SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - - San Francisco Giants Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey, one of the most formidable batters in Major League Baseball, died on Wednesday at age 80, following a “battle with ongoing health issues,” the team said.
Blessed with a sweeping, powerful swing, the left-handed first baseman hit 521 homers during his 22 years in the majors, and his 18 grand slams rank as the most ever by a player who spent his career entirely in the National League.
McCovey, whose death the Giants announced on Twitter, was voted National League Rookie of the Year in 1959, won Most Valuable Player honors in 1969, and was a six-time All Star.
He played for the Giants, San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics but was most closely identified with the Giants, playing 19 seasons in San Francisco alongside future Hall of Fame teammates Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.
Along the way, the 6-foot 4-inch Alabama native — nicknamed “Stretch” and “Big Mac” — made his mark as one of the greatest hitters of his era, and one of the most beloved players to wear the Giants uniform.
He was one of a talented group of young players who joined the Giants after the franchise moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958 at the dawn Major League Baseball’s westward expansion.
“Unlike Mays, McCovey was a San Francisco Giant all the way,” recalled longtime Oakland Tribune sports columnist Art Spander.
“San Francisco didn’t take to Mays right away when the Giants moved here in 1958. He was identified with New York. But when McCovey came up from the minor leagues, he was an instant hit. San Franciscans loved him as one of their own,” Spander said.
Born on Jan. 10, 1938, in Mobile, Alabama, McCovey showed promising batting prowess even as a youngster.
“Balls were kind of hard to get, and we played in this ballpark that had a short right field fence,” he once told an interviewer. “They used to make me hit right-handed because I’d lose all the balls over the wall.”
Perhaps the most memorable game McCovey ever played was on Oct. 16, 1962, Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Yankees, the last World Series game between the two long-time rivals to date.
With two outs and the Yankees leading the Giants 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Candlestick Park, McCovey came to bat with Mays on second base and Matty Alou on third.
McCovey smashed a line drive toward right that for an instant looked like it would score Mays and Alou to give the Giants a 2-1 win and the World Series championship, their first since 1954. Instead, Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson speared the ball for the final out to end the series.
When the Giants moved from old Candlestick Park to their stunning new bayside ballpark, now known as AT&T Park, for the 2000 season, they honored McCovey in a novel fashion, naming an inlet of San Francisco Bay beyond the right-field fence “McCovey Cove,” where Giants slugger Barry Bonds thrilled fans with “splashdown” homeruns into the water.
In 2003, the Giants unveiled a statue of McCovey at a park adjacent to McCovey Cove, complementing Mays’ statue at the entrance to the ballpark.
The Giants also honored McCovey after his final season in 1980 by establishing the annual Willie Mac Award, presented each year to the Giants player “who best exemplifies the spirit and leadership consistently shown by McCovey throughout his career.”
After his playing days, the Giants retired McCovey’s uniform number - 44 - one of only nine former players or managers so honored in the 121-year history of the Giants.
Writing and reporting by Leonard Anderson in San Francisco: Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Darren Schuettler