To most, he was the man called Stretch, a nickname acquired in 1955 during New York Giants spring training in Florida. In April 1957, shortly before the first baseman’s Texas League debut as a Dallas Eagle, sportswriter editor Bill Rives explained the moniker: “The other players took one look at his elastic frame and tagged him Stretch.” And so it was until Willie McCovey’s death in October 2018.
Stretch, the man who, so the joke went, could grab the ball at second base all the way from first.
There, on the career-achievements ring gifted to McCovey by his Giants teammates upon his retirement in 1980, is the word “STRETCH” stamped into the 14-karat gold. It’s surrounded by the shorthand highlights of a great man’s career: “1959-1980,” “All-Stars 6, M.V.P. 1969,” “521, 18.” As in: Over the course of 22 seasons in the sun McCovey was a six-time All-Star and the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1969 who hit 521 home runs, 18 of which were grand slams, an NL record.
McCovey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986 and named as a member of the All-Century team 13 years later.
For the first time, all of the trophies, rings and plaques that accompanied all those accolades will made available to fans and collectors during Heritage Auctions’ August 21-22 Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction. The Willie McCovey Collection – which features some 210 lots, among them some of the most coveted hardware in baseball history – is the centerpiece of the event.
McCovey’s widow, Estela, says “it was not easy to part” with these items, among them the Most Valuable Player Award given him by the National League in 1969 and the ring given him upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. But, she says, “it’s time these go to people who will really take care of these things – and to those who loved him.”
Willie’s death is still a raw wound for Estela, who still speaks of her late husband in the present tense and often gets emotional when talking about him. She never saw him play ball, outside of videos and tributes. Yes, she says, “he was really a great man,” a legend of the game he loved.
“But he’s a great husband, a great parent,” she says. “And he is my best friend.”
She says McCovey kept everything he ever won or was given – from the 2012 San Francisco Giants World Series championship ring to the first baseman’s glove he used from 1975 until 1980, from the regal “Babe Ruth Crown” he received in 1982 to the battered batting helmet that survived three years taking cuts as a Giant.
“It’s hard for me to part with these things, but the memories are more important to me,” Estela says. “He never threw anything away – even used nails.” She laughs. “It took a while for me to organize everything, but thank God I loved doing it. This is for the fans. They have been so good to me. They write me, tell me stories about him. I know he was very much loved.”
So much so that the San Francisco Giants honored him on myriad occasions, beginning in 1980, when the team retired his No. 44 to mark his final season. The team also awards players the Willie Mac Award – “a de facto most inspirational player award, coveted by San Francisco players because of McCovey’s history and the fact that the honoree is selected by teammates,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted upon his death on Oct. 31, 2018.
Of course, for the last 21 years the Giants’ ballpark has been perched upon the slice of San Francisco Bay nicknamed McCovey Cove, the moniker bestowed upon the basin just beyond the right-field fence. On the cove’s opposite side stands the McCovey statue – a monument that looks forever in motion, as though No. 44 just bashed another homer out of the park.
And, of course, Estela and Willie were married at the ballpark.
He is as inextricably linked to the franchise as the name Giants itself, because he was one himself. A giant among Giants.
“I would keep everything if I could,” Estela says, choking back tears. “But it’s time to share these things with everyone who loves him as much as I do.”
Heritage Consignment Director Tony Giese flew to Northern California to pick up the collection and showed off some of the items, which are now on display at the National Sports Collectors Convention
For full coverage of the show up to now and all week long, click here.
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