National Pastime Museum: Willie McCovey’s Debut

By Marty Appel

This is a column about the great Willie McCovey’s major league debut, but it is also about the impact that it made when the game’s daily events were so much easier to note and absorb.

This was still an era of 16 teams and 400 players.  Expansion was two years away. Following the game was more effortless – there were eight games played on a full day (not counting doubleheaders), and there was more than enough newspaper space to give each game full coverage.  So while today, even with ESPN and MLB Network and others offering highlights around the clock, the fact that the nation could awaken on July 31, 1959 and see details of a rookie’s remarkable debut the day before was enthralling.  It wasn’t lost in one paragraph summaries. The game, the accomplishment, the box score, and photos were all there to behold. Within 12 hours, all baseball fans knew the name Willie McCovey. There was another Willie in town.

The date was July 30, 1959.  The Giants were in their second season in San Francisco, and they were ten games over .500 and hosting the hapless Philadelphia Phillies, 14 games under.  They had been in first place for most of July, but had just lost four straight and slipped a half-game out. One of the few distinguished members of the Phillies roster, a veteran holdover from their 1950 “Whiz Kids” pennant, was Robin Roberts, who was starting that afternoon.

The game was being played at old single-decked Seals Stadium (capacity 23,000), with Candlestick Park still under construction, and not scheduled to open until the following season.  A “crowd” of 10,114 turned out in what was still essentially a minor league ballpark, celebrated from its days in the Pacific Coast League. (The team still drew a respectable 1.4 million that year).  

Giants manager Bill Rigney had McCovey batting third, and playing first base, hitting behind Jackie Brandt and Willie Mays, and after Roberts had retired them both, McCovey celebrated his first major league at bat with a single to right.  Cleanup hitter Orlando Cepeda, (who had played first the day before but was today at third), flied out, and McCovey was stranded.

He next batted in the last of the third of a 0-0 game.  Eddie Bressoud was on third and Mays drew a walk. There were two out and Mays stole second, allowing Bressoud to score on a throwing error by the Phillies catcher Joe Lonnett.  (The Phils second baseman, was none other than Sparky Anderson). But then Mays, caught in a rundown, was out at third, and McCovey would lead off the fourth inning with the Giants ahead 1-0.

Facing Roberts again, Willie slammed a long triple to centerfield, Richie Ashburn chasing it down for the Phillies.  Two batters later, Willie Kirkland would drive him in on a fielder’s choice. It was his first extra base hit and his first run scored.

In the fifth, with the score now tied 2-2, and Roberts still pitching, Mays singled home Bressoud to give the Giants the lead, and then with Mays on second (advancing on a throw, as only he could do), McCovey came up and singled to right for his first run batted in, as Mays scored.  Cepeda’s single sent McCovey to third and he scored on a wild pitch.

In the seventh, facing Roberts for the fourth time, McCovey tripled into the gap between left and center, scoring Mays who had doubled.  

The Giants were up 7-2 now, and McCovey was on deck with a chance for a fifth hit (Humberto Robinson was now pitching), when Mays flied out.  McCovey would not get that fifth at bat, and the Giants won the game 7-2, with Mike McCormick going the distance for the win.

History was riding on that fifth time at bat.  In 1894, Louisville’s Fred Clarke had gone 5-for-5 in his major league debut.  But McCovey’s 4-for-4 equaled a 20th century record.  Casey Stengel had done it with Brooklyn in 1912, and there had been four others in between, – Spook Jacobs in 1954, Ed Freed in 1942, Cecil Travis in 1933, and Art Shires in 1928.  Travis actually had five hits in the 12-inning game.

Stengel, feeling pretty cocky about himself, actually turned around and batted right handed in that appearance, walked –  the only time he ever “switch-hit” in his career. His manager was understandably furious.

The fact that McCovey had delivered his four hits against a brand name pitcher like Roberts, who like himself was a future Hall of Famer, made his debut all the more spectacular.  One could not say “he had four hits,” without adding, “all off Robin Roberts.”

As the baseball world stood and took notice, McCovey went on to hit safely in his first seven games, belting three homers and hitting .467 in those eight days.  He really didn’t stop, finishing the season hitting .354 in 52 games with 13 homers and 38 RBIs. His slugging percentage was .656 and his OPS was 1.085. He even hit three other triples, giving him five in that rookie season.  In September, seeing what was unfolding, the Baseball Writers Association revisited their eligibility rules for Rookie of the Year, and revised it so that McCovey would be eligible, even having played just a third of a season. He was the unanimous selection, receiving all 24 votes cast.

McCovey may have sneaked up on baseball fans, but for those in the game, they had seen him coming.  Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, he had signed with the New York Giants in 1955 at 17. The Giants were loaded with power-hitting outfield prospects at the time.  At 6’4”, he stood apart.

“The organization was really deep with these sorts of players,” says future National League President Bill White, who was one of them.  “Mays of course, was already established, but we had Cepeda, we had McCovey, we had Willie Kirkland, we had Leon Wagner, we had Charlie Dees, and none of us knew what the future would bring.  Willie was the quietest, and always a really nice guy. We were all segregated together in spring training, so we got to know each other really well. In batting practice, we’d lose more baseballs over the fences than you could believe.  I’d just clear the fence. The next guy would hit it a little farther. The next guy farther still. Eventually McCovey would hit it the farthest of all. It was great fun; we were all young and we were playing baseball for a living.”

By 1959, the Giants had moved to San Francisco, and McCovey was assigned to Phoenix, where he played 95 games and batted .372 with 29 homers and 92 RBIs.  He was so good that batting him third in his debut game – between Mays and Cepeda – hardly seemed improbable. In fact, it seemed quite natural.

Although Cepeda had arrived the year before, it was McCovey who really won the hearts of Giants fans, and quickly became more popular than Mays – a remarkable thing.  The fact that Willie was “home grown” as opposed to having arrived from New York as Mays did, was probably the difference. The fans loved both Willies, but McCovey a little bit more.

Said a Giant fan of his time: “Mays was a joy to watch, he could do everything.  McCovey was more of a ‘presence,’ a guy you absolutely feared as he stood in the batter’s box.  You didn’t want to be playing first base with McCovey at bat.”

He would go on to be “Stretch” McCovey, play 22 seasons, hit 521 home runs, and win an MVP award in professional baseball’s centennial season of 1969.  In his one World Series, 1962, he hit a rocket to Bobby Richardson’s left, which could have won the Series for the Giants. Instead, the memorable drive marked the final out. He was a six-time All-Star who twice topped 40 homers and a Hall of Fame selection in 1986, his first year of eligibility.  One can safely say that no Hall of Famer ever signaled his destiny so decisively in his first game as did this beloved Giant of a man.