When I was nine years young, I met Willie McCovey in the lobby of the grand, old Rice Hotel in Houston where his San Francisco Giants were staying.
McCovey, who died Oct. 31 at age 80, was then the largest man I had ever met, a smiling giant and Giant.
“Rickey, shake hands with Willie McCovey,” my daddy’s friend, Jim “Peanut” Davenport, said.
I stuck my hand out and tried to look McCovey in the eyes the way my daddy always insisted. But his eyes were so far up there. McCovey reached down and took my hand and just about my entire arm up to the elbow. His hand was thick and calloused and every bit as warm as his smile.
“Any friend of Peanut’s is a friend of mine,” he said.
My brother, Bobby, and I met McCovey, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and all the other Giants stars that day. That night, Davenport had us down in the visitors’ clubhouse at the old Colt 45s ballpark before the game. Later, in the ninth inning, Cepeda would hit a soaring home run to win it. My dad predicted the home run just a moment before Cepeda hit it, ending a magical day and evening.
I am not sure we knew it at the time, but Bobby and I learned life lessons that day. This was 1962. Our Hattiesburg elementary school was segregated. So was the public swimming pool. So was our little league baseball team. Our elders had switched our baseball organization from Little League to Dixie Youth to ensure that black kids and white kids would not play together.
That was lost on us back then. All we wanted to do was play baseball and someday make the big leagues. And perhaps a little background is necessary here …
Davenport, who died two years ago, was a white man from the small Alabama town of Siluria, near Birmingham. He had played quarterback in football and third base in baseball at then-Mississippi Southern College. He helped beat the Crimson Tide of Alabama two years in a row in football, then quickly rose through the San Francisco Giants system to become a fixture at third base, a two-time National League All-Star, a terrific glove man and a clutch hitter.
McCovey was a black man from Mobile. Mays, now 87 (and the best baseball player these eyes have ever seen) was a black man from Westfield, near Birmingham. Davenport, McCovey and Mays were all Alabama guys, from segregated backgrounds in the worst days of George Wallace. But they were teammates in every sense of the word. Their respect and shared friendship was palpable — in the hotel lobby and in the clubhouse.
What’s more, Alou was a brown man from the Dominican Republic. Cepeda was a brown man from Puerto Rico. Marichal, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers (with the highest leg kick), was another Dominican.
They were all San Francisco Giants, teammates on what was surely one of the greatest baseball teams of that era. (Those Giants of 1962 took the New York Yankees to Game Seven of the World Series. With the Yankees leading 1-0 with two out and runners at second and third in the ninth inning, McCovey came to bat and hit what he later called the hardest ball he had ever hit, a line drive that Bobby Richardson snared for the final out.)
Years later, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey smiled and said he would like to be remembered as the guy who hit a line drive over Bobby Richardson’s head.
My brother and I will remember McCovey for his warmth and his smile. And we will remember how those three Alabama men, from such disparate backgrounds, blended with Latinos to form one of the greatest teams in baseball. We went back to Hattiesburg, to our segregated schools and our segregated baseball and our state governed by Ross Barnett, knowing there was a larger world out there, far, far different than the one we knew.