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November 8, 2018

Hugh Atkins

San Francisco Giants great Willie McCovey passed away last week. McCovey was one of the most powerful sluggers in baseball at a time when baseball had a lot of legendary sluggers. I always liked McCovey; he seemed like a good guy. As an Atlanta Braves fan, it seemed to me that he always killed the Braves.

After digging through some statistics, I think my memory of McCovey as being a Braves killer is accurate; he hit 71 home runs against the Braves during his career, 48 of them after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But there are some specific, personal memories of McCovey that form my opinion of him being death to Atlanta.

On June 22, 1969, McCovey hit a home run against the Braves that traveled into the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He was just the second player to ever hit a ball into the upper deck; Willie Smith of the Chicago Cubs did it just 12 days before McCovey.

© T.C.G.

In 1977, my future brother-in-law, Wayne Shearon, and I made the trip to Atlanta to catch a weekend series against the Giants. In the first two games, McCovey managed only one hit and two walks in eight trips to the plate. But in the fifth inning of the Sunday afternoon game on July 17, McCovey stepped to the plate against Buzz Capra and lined a home run that seemed to get over the fence in about two seconds. Wayne and I talked about that home run at least until we got to Chattanooga on our trip home.

The following summer, Wayne and I returned to Atlanta, and the Braves again were playing the Giants. In the first game of a doubleheader on Friday evening June 30, McCovey led off the second inning with the 500th home run of his career. In the fourth inning, he ripped a double and then left the game for a pinch runner.

On Saturday night, McCovey hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second inning. By this time, Wayne and I were convinced that Babe Ruth had nothing on Willie McCovey. On Sunday afternoon, McCovey wasn’t in the starting lineup, but with the Braves leading 9-7 with one out in the top of the eighth inning, Wayne nudged me on the shoulder and pointed to the on-deck circle. McCovey had emerged from the dugout and was swinging a couple of bats as he prepared to pinch hit. We were relieved when Johnnie LeMaster grounded out, because we knew the worst McCovey could do was make it a one-run game. As it turned out, he grounded out to second base to end the inning. Because McCovey was such an imposing figure–even while merely swinging a bat in the on-deck circle–we feared the Braves’ lead was in jeopardy.

© T.C.G.

While McCovey was tough on the Braves, he also was tough on every other team in the National League. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959 when he hit .354 in 52 games; he was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1969. McCovey is the all-time National League leader in grand slams with 18; he led the National League in home runs three times and played in six All Star Games. Just when it appeared that McCovey’s career was over, he bounced back with 28 home runs in 1977 and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

McCovey played 15 seasons with the Giants before going to the San Diego Padres for most of three seasons; he finished the 1976 season with the Oakland Athletics before returning to the Giants for his final four seasons. Along the way McCovey hit 521 home runs, despite not having a regular spot in the lineup early in his career and playing the last several years of his career with bad knees.

McCovey wore number 44, just like his fellow Mobile native, Henry Aaron, and was, by all accounts, a good guy all the way.

Willie “Stretch” McCovey was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from, retrosheet.organd the Atlanta Braves 2018 Media Guide; all game details are from

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