Baldwin, James

Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Pinehurst

First Name: James Jr.
Date of Birth:  July 15, 1971
Current Residence: Pinehurst

High School: Pinecrest High School, Southern Pines, NC
College: Did not attend

Bats: R                         Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-3, 210
Debut Year: 1995       Final Year: 2005          Years Played: 11

Teams and Years: Chicago White Sox, 1995-2001; Los Angeles Dodgers, 2001; Seattle Mariners, 2002; Minnesota Twins, 2003; New York Mets, 2004, Baltimore Orioles, 2005; Texas Rangers, 2005

Awards: All-Star, 2000

 Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
266   79       74       2          5.01     1322.2 844      9.3

James Baldwin was a much-heralded prospect as he pitched his way through the Chicago White Sox’s minor leagues. If not for a kid named Derek Jeter, he would have been recognized as the best rookie in the American League in 1996. He would spend 10 more years in the majors and be an All-Star in one of them, but most of those other seasons were marred by puzzling inconsistency. He was never able to string together winning seasons, or even successful halves. Baldwin ended up as a journeyman and finished his career with just a few more wins than losses.

Born in Pinehurst in 1971, Baldwin played baseball, basketball and football at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He was an all-conference pitcher during his senior year in 1990 when the White Sox picked him in the fourth round of the amateur draft.

The joy that came with signing his first pro contract was overwhelmed a few days later by the death of his father, James Sr. “Coming out of high school, coming into the world on your own for the first time… it was tough for me,” Baldwin said of those first days at rookie camp in Sarasota, Florida. “I didn’t know how to deal with the outside world at the time.”[I]

He got the hang of it, though, and steadily pitched his way up the White Sox minor-league system. At Birmingham, Alabama, in 1993, he led the Class AA Southern League in earned-run average (2.25), or ERA, before being promoted to Class AAA Nashville, Tennessee, where he won 12 games and cemented his standing as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization.

Baldwin was favored to open the 1994 season as Chicago’s fifth starter. He trained with the club in Sarasota that spring and was the first professional to pitch to His Airness, Michael Jordan, during an intrasquad game.[1] Baldwin’s general wildness, however, persuaded team coaches that he needed more time in Nashville, where he won 10 games that season while striking out about a batter an inning.

He earned a spot In the White Sox rotation to start the new season and debuted on April 30. It didn’t go well. He got tagged for four runs by the Boston Red Sox, though his team managed to win 17-11. Baldwin lasted for only two outs in his second start after giving up five runs and was pounded by the Detroit Tigers for four home runs in his next turn. The White Sox shipped him back to Nashville the next day. He wasn’t much better there, however, losing his last six games along with his confidence. “There was one night in Indianapolis,” Baldwin remembered. “I was on the mound, getting knocked around again, and I looked into the dugout. I almost walked off for good right there and then. So frustrated. So lost.”[II]

He returned to Pinehurst after the season. “I got down on myself, but my mother, Lucille, and my little boy (James III was four at the time) got me through it,” he said “I knew I still had my family. No one could take that away from me.”[iii]

The road back to the majors started in Venezuela where Baldwin played that winter. “I went there to sort things out,” he remembered. “I had a lot of support in America, from a lot of friends I made with the Sox, but I didn’t need any more advice, as much as I appreciated it. I needed to get up on my own two feet, relax and start over. I needed to be a man about things.”[IV]

Though he began the 1996 season in Nashville, Baldwin was summoned to Chicago in late April to replace an injured starter. He won eight games before the All-Star break but faltered afterwards. His 11-6 record, however, was good enough for second place behind the New York Yankees’ Jeter in the balloting for Rookie of the Year.

Baldwin became a reliable, but erratic, starter for the White Sox over the next five seasons, acquiring a reputation as a second-half pitcher. He had, for instance, a combined 7-12 before the All-Star break in 1998 and ’99 with an ERA approaching 7.00 and was 18-7 after the break with a 3.61 ERA. “I wish we could figure him out,” moaned Ron Schueler, the team’s general manager.[V]

The 2000 season was the exception. He was 11-4 at the midway point and was chosen to the American League All-Star team He pitched almost as well in the second half, but injuries sidelined him for almost two months. He finished 14-6. He had surgery after the season to remove a bone spur in his right shoulder and to repair his rotator cuff.

He was never the same pitcher. The White Sox traded him the Los Angeles Dodger midway through the 2001 season. Baldwin signed with eight different clubs over the next five years, appearing in games for five of them, mostly out of the bullpen. He retired after being released by the Toronto Blue Jays in April 2006.

Baldwin returned to Pinehurst to become the pitching coach at his high school where he helped his son, James, develop into a centerfielder who was drafted by the Dodgers in 2010. The youngster played six years in the minors.

Baldwin was also a coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

He and his wife, Sharon, live in Pinehurst.

Footnote
[1] Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, retired from basketball in 1993. He surprised the sports world early the following year by signing a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox. He spent two years in the club’s minor leagues, advancing as far as Class AA Birmingham, Alabama, where he hit .202 and struck out 114 times. He quit in March 1995 because he feared Chicago would promote him to the majors as a replacement player during the player’ strike that season.

References
[I] Sullivan, Paul. “2nd Time up, Baldwin a Cut Above.” Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1996.
[II] Verdi, Bob. “Baldwin’s Gains Far Outweigh Friday’s Pain.” Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1996.
[III] Sullivan
[IV] Verdi
[V] Sullivan, Paul. “Baldwin Again Tries to Put It All Together.” Chicago Tribune, February 17, 2000.

 

Fonville, Chad

Position: Second base, shortstop
Birthplace: Jacksonville

First, Middle Names: Chad Everette
Date of Birth:  March 5, 1971
Current Residence: Jacksonville

High School: White Oak High School, Jacksonville
College: Louisburg College, Louisburg, NC

Bats: S             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-6, 155
Debut Year: 1995       Final Year: 1999          Years Played: 4
Teams and Years: Montreal Expos, 1995; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1995-97; Chicago White Sox, 1997; Boston Red Sox, 1999

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
226   546    133     80       31        0          .244     .302     .269     0.0

In the City of Angels, Chad Fonville seemed heaven sent in the summer of 1995. He had spent most of his career in the remotest reaches of the minors. Few fans in Los Angeles had ever heard of him, but they soon loved the little guy who came off the bench to provide the spark the Dodgers needed to win their division. He hustled, swiped bases, got big hits, and exhibited a genuine enthusiasm for the game.

If heaven sent him, opposing pitchers dispatched him. Fed a constant diet of breaking balls, Fonville floundered the following year. His batting average plummeted. He was in the minors again before the season ended. Except for a few brief excursions back to the major leagues, that’s where he would remain until his retirement. He has spent the years since teaching, coaching and passing on his love of baseball to another generation.

Chad Everette Fonville was born in Jacksonville in 1971 to Charlie and Mary Yvonne Fonville. He was an all-conference baseball, basketball, and soccer player at White Oak High School and led the soccer team to a state championship in 1988.

Fonville attended Louisburg College, a private, two-year school in Louisburg, North Carolina, on a baseball scholarship. The switch-hitting shortstop hit .375 as a freshman in 1991 on a team that won 44 games and was ranked tenth in the nation among junior colleges. He was rated in the top 20 of junior-college players by Baseball America the following year when the San Francisco Giants chose him in the eleventh round of the amateur draft.

He spent the next three years on the lowest teams in the Giants’ farm system. Fonville hit over .300 at each stop and was among the leaders in stolen bases. The Giants, though,  never put Fonville on their major-league roster. That made him eligible in 1994 to be taken by another team. The Expos did, and he appeared in 14 games in Montreal before being waived in June and chosen by the Dodgers. According to the rules, such players have to remain on the major-league team for the season or be returned.[1]

Fonville was pressed into service on June 17 in Chicago after an injury to the Dodgers’ shortstop. He went four-for five. The ecstatic rookie called his mother after the game. He went three-for-four the next day and impressed Manager Tommy Lasorda with his speed, beating out two slow rollers. “The little guy might be there tomorrow,” he said of his new, 5-foot, six-inch shortstop. “He’s a streak of lightning going down the baseline.”[I]

He moved into the leadoff spot after slumping Delino DeShields went down with a leg ailment, and he continued to hit. Though his fielding was erratic, Fonville was batting .280 by mid-August as the Dodgers took over first place in their division. They had been a fourth-place team playing .500 ball when Fonville arrived. Lasorda even began treating the kid as his good-luck charm, removing Fonville’s hat and rubbing and kissing the top of his head when the team needed a big hit. What others saw as an exhibition of the manager’s over-the-top Dodger Blue spirit, the most-prominent black newspaper in town interpreted as a racial insult.

If Fonville minded, he didn’t complain publicly. He seemed to enjoy being the least likely success story in baseball. He had 12 at bats with the Expos when they put him on waivers. Before then, his career had consisted of 251 Class A games spread over three seasons. “I play hard every inning,” Fonville said. “I was blessed to get the opportunity to play here and I’m trying to take advantage of it. I’m having fun winning and being involved in a pennant race.”[II]

Though his future looked bright when the season ended, those four months would be the highlight of his major-league career. He was a player without a position when he reported to spring training in 1996. The Dodgers had resigned DeShields to play second and had signed free agent Greg Gagne for short. Fonville, Lasorda said, would be a “super” utility player.

Coaches lectured him during the exhibition season about being sullen and pouting over his status. He conceded that training camp was difficult, but he insisted that he was happy. “I’m not going to lie. It’s been tough. It’s not an easy job coming off the bench,” he said. “But I knew my role coming in. I knew I’d be a utility player.”[III]

Teammates’ injuries and slumps during the season once again gave him his chances, but opposing pitchers were ready the second time around. They were unrelenting with their breaking balls in the dirt that Fonville kept missing. He went into long hitting tailspins. That resulted in reduced playing time. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox in September.

He spent two seasons in the minors before appearing in three games for the Boston Red Sox in 1999. He retired two years later after a couple of more minor-league seasons. “My body was changing and I was getting older,” Fonville said. “I was just playing for the love of the game. I just played until I couldn’t play and that was it.”[IV]

Fonville returned to Jacksonville in 2006 where has coached baseball at area high schools. “Baseball has given me a lot, and now it’s my turn to give back in any way I can,” said Fonville.[v] 

Footnote
[1] The Montreal Expos chose Fonville in the Rule 5 Draft, which has been held every December since the current rule was established in 1985. The rule, with roots that reach back to 1892, allows players more opportunities to crack big-league rosters and prevents teams from stashing talented players in the minor leagues. While tweaks have made to the format over the years, the basic premise of the Rule 5 Draft has remained the same over the past five decades. Players who have spent multiple years in the minors (the current threshold is four or five seasons, depending on the age they signed their first contract) that are not protected on their affiliate’s 40-man roster can be selected by another team in the Rule 5 Draft.  A player selected in the draft is immediately added to his new team’s active roster, where he must remain for the entire season.

References
[I] Daley, Ken. “Fonville Making Persuasive Case for Playing Time.” Los Angeles Daily News, June 19, 1995.
[II] Malamud, Allan. “Notes on a Scorecard.” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1995.
[III] It’s Hard to Tell, But Fonville’s Happy.” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1996.
[IV] Miller, Chris. “Fonville: Baseball Had Been Good to Me.” Jacksonville (NC) Daily News, April 27, 2013.
[V] Lingafelt, Lance Cpl. Jared. “Former MLB Baseball Player Gives Back to Community.” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, June 19, 2014. https://www.dvidshub.net/news/133829/former-mlb-baseball-player-gives-back-community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wade, Ben

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Morehead City

First, Middle Names: Benjamin Styron
Date of Birth:  Nov. 25, 1922 Date and Place of Death: Dec. 2, 2002, Los Angeles
Burial: Cremated

High School: Morehead City High School, Morehead City, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-3, 195
Debut Year: 1948       Final Year: 1955          Years Played: 5
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1948; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1952-54; St. Louis Cardinals, 1954; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
118     19       17        10        4.34     371.1   235      1.0

Ben Wade didn’t display his real talent, as it turned out, on the pitching mound. Prone to wildness and home runs, he bounced around the National League in a five-year career as an average major-league pitcher. He showed his real skill later, as a scout and then longtime scouting director for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His ability to project the type of players youngsters would become was the foundation for a decade of Dodgers’ dominance.

Wade and his older brother, Jake, who pitched eight years in the American League, join Tom and “Tobacco Chewin’ “Johnny Lanning of Buncombe County and Gaylord and Jim Perry of Williamston as North Carolina’s only brothers who pitched big-league ball.

Benjamin, born on November 25, 1922, was the last of a large brood of Wades that filled the small house on Fisher Street in Morehead City. His father, Jacob, worked on commercial fishing boats and his mother, Lorine, whom everyone called Lovie, probably had her hands full with eleven children.

Like his two older brothers, young Ben grew to have an aptitude for baseball. When he was 14, he led his American Legion Juniors team to a regional championship. “Ben was the only pitcher we had,” Joe DuBois, manager of the Morehead City Chamber of Commerce, recalled more than a decade later when Wade became a local celebrity by making it to the major leagues. “When he pitched we won and when he didn’t, he played first base. There were many games he won with his hitting. There was an important contest against Kinston which he won by hitting two homers.”[I]

The team lost to Hamlet, North Carolina, for the state title and then disbanded when financial support dried up.

Ben, though, went on to star on the baseball team at old Morehead City High School. His brothers Charles Winfield, known to all in town as Croaker, and Jake, had played for the school’s predecessor Charles S. Wallace School. Croaker, an outfielder, advanced as far as the minor leagues and also managed in the minors. The Wade boys became the now-demolished schools’ most-famous alumni. A ballfield at a city park near the school was named in their honor.

Wade was 17 when he played his first professional ball with New Bern, North Carolina, in the Coastal Plain League. The Cincinnati Reds signed him in 1940 and sent him to their farm club in Durham, North Carolina.

He was working his way up the Reds’ farm system when World War II intervened. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1943 and spent three years playing ball at air bases in Florida and California.[II]

Picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates after his discharge in 1946, Wade was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the season. He was in a hurry to get to the big leagues. “But when I got out of service I tried too hard to make up for lost time and hurt my arm,” he noted several years later. “The trouble was up in my shoulder and I couldn’t raise my arm up high without real pain, so I had to learn how to pitch sidearm.”[III]

The Cubs wanted him to undergo surgery, but Wade refused. Instead, he sidewinded his way to 31 victories in two minor-league seasons and earned a brief call up to Chicago in 1948. He walked four and gave up four runs in five innings of work and was sent back down to the minors.

The Brooklyn Dodgers bought his contract after the 1949 season, and Wade began to mature as a pitcher. He started throwing overhand again in 1951 and went 16-6 with the Hollywood Stars to lead the Triple A Pacific Coast League in winning percentage.

The Dodgers brought him to Brooklyn for the new season, hoping that the 29-year-old rookie would bolster a starting rotation that would be without its ace, Don Newcombe, who was drafted into the Army. Wade’s first start, against the crosstown rival New York Giants at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, was less than auspicious. He walked five and gave up two home runs in a 3-0 loss.

Wade, though, went on to have his best year in the majors in 1952, winning 11 games in 24 starts with a 3.60 earned-run average, or ERA. He pitched well as a reliever the following season with seven wins and a 3.79 ERA and made his only World Series appearances that fall. They didn’t go well. He gave up four runs in a little over two innings of work in two games.

After he stumbled to an ERA of over 7.00 through the first half of the 1954 season, the Dodgers put Wade on waivers. The St. Louis Cardinals picked him up and relegated him to mop-up roles out of the bullpen. He was back with the Pirates in 1955 but was released after eleven games. Wade spent six years pitching on the West Coast for five teams in the Pacific Coast League and retired in 1961 to become a scout for the Dodgers, who had by then moved to Los Angeles.

He was promoted to scouting director in 1973 and supplied the team with the players who won eight pennants and four Word Series’ titles. Mike Piazza, Rick Sutcliffe, Orel Hershiser, Mickey Hatcher, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, John Wetteland, Fernando Valenzuela, and Eric Young were among the players drafted during his tenure. Seven of them won rookie of the year awards.

Not only could he accurately forecast a kid’s future on a baseball diamond, Wade also knew veteran talent when he saw it. He watched Tommy John throw against a wall in 1975 and predicted he would return to the mound. A year earlier, the talented Dodger lefthander was the first player to have what was considered radical surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. During his yearlong recuperation, no one was sure he would ever pitch again. “The only people who thought I would were my wife, Sally, Ben Wade and me,” John said at the time.[IV]

John returned to the Dodgers in 1976 and won 164 games over the next 14 seasons, retiring in 1989 at age 46 with 288 career victories.[1]

Though he’s remembered as one of baseball’s shrewdest judges of talent, Wade suffered through a series of bad amateur drafts in the late 1980s that left the Dodgers with few high-level prospects in their minor leagues. He was forced to retire in 1990 after thirty years in the Dodgers’ organization.

Wade and his wife, Betsy, had moved to Pasadena, California, in the early 1950s when he first played for Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League. A Morehead City native, she married Wade in 1948. They had two children. Betsy died in 1979, and Wade married Marjorie Cocks two years later. He died in December 2002 after a long bout with cancer.


Footnote
[1] Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, known colloquially as Tommy John surgery, is now a common surgical procedure in several sports, especially in baseball. The ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body or from a cadaver. Eighty percent of the pitchers who have the surgery return to pitch at the same level.  

References
[I] Herbert, Dick. “The Sports Observer,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 14, 1952.
[II] Bedingfield, Gary. “Ben Wade.” Baseball in Wartime, August 29, 2008. https://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wade_ben.htm.
[III] Holmes, Tommy. “Wade Must Wait for the Big Day.” Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, April 17, 1952.
[IV] Verrell, Gordon. “Dodgers Make Room for T.J.?” Independent (Long Beach, CA), Nov. 6, 1975.

     


Davis, Butch

Position: Left field, right field
Birthplace: Williamston

Full Name: Wallace McArthur            Nickname: Butch
Date of Birth:  June 19, 1958
Current Residence: Garner, N.C.

High School: Williamston High School
College: East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 190
Debut Year: 1983       Final Year: 1994          Years Played: 8
Teams and Years: Kansas City Royals, 1983-84; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1987; Baltimore Orioles, 1988-89; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1991; Texas Rangers, 1993-94

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
166      453      110      56        50        7          .243     .274     .380     0.2

Butch Davis played about a season’s worth of games stretched over an eight-year career in the major leagues and has been a coach, mostly in the minors, going on three decades now. Many players have similar resumes. Davis has something on his, however, that no other Tarheel who made it to the major leagues can claim: He is the only one who appeared in the iconic baseball movie Bull Durham.

Davis was 29 in 1987 and had just finished his third season in the majors having played in eight games for the Pittsburgh Pirates that year. The Williamston native had moved to Garner by then and saw an ad for extras for a baseball movie that was going to be filmed in nearby Durham. A manager he had played for in the minors who was one of the film’s advisers urged Davis to try out because the filmmakers wanted some real ballplayers. Davis was cast as one of the Bulls’ players. Though he has no lines, he appears in some of the movie’s most-famous scenes. Davis is a bystander in the conversation on the pitching mound when Kevin Costner and other players discuss bridal gifts and voodoo hexes. He’s also briefly naked in the shower with his back turned toward the camera when the Bulls’ manager tosses an armful of bats into the shower room and accuses the players of lollygagging. Wearing number 15, Davis strikes out in another scene and the PA announcer says, “Too bad, Butch.”

“It’s a lot of standing around and just waiting,” is how he described move making to a newspaper reporter 30 years later. “You do a shoot, and you have to retake and retake and retake until they get it right. That’s what I did. I didn’t go every day, but I was out there enough.”[I]

 Waiting around could also sum up Davis’ major-league career.

He told an interviewer in 2014 that he always remembered being outside while growing up in Williamston in Martin County and playing baseball. “I guess it sort of found me. It really did,” he said.[II]

As a freshman at Williamston High School, Davis didn’t make the baseball team. He made it the following year and also played high-school basketball and on Williamston’s American Legion baseball teams.

He lettered in baseball for three years at East Carolina University in Greenville. During his last year at the school in 1980, Davis led the team in batting average (.362), home runs (12) and RBI (27). He graduated as the school’s all-time leader in home runs with 26 and total bases with 250.  Davis was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.

Despite those numbers, Davis was surprised when the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the 12th round of the 1980 amateur draft. He was surprised again three years later while playing for the Royals’ Triple A team in Omaha. His manager called him at home to tell he had to be in Kansas City that night. “I really didn’t have time to even think about it,” Davis said in 2014, “because it happened so quickly. You’re in the minor leagues one minute and the next minute you’re in the major leagues.”[III]

When he entered the big-league clubhouse, Davis knew it was all true. This wasn’t Omaha. “You always hear all those stories about how great the major leagues are,” he said, “First class this, and it’s true. You name it, it’s there for you, and you just walk in and say ‘Man, OK, this is what it’s like.’”[IV]

Unfortunately, Davis never had much time to savor it. He appeared in 74 games for the Royals over the next two seasons and then in just 26 big-league games during the next eight years, as he shuttled around the minors for four different teams.

Davis always kept it in perspective. “The simple fact is, there’s so many kids that play this game, have that dream and never make it,” he said. “I was one of the ones that had the dream and was very fortunate to make it.”[V]

It’s a message Davis has preached during his coaching career, which started after he retired as a player in 1994. He’s been a long-time hitting coach in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor leagues and also managed Orioles’ farm teams. Davis was also the first-base coach for the Minnesota Twins for six seasons. “I can tell the kids what it takes to get there,” Davis said. “I tell them ‘You’ve got to be determined. You’ve got to be willing to go the extra mile. Don’t think that it’s going to be handed to you.'”[VI]

Davis and his wife, Cassandra, also from Williamston, married in 1984 and have two children. They made their home in Garner.

References

[I] Hall, David. “30 years later, Tides Hitting Coach Butch Davis Recalls ZHis Role in ‘Bull Durham.’” Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), June 13, 2018.
[II] “Interview Part 1: Butch Davis, Home Crowd.” The Greatest 21 Days, September 8, 2014. http://www.greatest21days.com/2014/09/interview-part-1-butch-davis-home-crowd.html.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] “Interview Part 2: Butch Davis, Simple Fact.” The Greatest 21 Days, September 9, 2014. http://www.greatest21days.com/2014/09/interview-part-2-butch-davis-simple-fact.html.
[VI] “Interview Part 4: Butch Davis, Two Things.” The Greatest 21 Days, September 11, 2014. http://www.greatest21days.com/2014/09/interview-part-4-butch-davis-two-things.html.

 

 

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.