The Padres 1974: Willie McCovey’s Time


The Padres have had their share of Hall of Famers and All-Stars.  Unfortunately, many of these players cut their teeth, or made their name, with other teams.  Willie McCovey was one of those players.  McCovey spent all but two years of his career in San Francisco, and those two years were in San Diego.

On October 25, 1973, McCovey was traded to the Padres along with Bernie Williams, for the Padres’ pitcher Mike Caldwell.  By the 1974 season, McCovey was not quite a shell of who he once was in San Francisco, but he was getting there.  He would not make another All-Star Game the rest of his career.  He would also fail to post more than 3.0 WAR in a single season in the remaining few years of his career.  But on April 5, 1974, Willie McCovey would debut with the Padres.

McCovey was drafted by the then New York Giants in 1955.  He didn’t make his Major League debut until the team moved to San Francisco.  But once he did arrive with the big league club, McCovey never looked back.  In his first season, 1959, he won Rookie of the Year by posting a .354/.429/.656 line and 13 home runs in 52 games.  From there, he simply went on to be a six-time All-Star, league MVP in 1969, and racked up 521 home runs in his career.  McCovey was “Big Mac” long before Mark McGwire and his steroid-fueled home runs race of 1998 helped endear him to fans as the modern day “Big Mac.”

As McCovey departed for San Diego, set to start the 1974 season 502 miles south,Wells Twombly of the Sporting news had this to say about McCovey:

"The swing was round, full and vicious, conjuring up childhood nightmares of a Turkish palace guard sneaking into your room while you slept and removing your head with one blow from his gleaming steel scimitar."

Quite the visual, but the point was McCovey’s swing was pretty and devastating.  The Giants and their fans would miss him, but the team simply couldn’t afford his contract.  They were losing money in 1972 and 1973, and they had to shed a lot of payroll.  Interestingly enough, the Padres and new owner Ray Kroc had some money to spend (a foreign concept to most Padres fans now).  The Padres increased payroll by 50% in 1974 and landed Willie McCovey.

In a day game played in Los Angeles, California, McCovey made his Padres debut.  In the top of the first he struck out.  He would go on to an 0-for-3 day with one walk and two strikeouts.  It was a tough debut on a tough team to watch.  For the sixth year in a row, the Padres would go on to lose 95 or more games in a season.  In 1974, they would lose 102 games.

McCovey, while not the same Hall of Fame level player, provided some entertainment for the fans of this Padres team that was outscored by 291 runs that season.  McCovey hit .253/.416/.506.  His incredible OBP was due in part to the 96 walks he took in 128 games.  McCovey also hit 22 home runs for the Padres, most on the team that year.

The skinny lefty played first base for the Padres in 1974 and part of 1975.  This sent Nate Colbert into a utility role.  Colbert had passed his prime though and was just about done with his career in San Diego.  McCovey played a decent first base and spent most of his career at the position.  He played 2,045 of his 2,320 games at first base.  McCovey was a talented player still when he reached San Diego.  He accounted for 3 wins in 1974 alone.

However, the Padres didn’t keep McCovey for long.  By the end of the 1975 season, San Diego was ready to deal the future Hall of Famer.  On August 30, 1975, with the Padres once again facing a 90+ loss season, Willie McCovey was sold back to the Bay Area.  This time, though, he would be playing with the Oakland Athletics to close out the season.

McCovey’s time with the Padres was short, but San Diegans can say they watched one of the greatest players in baseball history spend some time on their team.  Those who watched McCovey in 1974 and 1975 know he was not quite the same player as he was in San Francisco, but age will do that to a player.  Combine that with the depressing feeling of playing for a terrible team, and it’s surprising McCovey performed as well as he did.  At least San Diego came out to see him play.  The 1974 season was the first that saw the team draw more than 1 million fans.