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.

     


Crowder, General

Player Name: General Crowder
Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Winston-Salem

First, Middle Names: Alvin Floyd      Nickname: The General
Date of Birth:  Jan. 11, 1899   Date and Place of Death: April 3, 1972, Winston-Salem, NC
Burial: Forsyth Memorial Park Cemetery, Winston-Salem, NC

High School: Did Not Attend 
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 170
Debut Year: 1926       Final Year: 1936          Years Played: 11
Team(s) and Years: Washington Senators, 1926-27; St. Louis Browns, 1927-30; Senators, 1930-34; Detroit Tigers, 1934-36

Awards: All Star, 1933; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1967

Career Summary

G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
402   167    115      22       4.12      2344.1 799    28.3

For six years starting in 1928, the great Lefty Grove was the only pitcher who won more games than Alvin Crowder, a durable and dependable right-hander who was so eager to be called into service that he was known as The General. He won at least 20 games three times, appeared in three World Series and was chosen to pitch for the American League in the inaugural All-Star Game.

A lifelong resident of Winston-Salem, Crowder retired after 11 seasons as one of the best pitchers North Carolina has ever produced. His 167 career victories is eighth-best among natives who pitched at least 500 innings in the major leagues. His 150 career complete games is sixth on that list and his almost 2,350 innings pitched are 10th. In all, Crowder is among the top 20 in 13 pitching categories.

Walter Johnson, a pretty fair pitcher himself, managed Crowder on the Washington Senators and had this to say about his ace: “Pitchers like Crowder come along once in a generation. He’s got everything – speed, curve, control and sense. There was many a time when I’d look the bench over for a pitcher to work the day’s game. Crowder would say, ‘Gimme the ball.’ And he went out and won 15 straight.”[I]

Born in 1899, Alvin Floyd Crowder grew up in the Broadbay section of southeastern Forsyth County, about eight miles from Winston-Salem. His father, George, was a blacksmith and a farmer and his mother, Emma, was a homemaker who took care of Alvin and his sister, Maggie.

Young Alvin quit school after the fifth grade to help on the family farm. He worked in a cotton mill when he was 14 and played baseball on the company team. He was also a mechanic at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston Salem and a riveter in shipyards in Alexandria, Virginia. He continued to play amateur and semipro ball.

Crowder joined the Army in 1919 and was stationed in Siberia and then the Philippines, where he volunteered for the base team to break the monotony of Army life. He found out he could pitch. By the time he was transferred to San Francisco in 1922, Crowder had established a reputation as a hard-throwing right hander. He is said to have won 19 in a row in the military league. He also moonlighted with area semipro teams.

Discharged that June, Crowder signed with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. He pitched one inning with the championship team and was released in the offseason. He had better luck the following year back home with the Winston-Salem Twins of the Class C Piedmont League, winning 10 games in his first full professional season.

He proved to be a rubber-armed pitcher for the Birmingham, Alabama, Barons in 1925, leading the Class A Southern Association in appearances with 59 while logging 226 innings. Because he would take the ball at any time, teammates called him The General after Gen. Enoch Crowder, the Army provost marshal who instituted the draft lottery during World War I.          

After he won 17 games in less than three months of the 1926 season, the Washington Senators bought his contract for $10,000, or about $147,000 when adjusted for inflation. Crowder reported to the reigning American League champions in mid-July with the team struggling to remain above .500. He made his big-league debut on July 24, tossing a complete game 3-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, and ended the season with a 7-4 record.

An “ulcerated stomach” and a sore right arm interrupted Crowder’s spring training in 1927 and contributed to a disappointing sophomore season. After tossing a complete game to win his first start, he lost three in a row and was relegated to the bullpen. The Senators traded him in July to the last-place St. Louis Browns for fellow North Carolinian Tom Zachary. Crowder’s struggles continued with the Browns, as he won only one of his eight starts.

The 1928 season began with more of the same. Inconsistent and wild in his first three starts, Crowder was again sent to the bullpen. He worked his way back into the rotation in June and reeled of 10 straight wins, including nine complete games. Often pitching on short rest, he won 21 for the season, including the last eight in a row. In one game, he struck out Ty Cobb three times. Yes, the fuzz was off the 41-year-old Georgia Peach, who was playing in his last season, but the game’s greatest hitter hadn’t whiffed three times in a game since his rookie season 23 years earlier.

Crowder became known as a workhorse and was among the American League leaders in games, complete games and innings pitched. He was also an excellent fielding pitcher, making only seven errors in 450 total chances. After making an error against the New York Yankees on May 19, 1932, he went the rest of his career without making another one.

Speaking of the Yankees, Crowder beat the best team in the league consistently and even handled its star, Babe Ruth, with relative ease. “My success against them,” he said, “came from … studying the pitchers around the league. I tried to see what type of pitch each Yankee hit well, especially what they didn’t pull, and used it against them.”[II]

Back with the Senators in 1932, Crowder may have had the best season any pitcher in that franchise not named Walter Johnson ever had. He led both leagues in wins with 26, reeling off 15 straight at the end of the season, and proved to be the most-durable pitcher in the majors. He threw 327 innings in 39 starts, often on three days’ rest. “If you’d let him, he’d pitch every day,” marveled Manager Johnson. “His arm is made of rubber, and he doesn’t know the meaning of fatigue.”[III]

The Senators cruised to the American League pennant in 1933, their first in 12 seasons. Crowder won a league-high 24 games and logged more than 299 innings, second in the league. He was one of five pitchers chosen to represent the American League in the first All-Star Game that year. He always considered it his greatest achievement in baseball. “I don’t think a greater honor could be bestowed on any player, unless it would be admittance to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame,” Crowder said 25 years later.[IV]

He bombed, however, in his two starts in the World Series, which the New York Giants won in five games.

The General was 35 when the new season began and seemed to have lost his stripes. He had a 4-10 record and an earned-run average, or ERA, approaching 7.00 when the Senators shipped him to Detroit in August. He became the Tigers’ cagey veteran, going 5-1 the rest of the way for a World Series bound team. He appeared in another Series, losing his only start to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Crowder relied on instincts and an assortment of sliders, sinkers and off-speed pitches and methodical precision during his last full season in the majors in 1935. He won five of eight starts in June to keep the Tigers in contention and then won all five of his August starts, but age caught up with him. Physically drained, he lost all three decisions in September as the Tigers limped to their second-consecutive pennant. He took the mound in Game Four of the World Series in a chilly, windy Wrigley Field and the magic returned one final time. Crowder limited the Chicago Cubs to five hits in a complete-game victory that gave the Tigers a commanding 3-1 series lead. They won it two days later.

While Crowder was on the mound for his only Series win, his wife, Ruth, lay gravely ill in a Winston-Salem hospital. They had married in 1924, and she had been in poor health since the early 1930s.

In a story that doesn’t pass the smell test, a reporter for United Press International wrote that Crowder was close to tears in the clubhouse after the game. “His wife heard the game over the radio,” an unnamed teammate is quoted as saying. “The doctors told him that if won the game it would help her a great deal to get well. Hell, I’d like to see the guy bust right out crying. He’d feel better and nobody would mind.”[V]

Crowder developedl igament problems in his throwing shoulder during spring training in 1936. He had an ERA over 8.00 in limited playing by late June. He left the team and retired in the offseason. Ruth died several weeks after Crowder returned home. He married Joan Brockwell, a nurse in Chapel Hill, in September. They would have two children, Kathryn and Alvin Jr.

He led efforts to bring professional baseball back to Winston-Salem, which had been without a team since 1933. His Winston-Salem Twins, an unaffiliated team in the Class B Piedmont League, lost its first 28 games to begin the 1937 season. Crowder managed the team during the first 20 of those losses.[1] He secure an affiliation with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the following season and sold his majority stake in the team in 1939, but he continued to play an active role through the 1940s.  

Crowder owned a farm in Germanton in Forsyth County during much of his baseball career but he was living in Winston-Salem when he died of heart disease in 1972.


Footnote
[1] The Winston-Salem Twins’ 28-game losing streak was second only to Muskogee in the Southwestern League, which lost 38 straight in 1928. (“The General Finally Wins One.” Sporting News [St. Louis, MO], June 10, 1937.)

References
[I] Mallette, Mal. “Old Yank-Stopper Crowder Predicts They Will Stay Up Another Decade.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 12, 1958.
[II] Wolf, Gregory H. “General Crowder.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/general-crowder/.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] “All Other Thrills Combined No Equal to All-Star Pick in Crowder’s Book.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 9, 1958.
[V]
United Press International. “Al Crowder is ‘Man of the Hour’ as Tigers Praise him in Clubhouse.” Daily Illini (University of Illinois, Champaign, IL), October 6, 1935.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zachary, Tom

Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Graham

First, Middle Names: Jonathan Thompson Walton
Date of Birth:  May 7, 1896    Date and Place of Death: Jan. 24, 1969, Burlington
Burial: Alamance Memorial Park, Burlington

High School: Undetermined
College: Guilford College, Greensboro

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-1, 187
Debut Year: 1918       Final Year: 1936          Years Played: 19
Team(s) and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1918; Washington Senators, 1919-25; St. Louis Browns, 1926-27; Senators, 1927-28; N.Y. Yankees, 1928-30; Boston Braves, 1930-34; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1934-36; Philadelphia Phillies, 1936
Awards: N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1966

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
533   186    191      23      3.73    3126.1  720      40.1

Tom Zachary was one of the best pitchers to come out of North Carolina. Only two pitchers from the state had longer major-league careers. Only four started more games. Only five won more. A crafty lefty known for his coolness under pressure, Zachary played in three World Series and won the three games that he started.

Few people, though, wanted to talk about any of that after Zachary retired to his farm in Alamance County. Everyone, however, wanted to know about the day he served up Babe Ruth’s 60th home run. “There’s probably been more talk about that pitch than any other one pitch in baseball,” Zachary pointed out more than three decades after that historic afternoon, “and it has made me somewhat of a baseball goat for years.”[I]

So, let’s get it out of the way.

Zachary was an established star in when he took the mound at Yankee Stadium on that Friday afternoon of Sept. 30, 1927. He was back with the Washington Senators, a team with whom he had had his best years. There was that one glorious season three years earlier when Zachary joined with the peerless Walter Johnson to lead the Senators to a championship. He had been traded to the hapless St. Louis Browns in late 1925, but they traded him back to Washington just a few weeks before his date with destiny.

The Senators arrived in New York for the season’s final three games against one of the greatest teams in baseball history. The Yankees, who would win 110 games and would sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, had a star at almost every position. Six would end up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. No one, of course, was bigger than The Bambino.

Ruth had 57 homers entering the final series. He hit two in the first game to tie the record he had set in 1921. Ruth had faced Zachary many times, hitting eight home runs off of him, including two earlier in the season.

 Zachary pitched Ruth carefully in the first inning, walking him on four pitches. Ruth got hits the next two times up. He came up again in the eighth with one out and the score knotted at two. Yankee shortstop Mark Koenig was on third after having tripled. Ruth swung viciously at the first pitch and missed. He took the second for a ball.

Babe Ruth sends a Tom Zachary curve ball to deep right field for his record 60th home run. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I guess I could have thrown him one of my fastballs, but I didn’t want him to get hold of one of those,” Zachary remembered many years later.  “I threw him a good curve ball, the best I had, but it wasn’t enough. He hit it a mile.”[II]

The resulting whack of wood on ball echoed through the cavernous stadium as the 8,000 spectators rose in thunderous acclaim. The ball streaked on a line towards right field, clearing the foul pole by maybe 10 feet and landing deep in the bleachers. Zachary threw his hat down in disgust and watched the Babe trot around, spiking each base carefully. “I certainly wasn’t ashamed of Babe Ruth hitting the home run,” he said all those years later.  “I wasn’t too upset when he sent one of my pitches out of the park. It certainly was nothing unusual.”[III]

Here’s something that was unusual: Zachary never pitched an inning in the minor leagues. In his day, most players had long careers down in the bushes, either on their way up or on their way out. Not Zachary. He literally went straight from the school diamond to the American League. When his major-league career was over 19 years later, there was no hanging around for a few more seasons in the minors. Zachary simply went home.

Home was always the farm near Graham in Alamance County. Jonathan Thompson Walton was one of nine kids that Alfred and Mary Zachary, devout Quakers, raised there. Zachary was never a gentleman farmer, either. He was the real deal. He worked the fields as a kid and even wrote an article for an agricultural journal when he was a teenager about growing big tomatoes. He grew tobacco, corn and cotton during the season and, when all games were finally played, Zachary always returned to the farm, trading his uniform for bib overalls. He could always be found in the county’s country stores discussing crop prices with his neighbors.

For the young Zachary, baseball began looking like a real alternative to farming when he entered Guilford College in 1916.[1] He played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. He hit .345 his freshman year. He and Tim Murchison led a powerful team the following year that went undefeated.

Zachary that year locked up in a pitching dual with future big-leaguer George Murray of North Carolina State College that would become part of the state’s baseball lore. Each pitched 16 innings in a scoreless game. Murray struck out 20 while Zachary fanned 14. The game was called on account of “haziness” though the sun hadn’t set. The News & Observer of Raleigh speculated that the home plate umpire got hungry and “was no longer interested in baseball.”[IV]

With America at war, Zachary joined a Quacker Red Cross in 1918. While in Philadelphia for training, he persuaded Connie Mack to give him a tryout. Mack, the patrician owner and manager of the Athletics, the city’s American League franchise, may have been impressed with the well-spoken college kid whose manners and studious bearing were in marked contrast to most players of the day. Mack certainly liked what he saw on the field because “Zach Walton” pitched three innings against the St. Louis Browns on July 11. He was credited with the victory. He got his first start nine days later against the Cleveland Indians and won again.[2]

Major-league baseball was shut down in early September because of the war and Zachary never signed with the A’s.

After Zachary got a taste of the big time, his college days were over. When he returned from France in 1919, Zachary signed with the Senators and proceeded to pitch the best ball of his life. He would win at least 15 games in four of the next seven seasons, baffling hitters with an assortment of curve balls, screwballs and change ups.

In Game 6 of the 1924 World Series against the New York Giants, Zachary proved his worthiness in the clutch. Johnson, the Senators’ ace on whose right arm the team’s fortunes usually depended, lost the preceding game. The Giants would have to win just one of the final two games to claim the championship. Gloom settled over Washington.

Zachary gave the city hope. He scattered seven hits and had the Giants muttering in a 2-1 victory. It was his second win of the series. The incomparable Grantland Rice described the aftermath: “The depressing pass of gloom that had swept down upon Washington after Walter Johnson’s defeat has vanished in a day. When the king died after his valiant struggle, all hope perished… In the triumph of Zachary, the tom-toms are resounding on Pennsylvania Avenue and the balmy air is rife with the victorious lift of that human voice.”[V]

The reticent Zachary, who was always hesitant to talk about himself, was less whimsical but more to the point in describing his performance. “All batters look alike to me,” he said.  “I don’t get scared in the pinch. When there’s men on base and the going gets tough that’s when I get good.”[VI]

A city’s hopes were on the mound with Tom Zachary during Game 6 of the 1924 World Series.

Johnson redeemed himself by coming back on one day’s rest in Game 7 to win 4-3 in 12 innings and give the Senators the title.

The Yankees picked Zachary up on waivers in August 1928 when their lefthanded ace, Herb Pennock, went down with an injury.  Zachary won three games down the stretch and pitched well in relief. He started Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals and won 7-3, striking out seven.

Zachary had his best year statistically in 1929, going 12-0 with a 2.48 ERA. Sporting News declared him the best pitcher in the American League. Baseball references, however, recognize Lefty Grove of the A’s as the ERA leader because Zachary didn’t pitch enough innings to be eligible under today’s rules.

After Zachary struggled at the start of the 1930 season, the Yankees put the 33-year-old on waivers. Zachary would play for three teams, all in the National League, over the next seven years. He had losing records for mostly losing teams. He quit after the 1936 season at age 40.

He and his wife, Etta, settled into life on the farm with their two children. Etta was involved with the Parent-Teachers Association in Graham and was known for having a marvelous green thumb, winning awards for her flowers.

Zachary continued farming and attended banquets as a local baseball celebrity. He appeared often on the Guilford College campus and was inducted into its Athletics Hall of Fame in 1971. He had been selected for the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame five years earlier.

Oldtimers’ games were also on his schedule. He joined Ruth and other old Yankees at one such affair at Yankee Stadium in 1948. Ruth was dying of throat cancer. Sportscaster Mel Allen asked Zachary in front of a jam-packed house if he was the guy who served up the Big Guy’s record homer. When he played with the Yankees, Zachary would occasionally tell Ruth that his historic hit went foul. He hesitated for a second before telling Allen that he was on the mound that day.

Ruth, noticing the pause, walked over to Zachary, poked his chin up in his face and rasped, “You left-handed son-of-a-bitch, you still think that ball was foul, don’t you?

Zachary fondly looked at the great Bambino, the uniform hanging off his ravaged body, and replied, “No, Babe, it was a fair ball.”[VII]

Ruth died three months later.

Zachary suffered a stroke in late 1967 and seemed to recover, but he died of a second one 18 months later in January 1969.

Footnotes
[1]The small Quaker school in the community of Guilford College was something of a baseball factory in Zachary’s time. It produced a number of other major-league players, including Ernie Shore from East Bend, Rick and Wes Ferrell from Durham, Tim Murchison from Liberty and Rufus Smith from the community of Guilford College just down the road. 
[2] Zachary was always tight lipped about the short career of Zach Walton but it’s always been assumed he used the alias to protect his remaining year of college eligibility.

References
[I] Hunter, Bill. “Sports Roundup.” The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, Md), September 20, 1961.
[II] United Press International. “Tom Zachary Recalls Day Ruth Hit 60th. Galveston (TX) Daily News. September 8, 1961.
[III] Hunter.
[IV] Rainey, Chris. “Tom Zachary.” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b15fdeca.
[V] Hunter, Bill. “Former Major-League Pitching Great Tom Zachary Dies at 72.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC). January 25, 1969.
[VI] Rainey.
[VII] Hunter.

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.