Monday, August 31, 2009

Thou Shalt Not McCovet Thy Neighbor's First Baseman

Willie McCovey was the most fearsome left-handed power hitter of his generation, smashing 521 home runs, which, at the time of his retirement, was the National League record for lefties. He achieved this despite playing much of his career in cold and windy Candlestick Park, as well as during the 1960s, when pitchers usurped the balance of power and batting averages plummeted. "Stretch"—as the 6-foot-four, rail-thin McCovey was known—was a classy and gentle giant who won the 1959 Rookie of the Year Award though he played in only 52 games, commencing a career that saw him collect three home-run titles, twice lead the Senior Circuit in RBI, and earn the National League MVP in 1969.

A San Francisco mainstay for fifteen years, McCovey was traded to the San Diego Padres after the 1973 season. He hit well in southern California for two years, but after a miserable, injury-plagued summer of 1976, McCovey was purchased by the Oakland Athletics on August 30. He played 11 games for the A's during the remainder of that abortive season.

Or so say official records.

As a long-time baseball aficionado, historian, and collector, I know my stuff when it comes to the history of the sport. I can recite every World Series participant since 1903, I have a disturbing penchant for statistics, and I'm familiar with players of whom the casual baseball fan has never heard. But in all my years of watching, reading about, and collecting all things baseball, I have never once seen a photograph of Willie McCovey as a member of the Oakland Athletics. Their dynasty of the early 70s crumbling, the 1976 A's, sans Reggie, Catfish, and Ken Holtzman, still had enough left to nearly win the AL West. One would think that a team in the pennant race right up to the last week of the season might garner a little more attention from shutterbugs, especially for a newly acquired star who had belted 465 home runs, which, at that time, ranked second only to Hank Aaron among active players. But I've searched high and low, Googled until my fingers turned blue, and leafed through page after page—there seems to be no proof beyond statistical entries that McCovey ever donned an Oakland uniform. Sure, after the season, he rejoined the Giants as a free agent, so, if indeed McCovey had been in Oakland at the end of the 1976 campaign, he need only have walked over the Bay Bridge to neighboring San Francisco. But I question whether McCovey ever was an Oakland Athletic. What do 24 measly at-bats in the record book really prove? It's baseball hearsay. I need tangible evidence.

As in the case of Dave Kingman. Perhaps the most one-dimensional—and most jettisonable—player in baseball history, Kingman experienced a season unique in the annals of the Major Leagues: In 1977, Kingman played for no fewer than four teams. The New York Mets traded him in mid-June to San Diego, yet the Padres put Kingman on waivers in September, upon which the California Angels claimed him. But Kingman hit a putrid .194 in Anaheim, and the Halos traded him nine days later to the Yankees, where he finished out the regular season (never appearing in New York's World Series run). Kingman's stopovers with the Angels and Yankees were even briefer than McCovey's alleged cup of coffee in Oakland, but there's plenty of proof he suited up for them, as you can see.

Even Norm Cash, who was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Cleveland Indians after the 1959 season and then traded by Cleveland to the Detroit Tigers before he could even get into a regular-season game for the Tribe, bears proof of his brief encounter in the Forest City.

So where is the incontrovertible proof that Willie McCovey wore kelly green and Finley gold? His plaque in Cooperstown denotes his stay in Oakland, but why did McCovey make no mention of those 11 games in his Hall of Fame induction speech—not even the three walks he supposedly coaxed out of opposing hurlers? The record book shows that second-place Oakland parlayed McCovey's five RBI-less singles in those 24 at-bats into picking up 5½ games on Kansas City, only to fall 2½ games short at the wire. Why do middle-aged A's fans never lament that McCovey wasn't acquired a week earlier, since another week of .200 hitting could have provided the wins needed to eventually overtake the Royals? And why is there no "McCovey Cove" equivalent in Oakland Coliseum?

I've a hunch the McCovey acquisition was the concoction of A's owner, Charlie Finley. Even as Oakland was winning three consecutive World Series from 1972-74, the team never drew well. Oakland's highest finish in attendance during its dynastic run was only fifth in the league, and, pathetically, during its championship 1974 season, only the thoroughly mediocre Minnesota Twins fared worse at the American League gate. It's no secret that Finley was desperate for attendance—and who could blame him? Fielding a juggernaut that few came to see certainly hit him in his wallet and his pride. And with free agency about to turn baseball upside-down—ultimately forcing Charlie O. to break up his dynasty—the temptation to heighten appeal for his club must have been irresistable. So why not pretend to have acquired a superstar for your franchise, one who could bring in paying customers with his tape-measure blasts? After all, by 1976, the A's had sent their own superstars packing—Reggie traded to the Baltimore Orioles, and free-agent bucks reeling Catfish into New York. A fan favorite for 15 years in neighboring San Francisco, Willie McCovey possessed built-in star power that could get people into the seats. Clever enough—but the shrewd Finley may well have taken it a step further: Oakland announces it has purchased McCovey's contract from San flock to see the great slugger...but it never actually happens, allowing Finley to reap the proceeds while not having to pay McCovey, or pay for him.*

*Not to mention that same 1976 Athletics team that supposedly purchased McCovey also allegedly enjoyed six plate appearances from burnt-out Padres slugger Nate Colbert—again, no photographic evidence exists.

This is not unprecedented in Oakland. The official record book shows that, in 1972, the A's acquired fading slugger Orlando Cepeda from the Atlanta Braves. Cepeda—another popular, long-time San Francisco Giant who would be instantly welcome in Oakland—supposedly played three games for the A's that season. Yet, as with McCovey, I have never seen, nor can I locate, a single photograph of Cepeda in green and gold. Furthermore, Cepeda was traded to Oakland even-up for Denny McLain...yet, even though McLain had been washed up longer than Cepeda, Topps produced a baseball card of McLain's transaction without printing a counterpart card for Cepeda—further evidence that Cepeda, a big-time player as late as 1970, came to Oakland only in the twisted mental machinations of Charlie Finley.

After all, this was the mind that installed Harvey the mechanical rabbit, which popped up from a hole behind home plate and delivered fresh baseballs to the umpire.

Not to mention the mind that proposed orange baseballs...

So until someone produces visual proof of Willie McCovey in an Oakland Athletics uniform, I ain't buyin' that he ever played for them.

(Baseball cards copyright Topps Inc.)

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