The longest HR: “I still hear the sound”

Former wide receiver Tim McCarver was on the other end of the phone talking about Willie McCovey, who would have turned 84 on Monday. McCarver began to talk about how much — on a team even with Willie Mays in its ranks — Giants fans in San Francisco appreciated McCovey because, as McCarver put it, “he was the star that came out of it,” from the moment he that the nicknamed Stretch He reached the Major Leagues in 1959 and won the Rookie of the Year award after playing just 52 games.

“There are many reasons to fondly remember Willie,” McCarver said, “beginning with the kind of gentleman he was. From head to toe. He looked much taller than the 6-4 he was. But that’s not my biggest memory.”

Asking him what it was, we realize the beauty of talking about baseball, especially with someone like McCarver who knows how to tell stories. Sometimes all you have to do is ask a simple question.

“He hit the hardest hit of any of the pitches I asked for,” McCarver said. “That’s what I remember best.”

McCarver laughed out loud, but then spoke slowly.

“The. Hit. Stronger. Against. Any. Pitching,” McCarver repeated. “At least that I have asked.”

McCarver was behind the plate for the Cardinals in 1966, which was part of an era in which St. Louis played three World Series, winning two, and another blew a 3-1 lead against the Tigers in 1968. Al Jackson was pitcher for the Cardinals against the Giants.

“They hadn’t finished building Busch Stadium back then,” McCarver recalled. “A part of the gardens was still under construction, which, in hindsight, was a good thing because something had been damaged.”

McCarver said it was a breaking pitch he asked Al Jackson for in September 1966. It has also been singled out as a trade. But what matters is that he stayed in the strike zone. McCovey himself would go so far as to say it wasn’t the longest home run he hit — though it was given a distance of 515 feet — but he did say it was the strongest. Mike Shannon, who patrolled right field for St. Louis in that game, always claimed it was the longest home run he had ever seen, and some still described it as the longest homer in the history of the first Busch Stadium.

“Shocking,” McCarver said.

He then started laughing again as he recalled the moment and added, “A disgrace!”

Two years earlier, McCarver was the catcher in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 3 of the World Series against the Yankees, when Mickey Mantle hit a clutch homer off knuckleballer Barney Schultz that went over Shannon’s head and ended in the third level of the stands of the old Yankee Stadium.

Next, I asked McCarver what was going through his head as he watched the ball’s trajectory.

“There was no trajectory!” McCarver stated. “There was just the sound of the hit.”

For several years afterward, McCarver and Jackson were already joking about the pitch, with McCarver asking Jackson why he threw that pitch and Jackson replying, “Because you asked for it, idiot.”

“And that’s not the end of the story,” McCarver said. “For the first and only time in his life, Al called out an opponent who had homered him.”

McCovey hit 521 home runs in his Major League career. He was a giant of the game in every respect at Candlestick Park. That’s the wonderful thing about baseball, that all this time after he was a kid in said ballpark after coming to the majors to hit .354 in those 52 games in 1959, the body of water behind right field at Oracle Park is known like McCovey Cove. And every time a batter looks to hit a ball out of the ballpark, Willie McCovey’s name lives on.

“He was a very big guy,” McCarver said, “especially when he got in the batter’s box. He reached for one of my bats once and I swear to you, it looked like a toothpick. And how much they loved him in San Francisco.”

They loved him even later when he hit a home run that broke the hearts of Giants fans. It was the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, with the Yankees leading 1-0. Ralph Terry was still on the mound two years after giving up the walk-off home run in Game 7 against Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 Fall Classic.

With two men on base — one of them Mays — and two outs. McCovey hit a line drive that nearly ripped off Bobby Richardson’s glove, but the second baseman caught it anyway. No one knew it at the time, but it would be nearly half a century before the Giants won a World Series in San Francisco.

That’s not the hit McCarver remembers. This is the moment to remember everything McCovey did.

“I still hear the sound,” McCarver concluded.


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The longest HR: “I still hear the sound”