Willie McCovey, the Hall of Fame first baseman who played 19 of his 22 seasons with the San Francisco Giants and slugged 521 career home runs, died yesterday at age 80 due to ongoing health issues.
Nicknamed "Stretch" because of his 6-foot-4 frame, McCovey teamed with Willie Mays to create a formidable 1-2 punch in the Giants' lineup for the 13 seasons the two played together.
McCovey retired in 1980 with the most home runs ever by a left-handed hitter in the National League, a mark that stood until 2001 when Barry Bonds, another Giant, broke it. He finished his career with 18 grand slams (second only to Lou Gehrig at the time), and led the league in home runs three times and RBIs twice. He was a six-time All-Star who finished his career with a .270 batting average, 521 home runs and 1,555 RBIs.
McCovey made his major league debut in 1959, going 4-for-4 in his first game. He hit .354, with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs in 52 games that season and was named Rookie of the Year.
One of McCovey's best seasons came in 1969, when he won MVP honors. That year, he led the league in home runs (45), RBIs (126) and on-base percentage (.453).
One honor that eluded McCovey was a World Series ring. He came close in 1962, coming up short in a nail-biting seven-game series against the Yankees. McCovey went to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, his team down 1-0, with runners on second and third base. McCovey sliced a hit toward right field that looked like it could drive in the winning run but instead was caught by Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the game and the series. The moment was so iconic that it was featured in a Peanuts comic strip.
McCovey's legacy in San Francisco has endured past his career. Home runs hit over the right field wall at AT&T Park splash into the water of McCovey Cove, and the "Willie Mac" Award, voted on by players, coaches and training staff, is awarded by the Giants every year to recognize the team's most inspirational player.