Covington, Wes

Position: Left field
Birthplace: Laurinburg

First, MIddle Names: John Wesley
Date of Birth: March 27, 1932           Date and Place of Death: July 4, 2011, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Burial: Cremated

High School: Laurinburg Institute; Hillside High School, Durham, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1,205
Debut Year: 1956       Final Year: 1966          Years Played: 11
Teams and Years:  Milwaukee Braves, 1956-61; Chicago White Sox, 1961; Kansas City Athletics, 1961; Philadelphia Phillies, 1961-65; Chicago Cubs, 1966; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1966

Career Summary
G            AB         H         R          RBI      HR      BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1075    2978   832   355     499    131   . 279     .337     .466      9.2

The Bears of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a Boston Braves’ minor-league affiliate, featured two African-American sluggers in 1952, roomies Wes Covington and Henry Aaron. Covington hit 24 home runs that year, Aaron a mere nine.  “At that point, if people had known that one of our players would someday be the all-time, major-league home-run leader, everybody would have assumed that Covington would be the guy,” Aaron would later write in his autobiography.[I]

Of course, that’s not how it turned out. While he had a productive career in the majors that included appearances in three World Series, Covington never became a baseball immortal like his old roommate. Injuries afflicted him and, by some accounts, a big mouth hampered him. The authors of an encyclopedia about the Philadelphia Phillies summed up the career of the team’s former left fielder: “Wes Covington lasted 11 years in the major leagues because of a bat that made a lot of noise and in spite of a mouth that did likewise…. (He) specialized in long home runs and long interviews that tended to get people around him a bit testy.”[II]

Born in Laurinburg in the state’s Sandhills, Covington’s childhood remains a mystery. There’s nothing in the historical record about his parents or any siblings. Neither do we know anything about his growing up in Scotland County.[1]

Covington attended Laurinburg Institute, a historic African-American prep school founded in 1904 at the request of Booker T. Washington. It produced a number of basketball stars, such as Charlie Scott and Sam Jones, and one fine jazzman in Dizzy Gillespie.

Football is what likely drew Covington to Hillside High School in Durham, though, where the 6-1, 205-pound teenager was the fullback and ran 100 yards in under 10 seconds. He was considering several football scholarship offers, including one from what is now North Carolina State University, in 1951 when his life changed.

He was asked that year to play the outfield in an annual game of high-school all stars from North and South Carolina, though Covington had never played prep baseball. He impressed a Braves’ scout, who offered him a contract. Covington decided to take the money and forget football. “You know how it is,” he recalled a few years later. “I needed a few dollars; they had a few dollars. Good deal. Besides, my wife, then my sweetheart, asked me to play baseball instead.”[III]

The Braves were a struggling franchise when they signed Covington and were destined to abandon Massachusetts for Wisconsin at the end of the season. They assigned the 20-year-old to their farm team in Eau Claire where he was joined by Aaron, a teenage shortstop.

They endured the hardships of professional baseball’s slow and uneasy erasing of the color line. They were refused motel rooms in North Dakota and meals at restaurants on the road. They ate on the team bus or in the kitchen with the help. They stayed at the local YMCA while white players roomed with Eau Claire families. A local restaurant owner cancelled his promotion of offering a free steak dinner to Bears’ players who homered because the team’s biggest sluggers were black. Residents stared. Many had never seen a black man. “I felt like a sideshow freak,” Covington said.[IV]

Milwaukee Braves (L-R): Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Bob Buhl, Wes Covington and Bob “Hurricane” Hazel, circa 1957-1958. Photo: Atlanta Braves

 

A gregarious, confident man with a rich baritone voice and an ever-present smile, Covington took it all in stride, remembered Bobby Malkmus, who played with him in the minors before teaming up on the Braves. Covington remained a loyal teammate despite the racial barriers, he said. “He was a tremendous guy, easy to get along with,” Malkmus said. “We got along really well. He was a good ballplayer and a good friend. [There was] no black and white situation with him; he was just a good teammate, kind of a jolly person.”[V]

Drafted by the Army in 1953, Covington spent the following year playing ball on bases in Kentucky and Virginia. That was followed by a season in the minors and a winter playing in Puerto Rico where Covington led the league in RBI and tied for the lead in hits. Then, it was on to Milwaukee.

Covington debuted in 1956 with pinch hits to help the Braves win several games. He hit .283 in limited play but already began infuriating pitchers with his drawn-out routine before each at bat. “In the time it takes for Covington’s ritual of hand dusting, cap adjusting, spike cleaning and deep scowling, the Senate could hold a dozen filibusters,” Baseball Digest noted.[VI]

Batting coaches looked at the kid’s odd batting stance – a low crouch with the bat held almost parallel to the ground – and wondered how he ever hit a ball. One writer called it a Caveman Grip, noting that he looked “like a man with a hoe handle waiting at a rat hole for a mouse to appear.”[VII]

Despite all that, the starting left fielder’s job was Covington’s when the 1957 season began. Since arriving in Milwaukee, the Braves had risen up the ranks of the National League with an infusion of young talent. Hall of Famers Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn were buttressed by masher Joe Adcock, speedster Billy Bruton and solid regulars like Johnny Logan and Del Crandall.

Covington faltered at the start of the season and was sent back to the minors. He returned a month later and hit .287 with 21 home runs in 96 games, helping the Braves win their first pennant in almost a decade. Covington played in every game of the World Series against the New York Yankees, though he only hit 208. Never known for his defensive skills – “They don’t pay outfielders to catch balls,” he once explained — he made two stellar catches that preserved victories. The Braves won in seven games.[VIII]

After hurting his knee during spring training, Covington was sidelined for the first month of the 1958 season. He had another productive year — .330-24-47 – and the Braves went back to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees.

Those back-to-back years would be Covington’s best. An ankle injury shortened his 1959 season. His batting average dropped to .279 and he hit just seven home runs. The next year was even worse. Covington was grossly out of shape when he reported to spring training. Still hobbled by the bad ankle, he lost his starting job and hit just .249.

Yet, Covington continued his annual tradition of holding out for more money. Before he signed his 1961 contract, the Braves would have to meet certain conditions, Covington said.  “Two hundred hitters don’t give ultimatums,” sneered the Braves’ General Manager John McHale.[IX] Covington eventually signed but he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in May then to the Kansas City Athletics and finally three weeks later to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Covington was good in Philadelphia. He appeared in more than 100 games in each of his four full seasons with the Phillies and hit better than .280 and averaged 14 home runs and 53 RBI a year. He was one of the team’s most-popular players in the clubhouse and in the stands, and kids loved to copy his batting stance.

Gene Mauch

His relationship with Gene Mauch was another matter, however. He chaffed under the manager’s platoon system and complained often and in public. Mauch, in turn, said the outfielder was prone to “pop off and pop up.”[X]

Many Phillies fans soured on Covington after the team’s historic collapse in 1964 when they lost 10 straight with 12 games to play, forfeiting a pennant in the process.  Covington hit .150 during the streak with no homers or RBI. He spent the offseason grumbling in the papers about the collapse and then reported 15 days late for spring training.  “(Covington) kept hollering and kept popping off,” a local newspaper noted.  “Nobody wants to listen to a mean, tough grumbler when that grumbler is hitting .220. The Phillies lost the pennant, and Covington went around town all winter telling people whose fault it was, and never even mentioned Wes Covington’s name.”[XI]

Covington lasted one more contentious season in Philadelphia. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1966 and played a handful of games before being released. He then signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was an effective pinch hitter on a pennant-winning team. He made one appearance in the World Series and struck out. It was his last at-bat in the majors.

Always careful with his money, Covington had numerous businesses outside baseball. He owned a barbecue restaurant in Philadelphia and real estate in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. His company grew to one of Philadelphia’s largest janitorial services.

His move to Canada in the 1970s is surrounded by mystery. Several newspapers reported in 1974 that Covington “departed to another country to escape creditors.”[XII] The Society for American Baseball research, in its biography of Covington, said that “tax issues” forced the move.[XIII] Whatever the reason, Covington ran a sporting-good store in Edmonton, Alberta, then worked 20 years in advertising for the Edmonton Sun newspaper. He died of cancer at age 79, survived by his third wife, Pat, and two daughters.

His .466 career slugging percentage is fifth among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats. His 131 home runs is 11th on the list and his .279 lifetime average is tied for 20th.

Footnote
[1] We can presume that as a young boy, Covington would have been drawn to McDougal Funeral Home in Laurinburg, probably many times, to gawk at “Spaghetti,” the mummified remains of an Italian carnival worker who was murdered near town in 1911. The body was on public display for the next 61 years. By Covington’s time, Laurinburg was as well known for its mummy as it was for its stately oaks. Cancetto Farmica was finally buried in 1972 after an Italian-American congressman drew national attention to his undignified treatment, but his longevity as a ghoulish tourist attraction says something about the culture that surrounded the young boy.

References
[I] Aaron, Henry with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
[II]
Sturgill, Andy. “Wes Covington.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/4c0a3ba4.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Hawthorn, Tom. “Wes Covington, baseball player (1932-2011). Tom Hawthorne’s Blog.” https://tomhawthorn.blogspot.com/2011/07/wes-covington-baseball-player-1932-2011.html.
[V]
“Wes Covington, 1957 World Series hero dies at 79.” Baseball Happenings, July 7, 2011. https://www.baseballhappenings.net/2011/07/wes-covington-79-1957-world-series-hero.html
[VI] Sturgill.
[VII] Hawthorn.
[VIII] Sturgill.
[IX] Sturgill.
[x] Fitzpatrick, Frank. “Popular Slugger With Odd Stance Starred for Phils.” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, July 20, 2011.
[XI] Sturgill.
[XII]
Metrocavage, Paul D. “Gary Diminick Meets With Bell of New Football League.” News Item (Shamokin, PA) April 18, 1974.
[XIII] Sturgill.