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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burgess, Smoky

Position: Catcher, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Caroleen

First, Last Names: Forrest Harrill       Nicknames: Smoky

Date of Birth:  Feb. 6, 1927    Date and Place of Death: Sept. 15, 1991, Asheville, NC
Burial: Sunset Memorial Park, Forest City, NC

High School: Henrietta-Caroleen High School

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-8, 187
Debut Year: 1949       Final Year: 1967          Years Played: 18
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1949, 1951; Philadelphia Phillies, 1952-55; Cincinnati Redlegs, 1955-58; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1959-1964; Chicago White Sox, 1964-67

Awards: All-Star, 1954-55, 1959-61, 1964; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1978

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1691    4471   1318    485      673      126      .295     .362     .446     33.4

A six-time all-star, Smoky Burgess is among North Carolina’s baseball royalty. He played 18 years in the major leagues – only five North Carolina players have had longer tenures – and is second to Rick Ferrell as the top catcher produced by the state. He was also considered one of the best hitters of his generation.

“Smoky could fall out of bed on New Year’s Day and get a hit off Sandy Koufax,” said Joe Nuxhall, a teammate on the Cincinnati Redlegs.[I]

At the tail end of his career, with his catching days over, Burgess became the best pinch hitter in baseball and for years held the record for the most career pinch hits.

His .295 lifetime batting average ranks ninth among North Carolina players with more than a thousand at bats, and he’s in the top twenty in eight other offensive career statistics.

Gus Bell, a pretty fair hitter himself, thought Burgess was in an elite group. “Many, many people have said he was one of the most natural hitters of all time – in the Stan Musial and Ted Williams category,” Bell said of his Redlegs’ teammate. “The feeling was that if Smoky wasn’t a catcher and could have played every day, he would have been recognized as one of the greatest hitters of all time. I still say he was.”[II]

Forrest Harrill Burgess was born in the small community of Caroleen on the Second Broad River in Rutherford County. His roots in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains account for his nickname, whether he inherited it from his father, as some sources claim, or he earned it himself.[III] Technically, Burgess hailed from the Blue Ridge Mountains, not the taller Great Smokies farther west. Anyway, Smoky sounds better than Blue Ridge Burgess.

Burgess’s father, Lloyd, worked in a textile mill but was also a standout semipro baseball player. His mother, Ocie, like almost all mothers of her day, stayed home to care for the four children.

Forrest Hunt, Burgess’s baseball coach at old Henrietta-Caroleen High School, also known as Tri High, gave his young infielder a piece of advice: You’ll never be a hitter unless you swing the bat.[IV]

It would form the foundation of Burgess’s hitting philosophy. “Any ball I can get a good part of the bat on is a good pitch to hit,” he explained many years later.[v] It was all pretty simple to Smoky: The pitcher threw the ball; he tried to hit it.

Burgess was 16 when he signed his first professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943, but the baseball commissioner voided the deal because he judged Burgess to be too young. A year later, he signed with the Chicago Cubs and hit .325 as a 17-year-old in his first minor-league season.

There was a war to attend to, however. Burgess joined the Army in 1945 and two things happened in the military that would forever affect Burgess’s career and public persona. He ran off the road while driving a Jeep in Germany, rolling over three times and shattering his right, throwing, shoulder. He would never throw well again and would routinely rank among the league leaders in stolen bases allowed. His weak throwing would contribute to his overall poor defensive skills as a catcher.

Burgess joined the Army as a lean teenager. That’s not how he came out. “I used to be a trim 150-pounder, and in high school I ran the 100 in 10 flat,” he once explained. “Then I went into the Army. I was a mail clerk just outside Munich, and it was a snap. I’d sort the mail the day before and sleep till 11 every morning. I ate a lot of potatoes. I weighed 214 pounds when I got out.”[VI]

Throughout his career, the 5-8 Burgess endured all the adjectives: portly, hefty, paunchy, pudgy, roly-poly. “Smoky Burgess was fat,” an irreverent guide of baseball cards once reported. “Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat.”[VII]

This was one fat man who could hit. Burgess won back-to-back batting titles in the minor leagues when he returned to baseball in 1947. That led to a spot on the Cubs’ opening-day roster two years later, but Burgess appeared in only 46 games before being sent down. He spent the remainder of that season and the next in the minors.

Back in the majors to stay in 1951, Burgess was traded after the season to the Phillies. In Philadelphia, Smoky Burgess became a major leaguer. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1954 when he hit .368. Burgess fell 55 at bats short of qualifying for the National League batting title, won by Willie Mays, because his manager didn’t play his lefty hitting catcher against lefthanded pitchers. That always irked Burgess. “That stuff about me not hitting lefties is bunk,” he said later after he had moved on from Philadelphia. “They just go percentage-crazy up there.”[VIII]

Burgess then spent four years in Cincinnati, starting in 1955. The team was called the Redlegs at the time so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities in the era of Joe McCarthy. Though he was an All-Star again his first year with the team, Burgess’s offensive numbers slipped in later seasons as his playing time was whittled. To his teammates, he was The Little Round Snowman.

Smoky Burgess rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh where he hit .296 over six seasons. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch

Traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, Burgess rejuvenated his career. He was an All-Star for four of his six years in Pittsburgh, hitting .296 and knocking in 265 runs. He was behind the plate when Harvey Haddix tossed 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee before an error allowed a runner to reach first. The Braves would win in the 13th. Burgess went 6 for 18 against the N.Y. Yankees in 1960 in his only World Series appearance.

He spent the last three seasons of his career with the Chicago White Sox where, in the days before the designated hitter, Burgess became a baseball oddity. He was the only man paid to do nothing but hit every once in a while. Burgess was in his late 30s by then and he was no longer even a passable major-league catcher. His Chicago contracts specified that he would never be required to catch in a game. They even allowed him to report late on Sundays so the devout Baptist could attend church services. Some teammates wondered whether the contracts allowed Burgess to sleep on the bench during games. Smoky always denied it.

Burgess became a force off the bench. His 20 hits in the pinch in 1966 tied a 30-year-old American League record. When he retired after the following season, at age 40. Burgess was the all-time major-league leader in pinch hits with 145, a mark that would stand until Manny Mota passed it in 1979.

A man of simple tastes, Burgess returned to Rutherford County, to the small brick bungalow in Forest City where he and his wife of 20 years, Margaret, raised their family. He was co-owner of a Dodge dealership in town before joining the Atlanta Braves as a regional scout and minor-league hitting instructor. He was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.

Burgess died in 1991 at age 64.

References
[I] Erardi, John. “The Late Smoky Burgess Could Hit in Pinch.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquire, September 17, 1991.
[II] Bass, Mike. Scripps Howard News Service. “Burgess Could Hit With Best.” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK), September 22, 1991.
[III] Shatzkin, Mike, editor, and Jim Charlton, creator. The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York; William Morrow and Co. Inc, 1990. 134
[IV] Sturgill, Andy. “Smoky Burgess.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/24804821.
[V] Ibid.
[VI] Bass.
[VII] Sturgill.
[VIII] Grady, Sandy. “Conversation Piece: They Want More Work.” Charlotte (NC) News, October 13, 1954.

 

Altman, George

Position: Outfield, first base
Birthplace: Goldsboro

Full Name: George Lee           Nicknames: Daddy Long Legs

Date of Birth:  March 20, 1933                     

Current Residence: O’Fallon, Missouri

High School: Dillard High School, Goldsboro
College: Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tenn.

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-4, 200
Debut Year: 1959       Final Year: 1967          Years Played: 9
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1959-62; St. Louis Cardinals, 1963; N.Y. Mets, 1964; Cubs, 1965-67
Awards: All-star, 1961-62

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
991      3091    832      409      403      101      .269     .329     .432     13.0

George Altman’s playing career spanned almost three decades, crossed two continents and embraced white, black and Asian cultures. It was a journey that started in the Negro Leagues, where he played under the universally beloved Buck O’Neil, made a nine-year stop in the major leagues, where he was an all-star, and ended finally in Tokyo, where he swatted home runs into his 40s.

Born in Goldsboro, Altman was the only child of Willie, a tenant farmer who later became an auto mechanic, and Clara, who died when her son was four.

One of Dillard High School’s most accomplished athletes, Altman graduated in 1951 and went to Nashville, Tenn., to play basketball for the legendary John McLendon at what is now Tennessee State University. He began patrolling the outfield when the school started its baseball program during Altman’s junior year.

 Altman hoped to play professional basketball after graduation in 1955, but the NBA didn’t draft him. He ended up in Kansas City, instead, where he tried out for the city’s Monarchs, the oldest team in the Negro Leagues. O’Neil, the team’s manager, liked what he saw and proceeded to turn Alston into a first baseman.

“I had been an outfielder all of the way,” Altman wrote in his 2013 autobiography, “but Buck taught me how to play first base and I played first base for the Monarchs that summer. He taught me all of the moves around the bag when receiving the throws from the infielders.”

Starting with the pathfinder, Jackie Robinson, the Monarchs supplied more players to the majors than any other Negro League team: Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Willard Brown and Hank Thompson.

Altman joined the list at the end of the Monarch’s season when he signed with the Chicago Cubs. After a couple of years in the minors and a couple of more in the Army, Altman was the starting centerfielder in Wrigley Field in 1959. Two years later, he was a National League All-Star when he hit .303-27-96 with a league-leading 12 triples. Altman made the all-star team again in 1962 when he hit .318, even though a sprained wrist in June hampered his power production.

They would be his two best seasons in the major leagues. Maybe the Cubs’ saw something because the team traded Altman, along with pitcher and fellow North Carolinian Don Cardwell, to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the 1962 season. Altman said all the right things at the time, but he later wrote, “To say that I was shocked would definitely be an understatement.”

He had a disappointing season with St. Louis and was traded to the cellar-dwelling N.Y. Mets where he played hurt and hit just .230.

For the third time in three years, Altman was traded again, back to the Cubs, in January 1965. His last two years in the majors were uninspiring. He hit .228 in 178 games with only 9 homers and 40 RBI.

Demoted to the minors, Altman at age 34 in 1968 embarked on new and fruitful career in Japan. During eight seasons with the Tokyo Orions, Altman hit 205 home runs and drove in 656 in 935 games. He hit below .300 only in 1969 and 1975, his last year in baseball when he was 42 and recovering from colon cancer.

Altman returned to Chicago where he married for the second time in 1976 to Etta Allison, a piano teacher. They had two children.

He had worked in the offseason for more than a decade on the Chicago Board of Trade as a commodities trader. He continued trading from his home in retirement, while volunteering with groups that mentored kids.

Altman and Etta moved to O’Fallon, a suburb of St. Louis, in 2002 where they live still.