Recalling Willie McCovey’s Days In Tacoma

Willie McCovey – one of three Hall of Famers to play for the original Tacoma Giants of the 1960s – passed away yesterday at the age of 80.

A member of the 500 Home Run Club when it was much more elite than it is today, McCovey hit 521 career homers – 469 of them in a San Francisco Giants uniform – and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. He drew a large number of walks and posted high on-base percentages during a time in which that stat wasn’t even calculated.

Over the years I have wondered about Willie McCovey’s time in Tacoma – what was he like, how did he handle it? He did not play for Tacoma in the usual way. He wasn’t supposed to be here.

1959: Willie McCovey wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

1960: mired in a “sophomore slump,” Willie McCovey gets optioned to Tacoma.

Tacoma built Cheney Stadium in 1960 and welcomed Triple-A baseball to the city in April. It was an exciting time, the community jumped on board and backed the team, Juan Marichal was Tacoma’s ace and one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. McCovey was in the big leagues and there was no thought that he might play for Tacoma.

After hitting .354 with an 1.085 OPS while winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1959, McCovey was struggling in 1960. He started out the season just fine, but after a 36-game stretch in which he hit just .198, McCovey became the first player to be sent to Tacoma for more seasoning. He needed to work on his hitting, and break out of his slump. With that, Willie McCovey became the first major league household name to play for Tacoma in the modern era.

McCovey could have been the first “bitter Triple-A guy” in Tacoma baseball history, but teammate Orlando Cepeda recalls it differently in this Associated Press obituary, saying that McCovey did not complain when he was sent down.

Wearing uniform No. 21 – the same one that Marichal had worn prior to his call-up three weeks earlier – McCovey made his Tacoma Giants debut on July 18, 1960. Over 4,000 fans attended a Monday night game against Portland – and saw the Beavers intentionally walk him twice.

He needed three weeks to get right. Jacob Jordan’s book Six Seasons – A History of the Tacoma Giants 1960-1965 details McCovey’s action on the field for the Tacoma Giants – all of which came at Cheney Stadium, since McCovey joined the team at the start of a 21-game homestand.

According to Jordan’s research, McCovey touched the giant wall in center field for a triple early in his stay. A few days later during a Sunday doubleheader against Sacramento, McCovey “rocketed a game-winning home run way up on Tightwad Hill” (that’s where the Foss tennis courts are today; tightwads people used to sit up there and watch the games for free).

On July 31st McCovey went bonkers in a doubleheader against Vancouver, hitting a triple and a game-winning homer in the opener, and another home run in the nightcap, and that was that: the San Francisco Giants recalled him on August 1st and McCovey’s time as a member of the Tacoma Giants was over. His final stats for Tacoma: 17 games, .286 average (18 hits in 63 at-bats), three home runs, two triples and one double, and 16 runs batted in.

He would come back, but only for exhibition games. The San Francisco Giants annually played an exhibition game at Cheney Stadium on an off day in the major league schedule (can you imagine that today?). Tacoma Giants fans would see McCovey, Willie Mays, Cepeda and others once a year.

Health problems over the last decade made travel difficult for McCovey. He regularly attended San Francisco Giants games close to his home, but he rarely branched out to other parts of the baseball world. It would have been fun to interview him about his time in Tacoma, but the opportunity never arose.



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