Baseball Codes, as did Silvera’s classic quote about backup players receiving less-sought-after positions in the train’s sleeper car: “The stars, the starting lineup would have the middle of the car, and Charlie Silvera would spend his lifetime over the wheels. Bobby Brown says that anybody that rode over wheels for his whole career deserves whatever he got.”
Charlie also told a host of stories that didn’t make the final copy. Among them;
“I remember when Allie Reynolds hit Chico Carrasquel with a curveball. It was probably Chico’s first year, and he got all upset. Allie said, ‘You think that’s bad, I’m gonna hit you next time with a fastball.’ ”
“The only guy who ever threw at me was Early Wynn, and he would throw at his mother. But that was a way of testing you, to see if you hung in, if you were scared. And with no helmets!”
“Whitey Ford didn’t like to switch signs. He had the same signs—one finger for a fastball, two for a curve—with a man on second, or not. He wanted to get the ball and throw. He didn’t want to lose his concentration. [Vic] Raschi used a scoreboard sign: If [the numbers of the count, added together] were even, it was a fastball, odd was an automatic curveball. If you flapped, it changed them. They were tough signs to use, but Raschi wanted to use them.”
“[Eddie] Lopat, he had one sign, ‘wiggle finger,’ because he could see when he got to the top of the mound if the batter was going to move up. He was a slowball pitcher, but he could ride his fastball in. It was limited, but it was effective. That was it. Wiggle finger.”
“In Chicago, they had a light in the scoreboard, in the circle of the zero [in Sherm Lollar’s #10], that would flash for a curveball. In Cleveland, they would put guys out in center field. Eddie Bockman used to go out there and get the signs from center field. Dean Chance went out there. They used binoculars or a telescope. Chance said he was going to go out and be inconspicuous, then wore the brightest red shirt he could find. In the playoffs in Baltimore, when Minnesota was playing there, [George] Mitterwald was catching and [Johnny] Roseboro was out in our bullpen with binoculars, trying to get the signs, and they caught him. One of our pitchers turned him in, one of our own, because he said that was cheating.” [That pitcher, Al Worthington, is featured prominently in The Baseball Codes.]
[Under the heading of professional courtesy]: “Lew Brissie was shot up in World War II, had a bad leg and wore a protector over his shin. Phil Rizzuto still bunted on him, and Brissie would throw at Rizzuto because of this. He went after Phil, threw at his head. He felt that this was taking advantage of a wounded veteran. He was one guy we all knew not to bunt against.”
“When you joined the Yankees, you were told the do’s and don’ts about what to do and what not to do. When I joined the club, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio were in the service, so the four policemen on the team, the disciplinarians, were Tommy Henrich (age 33), Johnny Lindell (27), Snuffy Stirnweiss (29) and Billy Johnson (27). They were the ones that said, ‘You don’t get ’em tomorrow, you get ’em today.’ They said ‘Don’t fuck with our money’ to anybody who might be messing up during games.”
“[Catcher] Clint Courtney had been in the Yankee farm system, went to spring training with us, and then was traded to the Browns. [Gil] McDougald had played with him at Beaumont, and Courtney had him out in a play at the plate but McDougald kicked the ball out of his glove for the go-ahead run. So Courtney is the first hitter up in the bottom of the ninth, and he hit the first pitch off the screen, kept running and he jumped feet first into Rizzuto, who had the ball at second. Well, that’s the last time Courtney saw anybody friendly from our team, because he was just clobbered from all over. The retribution went on and on and on. Billy Martin tagged him on the face and knocked his glasses off. And Whitey Ford was jumping up and down, stomping on his glasses. Courtney had a little trouble finding his way home.”
“I was catching, with Ted Williams hitting and Bill McGowan umpiring. They called McGowan ‘Number One.’ He was a grouchy old bastard, but he was a good ball-and-strike umpire when he wanted to be, and generally, Yankees vs. Red Sox was something big. So we go to a two-and-one count, and the next pitch caught a lot of the plate. I said, ‘Jeez, Bill, that was a pretty good pitch.’ He said, ‘Throw the ball back, you bush bastard. They came here to see him hit, not you catch.’ ”
That was Charlie in a nutshell. Humble, endearing, and salty enough to remain forever intriguing. It was at his house that I got to hold a game-used Ted Williams bat, one small piece among a wondrous array of memorabilia collected over a career spent paying attention to that kind of thing in ways that I wish more ballplayers would have done.
The guy was never a star, but he was baseball, through and through. He will be missed.
Frank Robinson, an inner-circle Hall of Famer and one of the very best outfielders ever to lace up spikes, passed away today after a battle with bone cancer. His career saw an MVP with the Reds in 1961, and another with the Orioles in 1966. When he retired in 1976, his 586 career homers ranked fourth all-time, and even after the steroid era still rate as the tenth most ever.
Just as notably, Robinson was the first African American manager in big league history, with Cleveland in 1975, and went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals. It was the latter tenure—during his final season as a big league skipper, in fact—that brings us one of my favorites stories of the man, and a fitting coda to his managing career. From The Baseball Codes:
Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players in baseball history, a guy who during his Hall of Fame playing career exhibited virtually no mental weakness on a ballﬁeld, the perfect example of an indestructible personality. As a manager, however, at the helm of the Washington Nationals in 2006, he once broke down completely. Over the previous weeks the seventy-year-old Robinson had watched helplessly as his catchers went down to injury, one by agonizing one. Starter Brian Schneider was disabled with a hamstring strain. Robert Fick, who was primarily an outﬁelder/ﬁrst baseman anyway, missed the ﬁrst six weeks of the season with elbow damage, and finally came off the disabled list to be used as a pinch-hitter, not to play the ﬁeld. The only other guy on the club with catching experience was Wiki Gonzalez, who by that point wasn’t actually on the team—he was due to be outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans the following day and had already appeared in what would be his ﬁnal game for Washington.
Desperate before a game against the Astros, Robinson turned to one of his favorite players, Matt LeCroy. LeCroy came up as a catcher but had primarily been a designated hitter to that point in his seven-year career, and spent all of one inning behind the plate the previous season. Also, he was battling bone spurs in his throwing elbow. LeCroy was willing to catch, but he’d effectively be taking one for the team—and both he and Robinson knew it.
The Astros stole a base against the injured catcher in the second inning, and another in the fourth. By the sixth they had homed in on his weakness and began a slow, painful process of exploitation, swiping four more bags in the frame. In the seventh, Morgan Ensberg stole Houston’s seventh base of the night, advanced to third on LeCroy’s second throwing error of the game, then scored on Preston Wilson’s single, to close what had been a 7–1 Nationals lead to 7–5. At that point, Robinson couldn’t take any more. In the middle of the inning he instructed Fick—who had started only twenty games as a catcher over the previous four seasons— to strap on some shin guards, and walked slowly toward the plate to replace LeCroy.
Robinson knew the Code [against removing players in the middle of an inning for any reason except injury], but, as repugnant as he found it, he felt he had no choice. He wasn’t angry at LeCroy, but sorry for him. Sorry that he was exposed as being so vulnerable, sorry he couldn’t get the job done, sorry circumstances dictated that he had to be out there in the ﬁrst place. LeCroy took it well, saying, “If my daddy was managing this team I’m sure he would have done the same thing,” but when Robinson was asked about it after the game, one of the hardest men in baseball was unable to maintain his composure. As he talked, tears streamed down his cheeks.
“It’s not LeCroy’s fault,” he said. “We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That’s my responsibility. I put him in there. . . . That’s on my shoulders.” In protecting his player from one evil—the base-path assault of the Houston Astros—Robinson exposed him to another: potential ridicule from fans and players alike. The manager was forced to choose between two barely palatable options, and ultimately decided to put the good of the team ahead of the good of both LeCroy and, to gauge by his analysis of the situation, himself.
Robinson, as fierce a competitor as the sport has known, will be sorely missed.
I drew the above picture in 1980, when I was 10 and Willie McCovey was 42, shortly after he’d hit his final home run, number 521, tying him with Ted Williams on the all-time list. I was a kid, and he was my baseball hero, the last vestige of a classic Giants era that wrapped up before I was old enough to take notice. Willie Mays was long gone—first to the Mets, and then to retirement—but McCovey was still around, still doing great things even after he had long passed the point of being great himself. Mays was legend, but McCovey was tangible, something to grasp. He was right there, the wizened elder whose feats of strength, while increasingly rare, were still, on occasion, majestic. I remember my father explaining to me in the Candlestick Park grandstand that year how the slugger, wobbling atop arthritic knees that would eventually leave him wheelchair-bound, might be the only man in baseball to smack a ball off the right-field fence—as he’d just done—and never even consider advancing to second base.
McCovey died yesterday at age 80, succumbing to a panoply of health issues that began piling up before his career even ended.
By the time I came up as a sportswriter in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, Willie Mac was a regular at what was then known as Pac Bell Park, joining Mays to frequent the office of clubhouse manager Mike Murphy to such a degree that the duo effectively became part of the tableau, just another wondrous aspect of clubhouse culture. I spoke with him on occasion, but only when I had specific questions for a story I was working on, and always at a remove. Hanging out with McCovey? That was something Willie Mays got to do, not mortals like me.
As pertains to this space, when McCovey’s name came up during interviews for The Baseball Codes, it was almost universally under the same subject heading. The guy was known for his abundant power—it earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959, and the MVP a decade later—but people who played against him also remember how he leveraged his strength while tagging runners at first base. Lou Brock once said that leading off against the Giants was the worst experience a player could have. “He slapped that big ol’ glove down there, hard,” said Chris Speier.
“Willie would slap you so nicely,” recalled Dusty Baker. “He’d smile, then drop that hammer on your head, on your ribs.”
Did anyone hold it against him?
“Well, he was so nice, and he was so big, who could get mad at him?”
Which was a huge part of the guy’s appeal. The first baseman’s demeanor allowed him to keep runners close simply by the threat of tagging them, without real repercussions given that they knew it was never personal. His nature was further on display in an incident that had nothing to do with his tags, during a fight between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs in 1973. From Baseball Digest:
“When the scuffle flared to a red-hot pitch, Jose Cardenal, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound fight fielder for the Cubs, bolted directly toward Willie McCovey, the Giants’ 6-foot-4, 200-pound first baseman.
“ ‘I want you, beeg man,’ Cardenal shouted as he leaped to launch a swing at McCovey. His punch missed by a foot. McCovey laughed and declined to squash his antagonist.”
The guy was beloved. He ran the team’s kangaroo court during his playing days, and now has a statue memorializing the same swing pictured above gracing a cove named after him beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park. (Had McCovey played there, the theory holds, he’d have slugged untold balls into that water.) So deep is the respect for him that the Giants’ annual honorific for the player who displays the most spirit and leadership, as voted upon by teammates, is called the Willie Mac Award.
It’s a sad day for Giants fans. We’ve lost a legend.