The Giants’ 10 Greatest Hitters
Willie Mays (1951-52, 1954-72)
Other major leaguers may have more hits, more home runs, more steals and more World Series rings, but Willie Mays, a genuine five-tool talent with an unbridled enthusiasm for baseball, remains in the hearts of minds of many fans as the greatest player ever.
Born on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, Mays was a teenage star in the Negro Leagues but was initially rebuffed by the majors when word erroneously went out that he couldn’t hit a curve. When a scout for the Giants got a direct look at Mays in 1950, he had no doubts about Mays’ potential and sent back a note to New York: “Don’t ask any questions. You’ve got to get this boy.” The Giants listened and were glad they did; within a year Mays was hitting .477 for their top farm club in Minneapolis when they said enough and had him come out to New York—placing an ad back in the Twin Cities apologizing for plucking the 20-year old away.
Mays endured a somewhat slow start to his major league career, compounded by two years lost to the military after being drafted into the Army. But he returned in 1954 with an absolute bang, punching out 41 home runs with 110 runs batted in while winning the lone batting title of his career at .345; if he hadn’t become a household name for his MVP performance, he certainly would in that year’s World Series against Cleveland, when he made baseball’s most memorable catch with his sprinting, over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz’s monster drive at New York’s Polo Grounds, some 450 feet away from home plate.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Mays would reaffirm his standing as superstar through his various talents, nailing a National League-best 51 home runs in 1955, leading the NL in steals four straight years (from 1956-59) and becoming, in 1957, the third player in the century to hit at least 20 doubles, triples and homers each in the same year. In New York, Mays became a hero for young and old alike, and even after an exhausting day at the ballpark he would show up on the streets of Harlem and take in stickball with the local kids.
As the Giants moved to the financially greener pastures of San Francisco, the only thing Mays found chillier than the fog sweeping over Seals Stadium was the odd reception he received from Bay Area fans, who saw him as “NY” instead of “SF” while embracing rising stars Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey—neither of whom played at the Polo Grounds. But Mays kept to his business and won the locals over with his bat. Over a five-year period from 1961-65, Mays led the NL three times in homers and averaged 45 a season; hit four in one game at Milwaukee in 1961; and sent a then-record 17 over the fence in one month (August) during a 1965 season in which he logged a career-high 52, securing his second MVP award. In the clubhouse, Mays in 1964 became the first African-American voted captain of a major league team, a designation that would come in handy as he played mediator in some of the Giants’ uglier moments of the decade—such as the frightening Juan Marichal-Johnny Roseboro brawl in 1965, and a controversy born from Giants manager Alvin Dark’s blanket assertion that his team’s Latino players lacked “mental alertness.”
Mays began to decline in 1967 and, after a particularly bad start in 1972 was traded to the Mets in New York, back where he began. The deal thrilled New Yorkers who felt a great loss when Mays and the Giants left for California, while younger fans back in the Bay Area who grew up idolizing Mays as a Giant were infuriated; Mays’ departure set the tone for a dreadful five-year malaise in San Francisco that nearly resulted in the franchise leaving town. After Peter Magowan bought the Giants in 1992, he brought a retired Mays back as a goodwill ambassador, helping to bridge the glory days of old to the present.
A 20-time All-Star, Mays finished his career with a .302 average, 3,283 hits, 660 home runs (his two years in the military cost him a good shot at topping Babe Ruth’s 714), 338 steals and 12 Gold Gloves for his sparkling play in center field.
Mel Ott (1926-47)
Legendary Giants manager John McGraw had to be skeptical when he first saw Ott—all 16 years, 5’7” and 150 pounds of him—audition for him in 1925. But the hitting test became a clinic, as Ott wowed the typically crusty McGraw to the point that he vowed “no minor league manager is going to have a chance to ruin him.”
Over the next two decades, Ott wouldn’t disappoint McGraw and his successors. He led the Giants in home runs for 18 straight seasons—topping the NL in six of those years—and he would become the first National Leaguer to reach 500. When he stepped down from the game, Ott would, for the moment, be the all-time NL leader in homers, RBIs, runs and walks.
Using a high kick with his left leg, the right-handed hitting Ott swung fear into opposing pitchers barely after turning 20, when he enjoyed his first monster year with career highs in home runs (42), RBIs (151), doubles (37) and runs (138) to go with a .328 average; he also received the ultimate compliment when he became the first NL player ever to be given a walk with the bases loaded. (Ironically, as Giants player-manager in 1944, he ordered the NL’s second such pass, to the Chicago Cubs’ Bill Nicholson.)
During the 1930s, Ott often carried the Giants’ offense on his back and helped lead them to three NL pennants and a world title, yet amazingly never won a MVP and only finished as high as third in any one vote. During the Giants’ five-game World Series triumph over Washington in 1933, Ott hit .389 with a pair of homers—but was muffled in New York’s back-to-back Series losses to the crosstown Yankees in 1936-37, hitting a so-so .255 with a pair of homers in 11 total games.
Starting in 1942, Ott doubled his duty by taking over the managerial reins but had little success, even after he put away the bat and focused full-time on leading the club in 1946. He was let go midway through the 1948 season, replaced by Leo Durocher—who had Ott in mind when he once famously stated that nice guys finish last. Afterward, Ott dabbled in coaching and broadcasting; he met a tragic death in 1958 when, near his native New Orleans, he was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 49.
Barry Bonds (1993-2007)
Barry Bonds was supposed to come to San Francisco a happy man after seven stormy years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two-time MVP and supreme five-tool talent was coming home to where he grew up, would be linked up with his father (Bobby Bonds) and godfather (Mays), both now part of the Giants organization. And the money—$43 million over six years—made him the richest player in baseball.
Through the duration of that first contract, Bonds was worth every penny to the Giants. He had a magical first season, hitting .336 with 46 homers and 123 RBIs—all career bests at the time—winning a third MVP and leading his team to 103 wins. He was on his way to 50 homers the next year when the players’ strike cut the season short. In 1996, he became the second player (and the first in the NL) to record 40 homers and 40 steals in the same year. Bonds could hit for average and power; he could run and field. He began commanding more respect from increasingly fearful pitchers, who began to walk him more often; like Ott before him, Bonds was given the highest level of respect when, during a 1998 game, he was intentionally walked with the bases loaded.
Along the way, the happy-face façade began to melt, as he became increasingly difficult with teammates and felt disrespect from the front office, as he had in Pittsburgh; worse, he was jealous of the monstrous slugging achievements of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, players he felt were stealing the spotlight from him.
So roughly around 1999, Bonds made a deal with the devil and began taking steroids. Whether he knew he was taking them or not—he claimed in his notorious BALCO grand jury testimony that he didn’t, believing his trainer was giving him flaxseed oil—is still officially unproven, but even the most gullible among the baseball public were skeptical of that assertion. What is proven was that he was on the juice—and as soon as he was on it, he began putting up numbers unlike anything seen in the game, before or since.
In 2000, he set a personal mark with 49 homers. A year later, he smashed that total—clobbering a major league-record 73, tied to an .863 slugging percentage that also set a new standard. In 2002 the home run count “softened” to 46, but he batted .370—and tore to shreds his career label as a postseason bust, hitting .356 with eight homers, 16 RBIs and 27 walks (13 drawn intentionally) in 16 games as the Giants fell one win shy of a world title. In 2004, he won a second batting title at .362—and opposing pitchers, at this point absolutely frightened to face Bonds, paid heed to one advance scout’s report on the best way to pitch him: Ball one, ball two, ball three and ball four. Of the 232 walks he accumulated that season, an astonishing 120 of them were intentional; both numbers smashed existing records, held previously by Bonds himself, and led to actual debate as to whether the intentional pass should be outlawed. Bonds’ career capped that year with a record seventh (and fourth straight) MVP award—achieved at the age of 40.
A knee injury sidelined Bonds for almost all of 2005, returning a year later with more mortal numbers as he focused on one last achievement: The all-time home run record held by Hank Aaron, who publicly pained to show his appreciation of Bonds’ pursuit. By now, Bonds was a bittersweet hero in San Francisco, beloved for his contributions but loathed by many for how he went about it; the death of his father (in 2003), the BALCO controversy and perjury allegations as a result of it hardened and tortured Bonds even further. In 2007, he surpassed Aaron and finished his last season with 762 lifetime homers.
Besides the controversial home run record that many in baseball refuse to acknowledge in principle, Bonds is first all-time with 2,558 walks, fifth with 1,996 RBIs and third with 2,227 runs. The cheating allegations and prickly persona put Bonds on an unexpectedly uphill journey to Cooperstown, where in 10 years of eligibility he fell short of the 75% needed for enshrinement. Nevertheless, the Giants in 2018 retired his #25 uniform—breaking a longstanding policy of retiring numbers of only those enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Willie McCovey (1959-73, 1977-80)
On July 30, 1959, a star was born when the tall, lanky McCovey, like Mays a native of the Mobile area, had a crackling debut for the Giants by hammering out two triples and two singles in a perfect day against Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts; before his first week in the majors was done, McCovey added two more doubles and the first three of 521 career longballs.
Nicknamed Stretch for his excellent ability to do just that playing first base, McCovey would hit .354 with 13 homers to finish out his first year and become NL Rookie of the Year—despite appearing in just 52 games. Stardom, however, proved fleeting over the next five seasons with wildly uneven results, in part because he kept being bounced between first base, the outfield and the minors as teammate and fellow star Orlando Cepeda also coveted (and justifiably earned) the first base position. With Cepeda’s trade to St. Louis in the mid-1960s, the first base job permanently became McCovey’s—and he thrived at his newfound job security, stabilizing his numbers for the better. He peaked at the end of the 1960s, setting career marks in 1969 with 45 homers and 126 RBIs—leading the NL in both categories for the second straight year while earning MVP honors not just for the regular season but for the All-Star Game, where he blasted two balls over the fence. As a consequence, pitchers became loathe to face him—giving him 45 free passes in 1969, the major league standard until Bonds came along.
San Francisco fans endeared themselves to McCovey’s easygoing personality and sizzling hits. Ironically, the most famous ball he ever smoked turned into an out—the final out of the 1962 World Series, lashed into the waiting glove of the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson at second base that, had it gone passed him, would have won the game and the series for the Giants.
Like Mays, McCovey quickly declined in the early 1970s and was shipped away; after spending several lost years with San Diego and Oakland—suggesting his career was at a dead end—he was reacquired by the Giants (under new ownership) and enjoyed a magnificent renaissance at age 39, hitting .280 with 28 homers—including two in one inning (the second such occurrence of his career) and his last two grand slams, giving him a lifetime total of 18 that remains tops in the NL.
Local sportswriters paid tribute to McCovey when the Giants built Pac Bell (now Oracle) Park in 2000, renaming the estuary behind the right-field wall McCovey Cove. The Giants have never officially given the name, but gave an obvious nod to it when they placed a statue of McCovey on the other side of the cove. Unarguably the most popular San Francisco Giant ever, McCovey’s name is placed on an annual award given by the Giants to the team’s most inspirational player.
George Burns (1911-21)
Not to be confused with the George Burns who starred in the AL roughly during his time—or certainly with the George Burns who was emerging as a Vaudeville star—this George Burns was the main offensive catalyst for the Giants during the 1910s when small ball still ruled.
Before Charlie Gehringer earned the nickname “Mechanical Man” for his consistently superb numbers, there was Burns—who in nine full seasons with the Giants never hit below .272 or above .303. Given the name Silent George for his soft-spoken demeanor, Burns was deafening on opponents, leading the NL four times in runs, five times in walks and twice in steals—including a career-high 62 in 1914 which remains the most in modern franchise history. No base was safe for opponents; Burns stole home 28 times, the third highest total in major league history.
Wielding an especially heavy (52 oz.) bat considering his diminutive 5’7”, 160-pound frame, Burns was an integral part of the Giants’ World Series triumph over the Yankees in 1921, hitting .333 with five extra-base hits. It would be his last action as a Giant; he was sent to Cincinnati because manager John McGraw badly wanted to get a hold of Reds star Heinie Groh. Burns left on such good terms with the Giants, they waited until he returned to the Polo Grounds for the first time in a Cincinnati uniform so that he could help hoist the world title flag from the year before.
Larry Doyle (1907-16, 1918-20)
As loyal a soldier as there was to McGraw, the excitable, highly liked Doyle fit right into the legendary manager’s program during deadball times, once blurting out the rallying cry of the era by exclaiming, “It’s great to be young and a New York Giant!”
In his third year with the Giants in 1909, Doyle developed into a solid star hitter by leading the NL with 172 hits; two years later, he had his most productive year—setting career highs with 102 runs, 13 home runs, 71 walks and a modern franchise-record 25 triples. He set additional personal bests in 1912 with a .330 average and 90 RBIs, winning the Chalmers Award for the NL’s MVP. In 1915, Doyle returned to the top of the leaderboard, pacing the NL with 189 hits, 40 doubles and a .320 average that represented his lone batting title.
Doyle was aggressive in all aspects of the game, psychologically as well as physically; he was ejected from 31 games over his 14-year career. Impressed, McGraw made Doyle the team captain and had him serve as interim manager whenever he himself was ejected or suspended.
Bill Terry (1923-36)
Few players went nose-to-nose with long-time dictatorial Giants manager John McGraw and got away with it. Unless you were Terry, the last National Leaguer to hit .400 in a season and owner of a lifetime .341 batting average.
The love-hate relationship between Terry and McGraw started when the latter tried to lure the former from a cushy management job at Standard Oil in Memphis, where he played company ball. Terry said fine, but only if McGraw made it worth his while financially. McGraw reluctantly agreed, and Terry soon embarked on a 14-year major league career as a perennial .300 hitter, using the spacious gaps at the Polo Grounds and occasional power that led to three seasons of 20-plus home runs. He paced the NL’s momentum of offense in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, scoring and knocking in 100 runs each in six straight seasons (1927-32)—and peaking in 1930 (as did the league itself) with a .401 average and a NL-record 254 hits. By then, Terry had stopped talking to McGraw altogether, and vice versa; the silence ended in 1932 when an aging, tiring McGraw asked Terry to succeed him as the Giants’ manager.
Terry made a fantastic first impression as player-manager, leading the Giants to a World Series triumph over the Washington Senators during his first full year as the team pilot. He was never afraid to speak his opinion, which sometimes worked to his advantage—and sometimes not; he ridiculed the crosstown Dodgers before the 1934 season, asking a reporter in jest, “Are they still in the league?” A fired-up Brooklyn ballclub made Terry eat his words when, in the waning weeks of the season, they helped knocked the Giants out of the pennant race.
After winning two more NL flags in 1936-37—the latter season his first after retiring as a player—Terry watched the Giants slowly deteriorate, and by 1942 he was replaced by Mel Ott. Despite the less-than-idyllic end to his tenure in New York, Terry remained loyal to the Giants, and he made a serious attempt to purchase the team from Horace Stoneham in the 1950s to keep it from moving to California.
Orlando Cepeda (1958-66)
The Puerto Rican native nicknamed The Bull busted out with a strong rookie effort in the Giants’ first season at San Francisco to win Rookie of the Year honors and make him an immediate favorite among Bay Area fans who saw him as one of their own, as opposed to the “imported” Mays. He remained a solid offensive component of the Giants lineup until 1966, when he lost bragging rights for first base to fellow star McCovey and was shipped out to St. Louis.
Through his seven full years as a Giant, Cepeda was nothing short of spectacular; he averaged 32 homers and 107 RBIs per season, leading the NL in both departments in 1961 (with a prodigious 46 and 142, respectively), and his .309 average during this stretch was bested only by Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente.
Cepeda considered himself a first baseman and resented playing in the outfield, and it was there where he severely damaged an already bad knee in 1965, limiting his total duty on the year to 34 at-bats. When Cepeda came back recovered a year later, he begged manager Herman Franks to return to first base and was denied; he then demanded a trade and got one, to the Cardinals—with whom he would be bestowed with both the NL MVP and a World Series ring in 1967.
Over 17 years with six different ballclubs, Cepeda totaled a .297 average with 2,351 hits and 379 homers; he was selected by the Veterans’ Committee into the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Ross Youngs (1917-26)
The short but well-built left-handed hitter from Shiner, Texas is one of baseball’s more sobering stories of great talent robbed far too early by death.
Part of a great lineup of talented, slashing hitters including Frankie Frisch, George Kelly and Irish Meusel that propelled the Giants to four straight NL pennants in the early 1920s, Youngs started fast and never let up—until he was diagnosed in 1926 with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment that would take his life barely a year later at the age of 30. In between, Youngs was an all-around success in New York, disdaining the league-wide trend toward power by putting up impressive deadball era-style numbers with an abundance of doubles, triples, runs and walks with very few homers (his career high was 10, in 1924). He was also sensational on defense, as McGraw went on the record to say Youngs was the best outfielder he ever saw.
Nicknamed Pep for his nonstop hustle, Youngs only hit below .300 once—in 1925, when the early effects of Bright’s possibly began to slow him down to a .264 mark. Impressively, Youngs rebounded with a .306 average and 21 steals in 1926 as McGraw provided him with a full-time nurse to quell the effects of the disease as best as possible. A generous individual who was said to never hold a grudge, Youngs also spent his final year with the Giants tutoring a very young Mel Ott, advice the future Hall of Famer said was critical to his success.
Youngs was bedridden for most of 1927 and succumbed to Bright’s on October 22. He hit .322 over a 10-year career and was voted into Cooperstown in 1972.
Bobby Bonds (1968-74)
The Southern Californian native better known these days as Barry’s dad had an outstanding tenure with the Giants to begin an otherwise rocky major league career, coming tantalizingly close to fulfilling heavy expectations as the second coming of Mays with a strong bat, great speed and gifted outfield defense.
Bonds made for an instant impression in his first big league game in 1968, becoming the first player in the 20th century to hit a grand slam in his debut performance. Despite strong slugging skills, the Giants typically placed him in the leadoff spot to take advantage of his fast feet, and he rewarded the team by scoring 100-plus runs five times (twice leading the NL) while stealing at least 40 bases another five times; coupled with his home run stroke, he fell just one blast shy in 1973 of becoming baseball’s first player to collect at least 40 homers and 40 steals in the same year. He was also expert in drawing the count deep, which led to a healthy supply of walks—but a very unhealthy supply of strikeouts, setting the all-time season record with 187 in 1969, then eclipsing that by two the following year. The dubious mark would stand for the rest of the century.
In 1974, Bonds became disillusioned with Giants ownership that was financially on the ropes, and his relations with both the team and local press soured heavily as well—a caustic environment not lost on his son, who often hung around the clubhouse and witnessed it all first-hand. The Giants obliged Bonds after the season and traded him, one-up for Bobby Murcer, to the Yankees; the deal launched a nomadic second half of Bonds’ career in which he played for seven different teams over his final seven years as he continued to produce, yet also alienated various front offices with his outspoken criticisms.
In 1993, Bonds returned to San Francisco as the team’s hitting/first base coach, if for anything else to provide a comfort level for Barry, himself just signed on by the Giants. He died 10 years later at the age of 57 from lung cancer and a brain tumor.
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