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Hall of Fame slugger McCovey dies at 80

MLB.com @castrovince

Willie McCovey, one of the great left-handed power hitters of all time, a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986 and a beloved member of the San Francisco Giants family, passed away peacefully Wednesday after a battle with health issues. He was 80 years old.

Nicknamed "Stretch" for the long arms and legs attached to his 6-foot-4 frame, McCovey and fellow Hall of Famer and Alabama native Willie Mays comprised the core of San Francisco Giants teams that gave opposing pitchers The Willies. McCovey's pull power was so prodigious that the China Basin that sits beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park is affectionately referred to as "McCovey Cove," though McCovey never played there.

Willie McCovey, one of the great left-handed power hitters of all time, a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986 and a beloved member of the San Francisco Giants family, passed away peacefully Wednesday after a battle with health issues. He was 80 years old.

Nicknamed "Stretch" for the long arms and legs attached to his 6-foot-4 frame, McCovey and fellow Hall of Famer and Alabama native Willie Mays comprised the core of San Francisco Giants teams that gave opposing pitchers The Willies. McCovey's pull power was so prodigious that the China Basin that sits beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park is affectionately referred to as "McCovey Cove," though McCovey never played there.

A statue of McCovey sits at the mouth of the Cove, which would have made for a fine target in his playing days.

McCovey's legacy: 'Mr. San Francisco Giant'

"He could hit a ball farther than anyone I ever played with," Mays once said of McCovey.

In the course of a career that spanned 22 seasons from 1959 to 1980 and included three teams -- the Giants, Padres and A's -- McCovey compiled 2,211 hits, 521 home runs, 353 doubles, 1,345 walks and 1,555 RBIs. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1959, the Most Valuable Player in 1969 and a six-time All-Star, winning All-Star MVP honors, also in '69.

Top 10 moments in McCovey's HOF career

"Willie McCovey was one of our game's greatest power hitters," Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "He won the National League MVP in 1969 and, alongside fellow Hall of Famer and Alabama native Willie Mays, was a key part of many memorable Giants' teams. For 22 years on the field and many more after retiring, Willie was a superb ambassador for the Giants and our game.

Video: Larry Baer remembers impact of McCovey on Giants

"When the Giants moved to their new ballpark, they appropriately honored Willie through the naming of McCovey Cove, where a new generation of fans learned about his remarkable career. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to Willie's family, friends and all fans of the Giants."

McCovey led his league in homers three times and in RBIs twice. He is second only to Barry Bonds (762) in career home runs by a left-handed-hitting member of the NL. He's also tied for fifth all time in career grand slams, with 18.

"Here's a guy who is the most feared in baseball, but everyone pitches around him," the late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once said of McCovey. "If you let him bat 600 times and pitched to him instead of around him, he'd hit 80 home runs."

Video: MLB Network takes a look back at McCovey's career

In 1999, McCovey was chosen by a popular vote of fans as one of 10 first basemen and one of 100 players overall named to MLB's All-Century Team. McCovey's legacy with the Giants, for whom he served as a senior advisor, is so strong that the club's Willie Mac Award, which has been presented annually since 1980 to the most inspirational player on the Giants after a vote by players, coaches, training staff and fans, was created in his honor. His uniform No. 44 was retired by the club shortly after his retirement.

McCovey is survived by his wife, Estela, and daughter, Allison.

Born on Jan. 10, 1938, in Mobile, Ala., to father Frank and mother Esther, McCovey was one of 10 children. He would remark later in life that he was fortunate to have made friends with kids who were into sports, as opposed to kids who joined gangs. He played football and basketball, but his baseball talent caught the attention of a playground director named Jesse Thomas, whose brother Dave "Showboat" Thomas played in the Negro Leagues.

Jesse Thomas recommended McCovey to a New York Giants scout (and former Negro League team owner) named Alex Pompez, who invited McCovey to a Giants tryout camp in Melbourne, Fla., at the age of 17. McCovey was signed to play for the club's Class D Georgia State League affiliate, entering pro ball just as he entered adulthood.

With his natural hitting skills, McCovey's rise to the big leagues did not take long. He debuted with the Giants, who had made the move to San Francisco just a year earlier, in 1959, at the age of 21. The club already had two first basemen -- Bill White and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Orlando Cepeda. But McCovey compelled the club to give him the call from Triple-A Phoenix, and manager Bill Rigney moved Cepeda to third base to accommodate him.

"I requested uniform No. 44, because I've always admired Hank Aaron, and I was getting dressed when Bill Rigney came to me and said, 'How do you feel?'" McCovey recalled later in life. "I said 'Fine,' not wanting to tell him I had been up all night. He said, 'Good, because you're in there and you're hitting third. You know whose spot that is. I'm moving Mays up to second today, so you know what we're expecting of you."

In his debut, which was on July 30, McCovey faced Phillies ace and future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts and went 4-for-4 with two triples in a 7-2 win. A star was born. It took him all of 52 games to earn that year's rookie honor with a unanimous vote. In that limited sample -- the smallest ever for a position player who won Rookie of the Year -- he hit .354 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs.

Tweet from @baseballhall: A @SFGiants legend, remembered in Cooperstown���always. Photo: Milo Stewart Jr. pic.twitter.com/YtJYnGDxG7

The McCovey-Cepeda dilemma at first base was one the Giants would unsuccessfully try to solve for years. When Cepeda's move to third proved immediately to be a defensive dud, the Giants stuck him in left field. When Cepeda was unhappy there and McCovey was having some early career stumbles at the plate -- particularly against left-handed pitching -- the Giants tried flipping the two around, with McCovey in the outfield for parts of 1962-64. Finally, the Giants made a regrettable trade of Cepeda in 1966 -- a deal that may have cost them the pennant.

In any event, McCovey played his way into an everyday spot in the lineup by 1963, the year he tied Aaron for the NL home run lead with, appropriately, 44. He came to be the club's everyday cleanup hitter behind Mays. He would play through injuries -- including heel and knee trouble -- in the ensuing years, but finished with more than 30 homers for six straight seasons from 1965-70, and the Cepeda trade freed him up to play first without disruption. Those long arms that inspired the "Stretch" nickname also inspired a colorful description from the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.

"On ground balls hit down to the second baseman, there's no need to throw," Murray wrote, "the second baseman just hands the ball to Willie."

Even the 1968 season -- the so-called "Year of the Pitcher" -- was no match for McCovey, as he hit .293 with a league-best .545 slugging percentage. And he had his best year in 1969, with a league-leading 45 homers and 126 RBIs, to go with a .320 average and an incredible .453 on-base percentage and .656 slugging percentage. A window into the respect he commanded can be seen by his 45 intentional walks that year, and he edged Mets pitcher Tom Seaver in the NL MVP balloting.

Further knee issues would begin to limit McCovey's playing time and impact him in 1971, and a fractured forearm suffered in an early season collision ("I feel like I killed Santa Claus," said the Padres' Johnny Jeter, who ran into McCovey) sullied 1972. McCovey, traded from the Giants to the Padres in 1973 and then to the A's in '76, would be hounded by knee woes for the remainder of his career. But he found ways to confirm that he was still an elite hitter, particularly in 1977, when he rejoined the Giants and hit .280 with 28 homers at age 39. For that, he was named NL Comeback Player of the Year by The Sporting News, and the Giants held "Willie McCovey Day" in his honor late in the season.

"I'd like to think that when people think of San Francisco," he said at the time, "they also think of Willie McCovey. It's where I want to be, where I belong. I hope the people there love me a little in return."

McCovey played parts of three more seasons with the Giants before retiring during the 1980 season at the age of 42. He hit his 500th homer on June 30, 1978, at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, and he hit his 521st and final homer on May 3, 1980, tying Ted Williams for eighth on the all-time list at the time.

Video: McCovey hits 500th homer against Braves

The love affair between McCovey and the Giants continued well into his retirement. Over the years, he served as a Spring Training guest instructor, special assistant and senior advisor, even as continuing health issues, including several back surgeries, necessitated that he use a wheelchair.

For the city of San Francisco, the loss of McCovey is more than just the loss of a baseball player. It is the loss of a civic institution.

"Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars," he said in his Hall of Fame speech, "I've been made to feel like a landmark, too."

Video: Willie McCovey is inducted into the Hall of Fame

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

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