Standing in the batter’s box at Candlestick Park, Willie McCovey was about to deliver San Francisco its first World Series championship. All that was needed was a hit.
It was Game 7 of the 1962 series, and the Giants were trailing the New York Yankees, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs and runners on second and third, McCovey, one of the most feared left-handed power hitters in baseball, ripped a pitch from Yankees starter Ralph Terry. The slugger later said it was the hardest ball he had ever hit. McCovey darted out of the box, almost uncontrollably.
But the ball went chest-high into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who was playing McCovey perfectly, dashing San Francisco’s dreams of a championship.
The moment was all but lost in the film footage as the cameras shifted to the celebratory Yankees dog-pile. But McCovey, who died Wednesday at 80 at Stanford Hospital after succumbing to “ongoing health issues,” never forgot it.
“One foot higher, or either way, and I guess I would have been a hero,” McCovey said about what could have been, according to “Tales from the San Francisco Giants Dugout.” “I hit the ball as hard as I could and I thought I had a hit, but it was right at him.”
He added: “Nothing I could do about that.”
The moment was one he’d often reminisce about, not delivering in the biggest at-bat of his career. “At the time, I just knew I’d be up in that situation again in the future and that then I was going to come through,” he told the New York Times in 2010.
But it was not meant to be. McCovey, a Hall of Fame first baseman and one of the sport’s most beloved heroes, never got another chance to play in the Fall Classic.
Known as “Stretch” for his 6-foot-4 frame, McCovey, was the seventh of 10 children growing up in Alabama, the son of a railroad laborer. He was arguably one of the most underappreciated hitters in the sport’s history. His 521 home runs over a 22-year career rank 20th all-time. He was also the 1959 National League rookie of the year and a six-time all-star. His ultimate individual achievement came in 1969, when he won National League MVP by leading the league with 45 home runs and 126 RBI, while hitting .320.
Yet, the liner to Richardson that ended Game 7 on their home field haunted him, even in the latter stages of his life.
“I don’t think anybody could have felt as bad as I did,” he said to the Times in 2010. “Not only did I have a whole team on my shoulders in that at-bat, I had a whole city."
The dramatic moment-that-wasn’t also crossed over into American culture. Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” was an avid Giants fan living in nearby Sebastopol, Calif., where he built his first studio. “Peanuts” was a popular staple of comics pages across the country and Schulz had won the National Cartoonists Society’s Humor Comic Strip award in 1962.
Naturally, Schulz’s character Charlie Brown was also a big Giants fan. Like McCovey, Charlie Brown couldn’t shake his anguish about that year’s World Series and how it ended.
In a strip that ran on Dec. 22, 1962, he sits on a curb in a moment of reflection with Linus, hands propping up their chins, looking distant and despondent for three of the four frames. Then in the final frame, Charlie Brown, the lovable loser and round-headed protagonist of the strip, loses it.
He bolts to his feet, his mouth wide open, and lets out his grief.
“Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?” Charlie Brown cries.
Schulz wasn’t done either. On Jan. 28, 1963, a little more than a month later, Schulz nearly replicated the strip, this time with Charlie Brown and Linus sitting on a curb, looking off into the distance with their hands in their laps. Again, Charlie Brown freaks out in the fourth panel.
“Or why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?” he exclaims.
It’s unclear whether McCovey ever publicly recognized his unlikely place in comics lore, but the Giants have not been shy about the Peanuts connection, with merchandise featuring both Charlie Brown and his dog, Snoopy. In 2016, the team had Charlie Brown and Snoopy mascots throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game. When it came time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movie, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” the team had a Charlie Brown bobblehead day in July 2017.
Years after McCovey’s storied career came to an end, as he was preparing for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, the slugger spoke to the Associated Press about what he said to people when they asked him how he would like to be remembered.
“I tell them I’d like to be remembered as the guy who hit the line drive over Bobby Richardson’s head,” he said.
When the Giants won the World Series in 2014, their third in five seasons, McCovey continued to reflect on the one accomplishment that got away, the one that, like Charlie Brown once said, might have been different if it were hit a couple feet higher.
“I still think about it all the time,” McCovey said on Oct. 31, 2014, exactly four years before his death. “I still think, ‘If I could have hit it a little more."