By the afternoon of July 29 the Giants were desperate. Smack in the middle of a sizzling pennant race, they had suddenly lost four straight games, including, that very day, a three-hitter by Johnny Antonelli. The pitching had been superb, the defense for once adequate. The Giants just weren't hitting.
So that night the call went down to Phoenix for help—and the next day help appeared, a gangling apparition named Willie (Stretch) McCovey. Six feet four inches tall, weighing 200 pounds and looking a bit like a sleepy Watusi warrior, the Pacific Coast League's leading hitter (.377 average, 28 home runs, 91 runs batted in) found himself at Seals Stadium in San Francisco with only half his clothes, none of his Louisville Slugger bats and a job which just the day before had belonged to the National League's All-Star first baseman, Orlando Cepeda.
Apparently none of this bothered him a bit. Stuffed into uniform No. 44 and inserted into the third spot in the batting order, the left-handed McCovey singled his first time up against Robin Roberts of the Phils. Next he hit a 410-foot triple off the scoreboard. Then he singled again, the ball hitting the right field wall so hard he had to stop at first. And finally he tripled again, this time over the left fielder's head. McCovey scored three runs, drove in two, and the Giants won 7-2, moving back into first place.
Next day Willie hit again and kept on hitting. Only once in his first nine games was he stopped. He hit home runs and doubles and triples and singles, driving in runs, scoring, winning ball games. All of this was exciting enough, in itself. But much more important to the pennant race, the Giants won eight of those nine games. The newest and biggest of the Giants' Willies had given the whole team a lift.
Writers and photographers, television cameramen and radio announcers swarmed over McCovey like flies on sugar. At the end of his first week he became the subject of a three-part life story in one of the San Francisco papers, which at least ties a record. Feature writers examined every flaw, from the chip on his front tooth to the corns on his toes, hoping to come up with a new angle. But about all that anyone really found out was that he could hit, his feet were too big for him to be a really skilled first baseman, and that he never said a word if he could help it.
"How," a reporter asked him, "do you explain yourself?"
"Huh?" McCovey said.
He was born in Mobile, Alabama, on January 10, 1938, seventh of 10 children of church-going Baptist parents. He had his own tattered glove when he was 12. He went to Central High in Mobile for three years and played end in football, starred in basketball. By 16, Willie was at his full height and tried to join the Navy, but his mother stopped him. He worked in a produce market and a bakery. Then a playground director named Jesse Thomas recommended Willie to the Giants, and in March of 1955 he went to the club's minor league training base at Melbourne, Florida.
Scout Alex Pompez, who has had a hand in signing almost every Negro player with the Giants, liked what he saw. The kid's fielding needed polishing, but he had a major league swing, which he demonstrated by hitting baseballs into a clump of trees 400 feet away. Today McCovey stands close to the plate, leans over slightly, holds his bat straight up and down and drives smoothly into the pitch like Sam Snead hitting one off the first tee. He reminds Willie Mays of the early Larry Doby. "He's a wrist hitter," Mays says. "He don't stride that much. If you don't stride, you gotta be a wrist hitter."
Melbourne marked the first time McCovey—or Stretch, as he was soon dubbed—had been away from home, and he was popeyed. "When he first came into camp, he didn't seem to care about the game he was in," says Salty Parker, the Giant third base coach, who managed McCovey in B and Double-A ball. "There were four diamonds at Melbourne, and he's playing on one and watching the games on the other three. So there's a meeting one night, and all we talk about is Stretch. What are we going to do to get him interested? So finally one fellow said, 'Let's not worry about Stretch. All this is new to him. He'll come around eventually.' So we let him alone, and he did."