Re­mem­ber­ing a ‘true gen­tle­man’: Base­ball Hall of Famer Wil­lie McCovey, a Gi­ants leg­end and team am­bas­sador, dies at 80.

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Steve Gard­ner USA TO­DAY

Base­ball Hall of Famer Wil­lie McCovey, who hit 521 home runs and won the 1969 Na­tional League MVP Award, died last week at 80.

McCovey — nick­named “Stretch” for his lanky 6-4 frame — played 19 of his 22 ma­jor league sea­sons with the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants and was one of the fran­chise’s most beloved play­ers.

The Gi­ants said McCovey “passed away peace­fully ... af­ter los­ing his bat­tle with on­go­ing health is­sues.”

“San Fran­cisco and the en­tire base­ball com­mu­nity lost a true gen­tle­man and leg­end, and our col­lec­tive hearts are bro­ken,” Gi­ants Pres­i­dent-CEO Larry Baer said.

McCovey was an in­stant hit when he reached the ma­jors as a 21-year-old in 1959 with the Gi­ants, win­ning the NL rookie of the year award unan­i­mously, de­spite play­ing in just 52 games.

In 1962, he and Hall of Fame team­mate Wil­lie Mays led the Gi­ants to the World Se­ries against the New York Yan­kees. How­ever, the Yan­kees won in seven games, with McCovey lin­ing out to sec­ond base for the final out of the se­ries.

He came back the fol­low­ing year and led the league in home runs with 44. That sea­son would be the first of his six sea­sons as a mem­ber of the NL Al­lS­tar team.

How­ever, his great­est sea­son came six years later when he won his third home run ti­tle with a ca­reer-high 45, led the league with 126 RBI and won MVP hon­ors.

“The most feared hit­ter I ever sat be­hind,” Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench tweeted. “I didn’t have a pitch that could get him out. Loved that man.”

McCovey was 42 when he re­tired in the mid­dle of the 1980 sea­son, cap­ping a ca­reer in which he hit .270. His 521 home runs tied him for eighth all time with Ted Wil­liams at the time and ranked first among Na­tional League left-handed hit­ters.

His 18 grand slams re­main an NL record.

McCovey was in­ducted into the Na­tional Base­ball Hall of Fame in 1986.

Even af­ter his re­tire­ment, he re­mained in­volved with the Gi­ants as one of the fran­chise’s great am­bas­sadors.

His pop­u­lar­ity also con­trib­uted to le­gal prob­lems when in 1995, he and for­mer Brook­lyn Dodgers outfiel­der Duke Snider were con­victed of tax fraud for fail­ing to re­port in­come from au­to­graph sign­ings and mem­o­ra­bilia shows.

McCovey was fined and sen­tenced to two years’ pro­ba­tion. How­ever, he was par­doned in Jan­uary 2017 by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama dur­ing Obama’s final days in office.

When the Gi­ants moved to a new ball­park in the China Basin area in 2000, the body of wa­ter be­yond the right-field wall was re­named McCovey Cove in his honor.

The Gi­ants re­tired McCovey’s num­ber 44 and had a statue of him built at China Basin Park, on the other side of the cove, in 2003.

The team cre­ated an award in his honor, the Wil­lie Mac Award, that was given an­nu­ally to the Gi­ants’ most in­spi­ra­tional player, which McCovey pre­sented ev­ery year at the be­gin­ning of the team’s final home­s­tand of the sea­son.

He was on hand at the final se­ries this sea­son to present the 2018 Wil­lie Mac Award to re­liever Will Smith.

Wil­lie McCovey of the Gi­ants raises his hands in sa­lute to the cheer­ing crowd af­ter he was re­placed in the lineup in a game with the Reds on July 3, 1980. It was the last home game ap­pear­ance be­fore re­tire­ment for the pop­u­lar vet­eran, who hit 521 home runs in 22 sea­sons. AP

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