A final farewell to a local hero: Friends and family gather to recognize Walter McCoy, Negro Leagues star, stalwart soldier, community fixture and wonderful father. Photo courtesy of Bill Swank.
Yesterday, family and friends of Walter McCoy gathered at Mananatha Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Skyline Drive in San Diego to not only mourn his passing, but to also celebrate his life and contributions to the world around him.
Because indeed, there were many contributions.
And when San Diego baseball historian and long-time friend Bill Swank gave his remarks about Walter’s life at the service, one sentence he said in particular perhaps summed it up the best.
“Walter McCoy was San Diego’s Buck O’Neil,” Swank told the gathered flock, “a beloved ambassador for baseball.”
That is certainly no overstatement. McCoy, a right-handed pitcher with a wicked fastball, blazed trails in multiple leagues in co-called “organized” baseball,” becoming one of the first former Negro Leaguers to integrate Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons in 1950, and also helped integrate the California League — as well as the entire Chicago Cubs’ organization — when he joined the roster of the Visalia Cubs in 1949.
Those terms of service followed successful successful stints in the Negro Leagues with the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs.
After McCoy retired from the game, he returned to his native San Diego — well, technically, he was a native of Kansas, where he was born in either 1920 or 1924 (depending on the source), but soon after his nomadic family settled in SD — and became a popular building contractor.
During his golden years, McCoy also became one of the West Coast’s leading lights in preserving the memory of segregation-era baseball and its legacy, blossoming into one of the city’s most beloved figures on the local baseball scene.
But even more so, Walter McCoy was one of the friendliest, most genuine and most loving people those who knew him had ever met.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” Swank told me earlier this week. “He was a good ballplayer, but he was an even better human being.”
This week I also had to very good fortune to speak with Walter McCoy’s daughter, Robyn McCoy Jones, who told me that her family looked up to their patriarch.
“My brothers and sisters and I were very proud of our dad and his accomplishments,” she said. “But even more so, he was just the most amazing dad anyone could ever wish for.”
What I personally found most inspiring and heart-warming about Walter McCoy’s story was that just as his professional pitching career was taking off, in June 1942, just six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, McCoy enlisted in the Army.
He was subsequently assigned to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where he became a private in a medical detachment. But, said his daughter Robyn, Walter’s commanding officers realized that his gem of a right arm could help boost morale for soldiers across Arizona by providing them with a stellar, entertaining brand of ball.
“During his term in the Army, [his superiors] didn’t want to get him injured,” she said. “They wanted to keep him in baseball — they didn’t want anything to happen to him. They wanted to keep him in shape.”
The officers’ faith in McCoy’s pitching aptitude was well founded — McCoy ended up leading his Fort Huachuca squad to statewide greatness. Stated a September 1943 wire story:
“To win eight games without a loss, pitch one no-hit no-run game and two no-run games, while hitting six home runs himself in the past two months, is an accomplishment to conjure with and is the record of Private Walter McCoy, San Diego, California, a member of the Service Command Unit of Fort Huachuca …
“This remarkable feat was climaxed by the game in which the Service Command Team beat the best the 92nd Division had to offer. This game was played on the newly dedicated Rube Foster Field and seen by 15,000. Against the 92nd’s ‘All Stars,’ Private McCoy turned in one of his best games, a five-hitter which yielded only one run.
“The Service Command Unit Team has to date won 16 straight games and lost none. …”
While serving at Fort Huachuca — which is located near Sierra Vista, Ariz., at the foot of the Huachuca Mountains — McCoy became part of the base’s rich tradition, especially when it came to nurturing and developing African-American soldiers. Established in 1877, Huachuca in the early 20th century served as one of the headquarters of the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” cavalry troops who were key to the Army’s campaigns against Native-Americans in the West. Huachuca was also a crucial installation in military’s effort to deal with unrest along the Mexican border.
But by the time the U.S. entered World War II and ramped up its military effort, Fort Huachuca had evolved into one of the most thriving bases in the West, with more than 25,000 men and women on duty.
Walter McCoy remained in the Army for three years, and after being discharged in 1945, he was snapped up by the Chicago American Giants, with whom he became the ace of the staff, a fireballing strikeout king who was unfortunately vexed by the poor support he received in the field and at the plate.
By the time the 1947 season rolled around, McCoy’s arm hadn’t lost any zing. Stated Helen Ross of the American Negro Press in January ’47:
“Walter McCoy, one of the mainstays in the Giants’ pitching staff, writes that he has won six out of seven games in the winter league in California against major and minor league competition.
“McCoy was the leading strike-out pitcher in the Negro American League last year, fanning 128 men in 16 games. This is his third year with the Giants and Manager [‘Candy’ Jim] Taylor predicts that he should be the leading right hander in the coming season.”
I’m going to try to write up another post over the week or so about Walter McCoy’s career in organized baseball, beginning with the 1949 season. But for now, I’ll conclude this post with one final thought from Robyn McCoy Jones, his daughter, who said the McCoy family relishes the memory of their father and what he did during his 95 years on Earth.
“We’re proud of everything in his life,” she said, “his career in the Negro Leagues, his time as a ballplayer, his time in the Army and his time in construction. All of it contributed to the great man he was.”