By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 72: Willie McCovey

Does fear matter in baseball? Every now and again, a personality comes along who transcends the standard emotions of the game. They stand out. People struggle for precise words to describe these players; they usually come up with imprecise and unsatisfying descriptions like “gamer” or “bulldog” or “all-heart” or “feared.” You probably see any of those those words, and immediately a matching player comes to mind.

Well, it makes sense. Baseball, more than any other sport, is a daily game crowded with relatively bland daily emotions. A bit of happiness. a bit of sadness. A bit of excitement. A bit of boredom. The sameness of every day –s bus ride, work outs, batting practice, side sessions, watch video, check the lineup card, laugh at the same jokes, visualize the game, take off the cap, sing the he National Anthem, — stifles and motivates. You know where to be. There’s no place else to be. Also, there’s no place else to go.

Then, into this world, someone comes along who is just a little bit different. Bob Feller was different. Hitters felt a slightly different emotion facing him — he threw 100 mph and wasn’t entirely sure where it was going. Ted Williams was different — he never swung at a bad pitch and if you gave him anything too good he would turn and crush it.

Willie MacCovey was different too.

Does fear matter in baseball? On a basic level, you’d have to say no. A fear-based home run is not worth any more than a regular old old home run. A strikeout earned through intimidation is no different from a strikeout earned through misdirection. A few years ago, during the Jim Rice Hall of Fame debate, some of his fans believed he deserved extra credit for being (as the narrative goes) the most feared hitter of his time. Right now, during the Jack Morris Hall of Fame debate, many of his fans believe he deserves extra credit for being (as the narrative goes) the big-game pitcher nobody wanted to face when it mattered most.

Even if these things are true, the question remains: What difference does it make? Rice’s career was Rice’s career, Morris’ career was Morris’ career. We see their numbers, we remember their habits, we can compare their production to other great players. Whatever fear they might have inspired doesn’t change what they did for better or worse.

But … maybe there’s another way to look at it. Consider Willie McCovey. He was probably the most feared hitter of his time (Dick Allen, Frank Howard, Willie Stargell, Orlando Cepeda intimidated too, but I’d argue for McCovey). He was one of the more feared hitters of all time. It was a fear you could quantify — with intentional walks, and unintentional intentional walks and the quotes of the time.

Does this fear add to his career home run total? No. Does it change the fact that he was cursed with as much bad timing as any player? No. Does it fix the body that break down too often? No.

So … what then?

Willie McCovey was born in Alabama in 1938. As an aside, think about Alabama for a moment. Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama in 1932. Henry Aaron was born in Mobile. Alabama in 1934. Two-time All-Star pitcher Bob Veale was born in Birmingham in 1935. In 1938, McCovey was born in Mobile, Billy Williams was born in Whistler and two-time All-Star Don Mincher was born in Huntsville. Tommie Agee was born in Magnolia in 1942 and Lee May was born in Birmingham in 1943.

Four Hall of Famers (including two of the best players ever) and four more All-Stars in a decade or so is pretty solid work for a single state, especially one with barely 2.5 million people at the time. The best player born in California over the same stretch of time was probably Graig Nettles. Florida: Boog Powell. New York had Yaz and Joe Torre, Ohio had Pete Rose, Texas had some excellent players including Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan. But that stretch of players from Alabama is otherworldly.

McCovey was the seventh of 10 children. He dropped out of school to help support his family. At 17, he attended a New York Giants tryout camp. In a twist of fate that would affect both men’s lives, McCovey ended up at the same tryout camp as another future Hall of Famer, Orlando Cepeda. The two young men — both huge first baseman with immense power and born just four months apart in age — would find themselves banging heads for the next 10 years.

At the time, McCovey was tall and gangly, but he already had towering natural power. The Giants sent him to the Georgia State league where he mashed 19 home runs and slugged .507. He was moved up to Danville in the Carolina League, and there he hit 29 home runs and slugged closer to .600. There was something remarkable and a little bit illogical about McCovey — he had this massive, slow-looking swing that was obviously powerful but also should have missed a lot. It didn’t. The comparison that comes to mind is George Foreman in his prime throwing what looked like heavy, plodding punches and seemed fairly easy to elude. They were not. Foreman was laser accurate. And so was McCovey. As McCovey grew into his body, he would walk much more than he struck out.

Unfortunately for McCovey, Cepeda was, if anything, slightly more advanced. He hit .393 in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League — which you will be happy to know did not have a single team from Mississippi or Ohio — and later hit .300 and slugged .500 in Class AA Minneapolis. Cepeda made it to the big leagues first. He played the whole season in 1958, he hit .312, slugged .512 and led the league in the doubles. He was named Rookie of the Year.

McCovey made his move the next year. The Giants may not have been eager to move him up but he so obliterated Class AAA Tacoma pitching — hitting .372 and slugging .759 with 29 homers in just 95 games — that the Giants had no choice. They called up McCovey and switched Cepeda’s position to make room at first base. They tried Cepeda at third base for four games. Cepeda was beyond disastrous. So they moved him to left field where he was only moderately more successful.

But what could they do? McCovey was unreal. In 52 games, he hit .354. smacked 13 home runs and drove in 38 runs. He hit the ball with so much force and fury that he was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, even though he only had 192 big league at-bats. It remains the fewest at-bats ever for a non-pitcher Rookie of the Year. That’s the kind of impression he made.

So … what next? That Giants clearly had no idea. They had two amazing hitters, both barely adequate first basemen, and they were stuck. They apparently did not want to deal either one — and who could blame them? — so they tried Cepeda in left field and right field but neither one took. They tried the heavy-footed McCovey in left field and right field and that was even worse. They rode a hot bat and then would flip to the other guy. Mostly, McCovey suffered in the exchange especially because he also had painful feet and bad knees. From 1959 through 1964, McCovey only once got even 375 plate appearances in a season. That was 1963, and he hit .280/.350/.566 and led the National League with 44 home runs.

Timing. It’s such an underrated part of baseball. McCovey’s early years were blocked by Cepeda. His prime years happened to come at the worst time for hitters since Deadball. High mounds. Vast strike zones. Amazing power pitchers. McCovey faced only six pitchers more than 100 times in his career. The six include Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. Yeah. The sixth was the excellent Larry Jackson, whom he pummeled relentlessly.

Actually, McCovey pummeled a lot of good pitchers. He slugged .680 against Drysdale, .584 against Tom Seaver, .552 against Niekro, he even slugged .500 against lefty-killer Steve Carlton. But that doesn’t diminish the difficulty of hitting in his time. Koufax tied him up in knots. Spahn too. In 1968, he was the only hitter in the league to drive in 100 runs. From 1967 to 1972, National League teams averaged fewer than four runs a game — the lowest extended stretch of scoring since the spitball was outlawed. McCovey was he best power hitter of the time with the highest OPS (.957) for any player in baseball. But runs were hard to score.

So you take it all in total: McCovey was shorted a bunch of at-bats because he came along at the same time as Cepeda. He lost a lot of at-bats because his body would break down. He played in a truly miserable time for hitters. With that, it’s absolutely amazing that he hit 521 homers in his career, knocked in more than 1,500 RBIs, and created more than 1,600 runs. At the time of his retirement, he was 26th on the all-time list of runs created.

In another time, with better time, as Bill James has written, he might have hit 800 homers.

But how do you tell his story? Maybe you do talk about fear. McCovey was utterly feared — enough to subtly change the game. Before McCovey, as far as the records go back (to 1937 on the incomparable Retrosheet), only one player had been intentionally walked 30-plus times in a season. That was Ted Williams in 1957. He was intentionally walked 33 times — that year he hit .388 and slugged .731 for a team that usually had a 39-year-old Mickey Vernon or Dick Gernert hitting behind him.

The intentional walk, except in rare cases, just wasn’t used as an evasive strategy. It was used mostly to set up the double play. Sure, managers would walk a good hitter if first base was open sometimes, but not often. In 1956, he year Mickey Mantle hit for the Triple Crown, he was intentionally walked six times. Hank Aaron, even long after he was known to be lethal, was never intentionally walked 25 times in a season, and Willie Mays topped out at 20.

And then came McCovey. After the Giants traded Cepeda, McCovey was left alone as the everyday first baseman. He became otherworldly. From 1968-1970, he led the league in slugging, OPS and OPS+ each year. He walked 100 times more than he struck out. He averaged 40 homers a year. And what homers. “When he belts a home run,” Dodgers manager Walter Alston said, “he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God.”

So teams started walking him. And walking him. And walking him. He walked 121 times in 1969, 137 times in 1970. “If you pitch to him, he’ll ruin baseball,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. Anderson was manager of the Reds from 1970 to 1978 and, sure enough, the Reds intentionally walked McCovey 22 times in that time. Sparky’s Reds even intentionally walked McCovey twice in 1978, when Stretch was 40 years old. That’s the kind of admiration and fear we’re talking about here.

In 1968, when McCovey led the league with 36 homers and 105 RBIs, he was intentionally walked 20 times. The next year, it was 45 — that record would last for 30 years and not be broken until Barry Bonds bulked up and became Superman

The year after that, McCovey was intentionally walked 40 times, the second-highest total before Bonds. He led the league in intentional walks in 1971 and 1973. He was so feared that, in a weird way, he sort of broke the game. They walked him. They tried crazy shifts against him. Teams, many of them, more or less gave up the idea of pitching to him when the game was on the line. Anderson said if teams pitched to him, he’d hit 80 home runs.

Fielders inched back. Pitchers sweated a touch more. Even Don Drysdale, who made a living out of intimidating hitters, felt trepidation. “I think McCovey is the only player he was afraid of,” Don Sutton said of Drysdale. McCovey hit balls with such violence you could almost see exclamation points flying off of them at contact.

Does fear matter in baseball? It depends how you ask the question. Fear doesn’t change the player. McCovey still was a phenomenal power hitter. McCovey still only had six seasons with 600 plate appearances. He was still a subpar defender and a sluggish runner. But if you saw Willie McCovey hit, you could not forget him. And that matters.

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55 Responses to No. 72: Willie McCovey

  1. Spencer says:

    Imagine if Aaron, Mays and Mccovey had been born in Alabama in the 21st century instead of the 30’s. In the football crazy south it’s not hard to imagine Mays headed to the university of Alabama to play tailback (at 5’11” he wouldn’t have been allowed to play qb) and Aaron spurning Alabama to head to Auburn to play tailback.

    What a shame that would have been…

    • Andrew says:

      I think as concussion and injury concerns grow, over the next 10-20 years you’ll start to see the best athletes being funneled back into baseball and basketball again (unless some drastic change happens to football).

    • Blahblahblah says:

      It’s my biggest worry re baseball right now. Willie Mays favorite sport was football. Rickey Henderson loved playing halfback and only his grandmothers intercession caused him to play baseball. How many other potential HoF’ers are playing in the NFL or point guard. Yes-the worldwide talent pool has filled a large part of that gap but I suspect that a large chunk of America’s best talents never play baseball…and that’s a shame

  2. College Wolf says:

    Anyone know why Joe’s RSS feeds don’t work anymore? Not for this site or his NBC Sports archives. Or do they work for others and I have wrong ones? They both worked for me until like a month ago. Thanks in advance!

  3. Shagster says:

    Any stat reason for why McCovey’s honorary park/statue is located outside ATT’s short right field? All his home stats were in that soon to be demolished baseball graveyard, Candlestick Park.

    • Guest says:

      I think the statue is there because that is where the Giants play. I think it’s why they have the Mays statute there, too. Oddly, the Vida Blue statue is outside the Cow Palace. I’ve never really understood that placement, but I think it has something to do with his connection to the Grateful Dead.

      • Sadge says:

        Candlestick never had statues. There weren’t any great places to put them and by the time the Giants left, 49er statues seemed more appropriate.

        At the new stadium, the Mays statue went in first as the centerpiece and the others were added over the last 13 years. Shortly after the stadium opened and balls started flying into the water, some local writers suggested changing the name from China Basin to McCovey Cove. That name stuck, but it is still unofficial. The McCovey statue is across the cove at McCovey Point, next to a little league field. It is a great place to walk around before or after a game, or any time. If you walk there, you can cross the Lefty O’Doul bridge, named after another local baseball legend.

  4. Ron says:

    Joe, just wanted to thank you for this Baseball 100 work — every post is full of great writing, fantastic anecdotes, ties to the hot topics of today (“fear”?) and love of the game. As a “level 4 fan”, to use your latest levels of baseball knowledge, I still find mydelf learning new stuff every day from you. Despite reading all of the posts, if you ever publish your Baseball 100 as a book, I would get it the very next day. Thanks and please keep writing these (and what about that iPad review??).

  5. johnq11 says:

    It always felt like that “feared hitter” component during the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s had a racial component attached to it. Think about it: Willie McCovey, Dick Allen, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams and Willie Horton were “feared” in the 1960’s. Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, George Foster, Don Baylor, Nate Colbert and John Mayberry were “feared” in the 1970’s.

    Then in the 1980’s-1990’s you had Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Andre Dawson, Fred McGriff, Daryl Strawberry, Cecil Fielder, Eric Davis, and Kevin Mitchell who were all feared.

    It seems like the usage of the term “fear” started during the racial unrest of the late 1960’s-1970’s. I guess the image of a 6 foot tall 200 pound black man waving a 35 ounce 35 inch piece of wood struck some kind of fear in the white suburban middle class sports writers of the time period.

    Hey Bobby Allison was one of the top HR hitters of that era finishing in the top ten in HR 8 times and I can’t remember anyone ever saying they “feared” Bobby Allison. How about Eddie Mathews, Dick Stuart, Ron Santo, Kenny Boyer, Al Kaline or Rico Petrocelli??

    Graig Nettles hit 390 Home Runs. That was a huge number in the pre-steroid era. Why didn’t anyone “fear” Nettles.

    Carl Yastrzemski was one of the dominant hitter’s of the late 60’s early 70’s and he hit 450 home runs and I can’t remember anyone describing him as “most feared hitters” of the 1960’s.

    Daryl Evans was one of the top sluggers of the 1970’s and hit 400+ HR and nobody ever called him a “feared hitter.”

    I never heard anyone refer to Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, and Jeff Buroughs, as “feared hitters”

    How about white HR hitters of the 1980’s: Mike Schmidt, Dale Murphy, Gary Carter, Cal Ripken, Don Mattingly, Dwight Evans, Daryl Evans, Lance Parrish, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, George Brett.

    The only white guy from the 1980’s that I can remember being “feared” was Jack Clark. So it seems like personality plays a part in this fear element. The feared white guy of the 1990’s was Mark McGwire.

    The only white guys I can remember being “feared” in the 1960’s-1970’s were Frank Howard, Boog Powell, Greg Luzunski and Dave Kingman. So if you were white you had to be either 6′ 6″ or 230 pound+ power hitter.

    • Spencer says:

      This is a fantastic and interesting point…

    • Wilbur says:

      I’ll tell you feared McCovey: first basemen holding a runner on. So, too, first base coaches He could scald the ball down the line.

      I’ve never seen anyone who looked so, yes, fearsome while in the batter’s box. Due to his build, he looked like he could reach his bat half-way out to the pitcher.

      If you want to make it racial, knock yourself out. But it wasn’t.

    • Lawhamel says:

      Killebrew. Feared. Frank Howard. Terrified.

      There are others, but those to spring to mind pretty quickly . . .

      • johnq11 says:

        2 white guys and about 35 black guys in 30 years.

        • Wilbur says:

          Look, you’ve capriciously decided who was considered “fearsome” and who wasn’t, and then leapt to a conclusion that racism was behind it all.

          Johnq, I have enjoyed and respected a lot of the comments you’ve made, but this dog just won’t hunt.

          • johnq11 says:

            I don’t think it was capricious at all. Jim Rice’s entire HOF case was predicated on the basis that he was “The most feared hitter” of his era.

            I was following baseball back in the early 1970’s, so I remember how those players were referenced.

            I never mentioned “racism” once in the comment or that the writers/broadcaster had a racist agenda against black players. Hey the writers/broadcasters back then were basically 99% white born in the 1920’s-1940’s. On a sub-concious level they used language that reflected what they felt during the late 1960’s-1970’s.

            I made an observation because that phrase “feared hitter” was used disproportionately on black sluggers.

            I remember reading a study on a somewhat similar subject by Harry Edwards about research he did about NFL announcers during the early 1970’s. He recorded several games and researched how the same announcers would describe the actions of white and black players playing the same position.

            Then he would contrast the words and description of Larry Csonka’s or Jim Kiik’s plays verse Calvin Hill’s or Floyd Little’s plays.

            Mike Siani’s and Ted Kwalick’s catches compared to Harold Carmichael or Charley Taylor’s catches.

            The results and differences were very interesting and the announcers didn’t even realize they were saying anything different.

          • As a Royal’s fan who grew up in Kansas during the 70s, I can guarantee you nobody feared John Mayberry. He was the nicest guy in the world and was a good bu not great a hitter. You only have to know that Steve Balboni has the all time Royal’s single season HR record to know this is true.

          • mrgjg says:

            Agree with Wilbur, sounds like you preordained your conclusion then subjectively decided who was considered feared.
            Even allowing that more black players then white players were considered feared, isn’t that a compliment?
            This seems like one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

      • Blahblahblah says:

        McGwire was the most frightening guy I’ve ever seen at the plate. Huge with that red hair and the beard-he looked like a Viking and the bat was like a spindly toothpick in his hands.
        The man simply loomed

    • Gordon Hewetson says:

      I agree with Spencer. Johnq11’s analysis is fascinating and startling true in reflection. Seems the most feared were the ones I most admired watching.

      • johnq11 says:


        It would be interesting to go back to the newspaper archives and do a study on the top 30-40 home run hitters of the 1960’s-1970’s period and chart how often the term “feared” was used to describe a black slugger as compared to a white slugger.

        I remember in the Harry Edwards football study of the early 1970’s he would key on 10-15 key words that were used disproportionately for one player vs another. I remember “instinctual” was used something like 10-1 describing Calvin Hill or Floyd Little’s runs vs. Larry Csonka or Jim Kiick’s runs. As in Calvin Hill is such an “instinctual” runner. White running backs & white wide receivers were disproportionately described as “perceptive or intelligent runners or pass catchers.”

        It’s interesting to note that although Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs, I can’t remember anybody ever referring to him as a “feared slugger.” The same goes with Willie Mays, Ernie Banks or Monte Irvin, Larry Doby or other great black players from the 1950’s.

        It seems like the term “feared” in reference to black players didn’t really come in use until the late 1960’s-1970’s. Which coincided with the black power movement and the racial tensions of the time period.

        It’s interesting to note that affability and personality has something to do with this because although Ken Griffey jr. hit 630 Home Runs, and was 6′ 3″ I can’t remember anyone referring to Ken Griffey jr. as a “feared slugger.” Whereas I remember people referring to Albert Belle as as a “feared slugger.”

        • greatscott723 says:

          Probably because Albert Belle was seriously a scary dude. Belle ran down trick-or-treaters and assaulted Fernando Vina on the basepaths. Griffey smiled a ton and was the most marketable athlete outside of Michael Jordan.

  6. In my many years at Dodger Stadium (as a kid and adult) I saw a lot of home runs hit to right field. As I’ve often said, the clear and obvious homers, the majestic fly balls, were rarely hit by Dodgers; it was guys like McCovey and Stargell who hit them. The Dodgers hit homers, true, but the obvious ones seemed to go to left. The one major exception, of course, was Kirk Gibson’s in the 1988 World Series. But until I read this, I never knew just how good McCovey was. I probably never studied him because, well, he was a Giant (although Willie Mays got special dispensation). Thank you, Joe.

  7. johnq11 says:

    I can’t see Willie McCovey making to the top 100 list.

    In a mixed list of career WAR (64.4) ranks 137th all time. He ranks 12th in peak+career WAR at first base. Roughly the same as Todd Helton.

    His peak is good but it’s rather short 1965-1970. His 1964 was awful but his 1963 was great. I think you can safely say he was one of the top 10 position player in MLB from ’63-70. He doesn’t have much 1970’s value and he hung around a long time padding his stats to get to 500.

    It is kind of shocking in retrospect to see how easily he got into the HOF back in 1986. First ballot, no problem. Larry Walker was a much better player than McCovey and he’s on the verge of falling off the ballot.

    • S.F.L. says:

      I think you’re mistaking this list as one trying to rank the 100 greatest baseball careers of all time. If it was that, you’d have a great point.

      This list is the 100 greatest baseball players ever. Based on his writing so far, I’d take it to mean Joe defining that as the players who had the greatest ability to play the game. In that case, while production matters, so does circumstances (losing time for wars, or in McCovey’s case, an organizational decision on keeping two star players for the same position).

      • johnq11 says:

        Well if it’s just about “peak” players say the best 5-6 seasons, I still don’t see McCovey is on this list and at #72 no less?

        Nomar Garciaparra for example at his peak was a better player than McCovey. Dale Murphy was just as good for 5 seasons.

        George Foster for one season was better than McCovey, Norm Cash for one season was better than McCovey.

        As far as McCovey being blocked, yeah I understand that point and it sucked the way they jerked him around but he was still a full time player at 25. You could also look at that the Giants over compensated at the end of his career and let him play for 4 years 1977-1980 as a marginal major leaguer.

        I think the main point though is that McCovey stopped being a big time player by the time he was 33. He never made an all star team after 1971. He never had any MVP votes except for a 20th place finish in 1977 for some odd reason. He basically just padded his HR & RBI stats those last 10 years. He had about 2000 plate appearances from 1975-1980 and didn’t really do anything at all.

        • mrgjg says:

          I agree that McCovey is being rated too high. Whether he belongs in the top 100 is a different story although I think he probably just misses.
          Look, if he was being held back for pre 1947 reasons or he was off to war and missed a few prime seasons I’d have no problem employing the “what might have been” scenario.
          Once we start using it on the Willie McCoveys we’ll just be heading down the proverbial “slippery slope”.
          It becomes the steroid debate with no end in sight.

    • Anon says:

      500 HR was still an automatic HOF lock in 1986. Also, while everyone knew his defense was bad, advanced stats did not really exist to show just HOW bad he was defensively. PLus he was a 1B and they were not judged on defense anyway. Finally, there were no other “no doubt” HOFers on that 1986 ballot – Billy Williams was 2nd int he balloting and just missed that year and it was his 5th year on the ballot ( he would get in the next year).

      • johnq11 says:


        Yeah, I’m not saying he doesn’t belong in the HOF, i’m just contrasting how drastically the voting standard/pattern has changed since the mid-1980’s.

        A player like Billy Williams wouldn’t get elected anymore. A guy like Willie Stargell probably wouldn’t get elected let alone be a 1rst ballot. A guy like McCovey would have a hard time getting elected now and in no way would be a 1rst ballot guy.

        This is really a by-product of what Bill James predicted 20-25 years ago called the expansion bubble.

        You keep expanding the league with more teams and players and you’re going to have more qualified HOF players every year. So instead of having 3-6 qualified HOF players at a time you might get 6-12 qualified HOF at a time. But the voters have never made this change in mindset. If anything the voters have become “more” selective voting in “less” players.

        If you started your career before 1961 you needed about a 62+ career WAR to get into the HOF. Not counting 1870’s-1880’s pitchers, Bill Dahlen and Kenny Boyer are the only players who started his career before 1961 not to get into the HOF with a +63 WAR.

        If your career started 1961-1990 you need about a 68+WAR to get into the HOF. Bobby Grich, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Rick Reuschel, Tim Raines and Nettles are the exceptions.

        Essentially you need an extra MVP caliber season or 2 very good seasons or 3 fair/good seasons to be elected to the HOF from ‘1961-1990.

        Post 1990 you need about a 75-80 WAR with no suspicion of any kind of steroid use.

        Now there have been serious inconsistencies in their voting pattern which make the process very frustrating like:

        Jim Rice (47.2 WAR), Not a HOF under any circumstance. Andre Dawson (64.4 WAR) Meets their pre-1961 standard but not their post 1961 standard. Roberto Alomar (66.8) meets their pre 1961 standard but not their post 1961 standard. Ryne Sandberg (67.6 WAR) meets pre 1961 standard, borderline HOF post 1961. Kirby Puckett (50.8 WAR) Doesn’t meet any HOF standard. Dave Winfield (64.0 WAR) Meets the pre 1961 standard, doesn’t meet the post 1961 standard. Tony Perez (53.9) Doesn’t meet any HOF standard. Bill Mazerowski (36.1 WAR) Doesn’t meet any HOF standard. Bid Mcphee (52.7 WAR), Doesn’t meet their HOF standard. Orlando Cepeda (50.1 WAR) Doesn’t meet their HOF standard. Nellie Fox (49.0 WAR) doesn’t meet their HOF standard. Jim Bunning (60.2 WAR) Doesn’t meet their HOF standard. Phil Rizzuto (40.6 WAR) Doesn’t meet their HOF standard. Tony Lazzeri (50.0 WAR) doesn’t meet their HOF standard.

        That’s just going back to 1990 and just looking at career value not peak or prime. I didn’t include relief pitchers because there’s really no standard, it’s just kind of random.

    • scott boroch says:

      Using WAR retroactively that includes defense is a tough proposition. Retro-actively grading defense without full video analysis of every play is not accurate. The offensive skills of McCovey are far superior to Larry Walker.

      • johnq11 says:

        McCovey was a better offensive player than Walker but not by much. Remember that Walker could steal bases as well. Walker was an outstanding offensive player who gets penalized too much for playing in Colorado.

        Here’s the neutralized stats:

        McCovey: .281/.388/.537
        Walker: .294/.378/.530

        Not a big difference but McCovey was slightly better. McCovey also played longer:

        McCovey OWAR: 71.8
        Walker OWAR: 62.2

        The big difference was defense. McCovey is one of the top 50 offensive players in MLB history but McCovey was also one of the worst defensive players in baseball history and Walker was a gold glove right fielder.

        McCovey DWAR −21.8 DWAR
        Walker DWAR +1.5 DWAR

        The Giants jerked him around when he was young but there’s also a reason (defense) that he wasn’t a full time player until 25.

      • Scott C says:

        Thank you Scott for that comment. When I read the comment that Larry Walker was a better player than Willie McCovey — I could not believe what I had just read. Comparing great players of different eras is impossible. Anyone who watched McCovey play in the 60’s and 70’s would agree he was a first round Hall of Famer. Also, there are not many superstars (pre-1980’s) who had a great career after the age of 33. I agree with the writer’s point that McCovey was so feared that he was intentionally walked more than any other player. McCovey commented that these walks really affected his ability to help his team win games. I always enjoyed hearing Sparky Anderson talk about McCovey, because his comments were always so dramatic. Anderson feared McCovey like no other player.

  8. College Wolf says:

    Thanks guys! I use Feeddly and will try that.

  9. Michael Green says:

    Joe, these are great. But I think I caught you making Willie Mays a year younger than he is!

    My mother was a Dodger fan and used to say that when Drysdale pitched, if McCovey came up, everybody knew he might as well set it up on a batting tee. Everybody just called him BIG McCovey.

    Funny story. Doug Harvey, the great umpire, said the hardest hit ball he ever saw was by McCovey, at old Connie Mack Stadium. Harvey swore when it hit the scoreboard, the board rattled. When McCovey came out to 1B, Harvey said, “Sting your hands?” And McCovey replied, “Harvey, that’s the hardest I’ll ever hit one.” And yet a nice, quiet guy.

  10. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I’m still not sold on WAR, but regardless, McCovey’s deficiency in lifetime WAR is well explained in the article. Larry Walker was a more durable player than McCovey, but I think it’s a stretch (no pun intended) to say he was better. In some ways, the case for McCovey is a bit like the case for Sandy Koufax. In lifetime WAR, Koufax trails dozens of inferior pitchers. But in his prime, he was a monster. So was Mac. And unlike Koufax, McCovey had a number of fine years on either side of his prime (check out his Year 36 season in San Diego and his Year 39 season in San Francisco, neither stadium to be confused with the pre-humidor Coors).

    • johnq11 says:

      Joe doesn’t really go too much into Willie McCovey’s career defensive deficiency.

      How was Larry Walker a more durable player? He was always hurt?

      i don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say Walker was a better player. Walker is too heavily penalized for playing at Coors Field. Walker also could steal bases and was a gold glove right fielder. McCovey had no speed and was an atrocious fielder.

      Koufax was a more dominant player than McCovey during his peak years 1962-1966. Koufax was basically the best pitcher with Juan Marichal just a bit behind. Overall Koufax was among the top 4 players in baseball along with Mays and Aaron with the top two spots.

      McCovey best years (1965-1970) he’s in the top 10 overall but Gibson, Yaz, Clemente, Aaron, Mays and Santo rank higher during that time period.

      Candlestick Park wasn’t a bad hitting park in 1977. His age 39 season isn’t that good when you factor in that he was atrocious in the field. There’s no way he should have been playing full time 1b but the Giants were terrible back then so I guess they didn’t care and they were trying to help him get his 500th HR. 1977 was an expansion year so offense was unusually high that year. He ranked 20th that year in the N.L. in on base percentage which is good but it’s anything great.

      His 1974 season is good but he was essentially a part time player (443 PA) so he didn’t qualify for any of the rate stats. He had a 10th place finish in HR. I’m really surprised that some A.L. team didn’t make a trade for him and the make him their full time DH.

      Yeah, people penalize Walker too much. I put his neutralized stats and they’re not that far apart. McCovey is ahead and then McCovey had about 1500 more plate appearances. But when you factor in Walker’s speed and his defense and subtract McCovey’s atrocious defense, Walker comes out a better player overall.

  11. Andy says:

    Add Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee’s childhood friend and teammate on the Miracle Mets, to the list. He was born in Plateau-Mobile, Alabama in 1942.

  12. Josh L says:

    Burns’ Tenth Inning is on right now. Nice reminder that I can’t WAIT to see his write ups and rankings on Roger, Pedro, Randy, and Greg.

  13. Jim says:

    I did see McCovey play, a perk of being old. A friend of mine and I were at game, both of us college players. We agreed, we would never ever pitch to him. Not even give him an intentional walk. We would never allow the ball to leave our hand. That was intimidation.
    No, no one else brought that fear to us and we saw all of his contemporaries. Willie Mc was Thor.

  14. Donald A. Coffin says:

    According to BBRef, that’s only 5(!) seasons with more than 600 PA, not 6 seasons–1963, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970–5 of them at the core of the mini-deadball era (from 1963 to 1969, runs per game in the NL never exceeded 4,09). McCovey, during that period, homered at 3 times the rate of the NL (6.5% to about 2%)…

  15. Rick R says:

    I always thought that Willie McCovey was the epitome of what a first baseman should be. There was the otherworldly power of course, but there was also the Stretch. People say how bad a first baseman Willie McCovey was defensively, and there’s some truth to that if you’re talking about fielding grounders. But the most important job a first baseman has is to catch what is thrown at him by infielders, and in that sense McCovey was terrific. McCovey was 6’4″ with an enormous wingspan. If you threw it anywhere in the vicinity of first base, he would catch it. He would stretch towards the infielder to receive throws so that it seemed like he covered an extra 10 feet; I don’t know how many putouts those extra feet recorded on bang-bang plays at first, but it had to be a few. People talk about defensive WAR like it’s some indisputable number, even though the people who are making these iron-clad judgments about players half a century ago never even saw the games they’re judging. It’s a joke. Willie McCovey was one of the all-time greats.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Lou Brock got tagged in the head by McCovey diving back into first to avoid a pick-off. He said he saw stars for a week.

      Who really cares how good a fielder your first baseman is? Unless he is just flat out atrocious, you can surely live with a guy who is jacking 40 homers and walking 120 times a year. Certainly, Mr. McCovey wasn’t THAT bad, was he? I saw him play a few times and he looked competent enough to me. He couldn’t possibly have been worse than Frank Howard or Harmon Killebrew, could he?

  16. wordyduke says:

    It’s a good thing for opposing pitchers that Willie McCovey didn’t hit the ball back up the middle with regularity. One of the more famous of his line drives ended the 1962 World Series when it was caught, nearly in self-defense, by Bobby Richardson. Richardson said, no doubt in exaggeration, that had the ball been hit a foot to his right or left, he wouldn’t have caught it.

  17. Wilbur says:

    After years of playing shortstop and left field for traveling slow pitch teams, I paid homage to Father Time and moved to pitcher. I learned a very painful lesson very quickly: unless you wanted to risk a broken shinbone or worse, you better keep that ball on the inner half to the big boys. Letting them extend their arms on an outside pitch was courting real danger.

    Wordyduke, I’ve always feared that was just a matter of time before a pitcher in Organized Baseball loses his life to a batted ball.

  18. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Surprising. 3 straight that I would not put in my top 100. But, again I would defer to Joe’s knowledge and play along anyway.

    For my No. 72, I would say Bob Feller.

  19. I guy from St Louis told me he went to see the McCovey’s Giants play the Cards when he was a little kid, it was the first time he ever saw Willie in person, and he said upon seeing him: “They really are giants!”

  20. Chris H says:

    @wordyduke, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the “Peanuts” strips (which are probably how I first learned who Willie McCovey was):

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