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Willie McCovey, Giants’ Hall of Famer, dead at 80

SAN FRANCISCO — 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 said the fearsome hitter died “after losing his battle with ongoing health issues.’’

A former first baseman and left fielder, Mr. 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.

He 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.


Mr. 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.’’

San Francisco’s original ballpark was known for the swirling winds off the bay that knocked down would-be homers.

Mr. McCovey had used a wheelchair in recent years because he could no longer rely on his legs, yet he was still regularly seen at the ballpark in his private suite. He had attended games at AT&T Park as recently as the final game of the season.


“I love him so much,’’ Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said in a telephone interview. ‘‘Willie McCovey was not only a great ballplayer but a great teammate. He didn’t have any fear. He never complained. I remember one time in 1960 they sent him down to the minor leagues after being Rookie of the Year the year before. He didn’t complain. He was very polite, he was very quiet.’’

When the Giants were capturing their third World Series of the decade in 2014, Mr. McCovey returned to watch them play while still recovering from an infection that had hospitalized him for about a month.

He even waited for the team at the end of their victory parade route inside San Francisco’s Civic Center.

‘‘It was touch and go for a while,’’ Mr. McCovey said at the time. ‘‘They pulled me through, and I’ve come a long way.’’

Mr. 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 slugger that he never won a World Series after coming so close. He made the last out of the Giants’ 1962 World Series loss to the Yankees.

He often thought about that World Series, which the Giants lost in seven games to New York. The Giants lost 1-0 in Game 7 when Mr. McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson with runners on second and third.

‘‘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.’’

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.’’

A native of Alabama, Mr. McCovey had spent the last 18 years in a senior advisory role for the Giants.

‘‘Every moment he will be terribly missed,’’ said his wife, Estela. ‘‘He was my best friend.’’

Mr. McCovey also leaves a daughter, Allison, a sister, Frances, two brothers, Clauzell and Cleon, and three grandchildren.

Mr. McCovey presented the ‘‘Willie Mac Award’’ each season, an honor voted on by the players, coaches, and training staff to recognize the team’s player most exhibiting Mr. 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.

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. The Giants said a celebration of Mr. McCovey’s life would be held at a later date.