SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Willie McCovey, the sweet-swinging Hall of Famer nicknamed “Stretch” for his 6-foot-4 height and those long arms, died Wednesday. He was 80.
The San Francisco Giants announced McCovey’s death, saying the fearsome hitter passed “peacefully” in the afternoon “after losing his battle with ongoing health issues.”
A former first baseman and left fielder, McCovey was a career .270 hitter with 521 home runs and 1,555 RBIs in 22 major league seasons, 19 of them with the Giants. He also played for the Athletics and Padres.
McCovey made his major league debut at age 21 on July 30, 1959 and played alongside the other Willie — Hall of Famer Willie Mays — into the 1972 season before Mays was traded to the New York Mets that May.
McCovey batted .354 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs on the way to winning 1959 NL Rookie of the Year. The six-time All-Star also won the 1969 NL MVP and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 after his first time on the ballot.
“You knew right away he wasn’t an ordinary ballplayer,” Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said, courtesy of the Hall of Fame. “He was so strong, and he had the gift of knowing the strike zone. There’s no telling how many home runs he would have hit if those knees weren’t bothering him all the time and if he played in a park other than Candlestick.”
McCovey had been getting around in a wheelchair in recent years because he could no longer rely on his once-dependable legs, yet was still regularly seen at the ballpark in his private suite. McCovey had attended games at AT&T Park as recently as the final game of the season.
“For more than six decades, he gave his heart and soul to the Giants,” Giants President and CEO Larry Baer said. “As one of the greatest players of all time, as a quiet leader in the clubhouse, as a mentor to the Giants who followed in his footsteps, as an inspiration to our Junior Giants, and as a fan cheering on the team from his booth.”
While the Giants captured their third World Series of the decade in 2014, McCovey returned to watch them play while still recovering from an infection that hospitalized him in September ’14 for about a month.
He attended one game at AT&T Park during both the NL Championship Series and World Series. He even waited for the team at the end of the parade route inside San Francisco’s Civic Center.
“It was touch and go for a while,” McCovey said at the time. “They pulled me through, and I’ve come a long way.”
McCovey had been thrilled the Giants accomplished something he didn’t in a decorated career in the major leagues.
Even four-plus decades later, it still stung for the left-handed slugging McCovey that he never won a World Series after coming so close. He lined out to end the Giants’ 1962 World Series loss to the Yankees.
He often thought about that World Series, which the Giants lost in seven games to the New York Yankees, and it remained difficult to accept. The Giants lost 1-0 in Game 7 when McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson with runners on second and third for the final out.
“I still think about it all the time, I still think, ‘If I could have hit it a little more,'” he said on Oct. 31, 2014.
In 2012, he said: “I think about the line drive, yes. Can’t get away from it.”
McCovey narrowly beat out pitcher Tom Seaver for the 1969 MVP. McCovey led the NL in home runs (45) and RBIs (126) for the second straight year, batting .320 while also posting NL-bests with a .453 slugging percentage and .656 on-base percentage. He was walked 121 times, then drew a career-high 137 free passes the next season.
He had been third in the ’68 voting MVP, but after 1969 would never again finish higher than ninth.
McCovey and Ted Williams before him were among the first players to really face infield shifts as opponents tried to affect his rhythm at the plate.
Tributes began pouring in Wednesday on social media.
“I’m extremely sad to hear of the passing of my dear friend @SFGiants Legend Willie McCovey,” basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell wrote on Twitter . “I will always have fond memories of him. Our thoughts are with his family. #RIP My friend #Forever44 #SFGiants.”
“RIP Willie McCovey, one of baseball’s all time greats,” Rev. Jesse Jackson posted on Twitter.
McCovey was born on Jan. 10, 1938, in Mobile, Ala. He had spent the last 18 years in a senior advisory role for the Giants.
“Every moment he will be terribly missed,” said McCovey’s wife, Estella. “He was my best friend and husband. Living life without him will never be the same.”
McCovey had a daughter, Allison, and three grandchildren, Raven, Philip, and Marissa. McCovey also is survived by sister Frances and brothers Clauzell and Cleon.
McCovey said that 2010, when the Giants won the franchise’s first World Series since moving from New York in 1958, it helped eased the pain for players like him, Juan Marichal, Mays and Felipe Alou. Seeing San Francisco in the Fall Classic again brought those smiles back to McCovey’s face even more.
“We’re kind of getting spoiled,” he said in 2012. “This is two in three years. People don’t realize how hard it is to get here. We’ve been pretty lucky.”
McCovey presented the “Willie Mac Award” each season — except in 2014 while dealing with complications from the infection — an honor voted on by the players, coaches and training staff to recognize the team’s player most exhibiting McCovey’s inspirational example both on the field and in the clubhouse. He was there this year as reliever Will Smith was honored.
“Something I will cherish forever,” Smith wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “May he Rest In Peace.”
When San Francisco opened its new waterfront ballpark in 2000, the cove beyond the right-field fence was named “McCovey Cove” in appreciation of all he did for the organization.
The Giants said a public celebration of McCovey’s life would be held at a later date.