Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wes Covington, baseball player (1932-2011)

Wes Covington reached backhanded over his head on a full run to snag Bobby Shantz's drive in the second inning of Game 2 of the 1957 World Series. It was the first of two spectacular catches Covington made in the series.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 21, 2011

Baseball scouts were unanimous in accessing Wes Covington’s skill — he could knock the ball a mile, but his ability to catch was suspect.

Scouts said he was nonchalant, distracted, and lackadaisical in patrolling the outfield grass. In baseball’s shorthand, he was good hit, no field.

“They said I couldn’t catch a ball in a wicker basket,” he once complained.

Despite this unfavourable assessment, Covington showed great athleticism when it counted the most. He earned the eternal gratitude of fans in Milwaukee by helping the hometown Braves win a world championship with two spectacular catches in the 1957 World Series.

A gregarious, confident man with a rich baritone and an ever-present smile, Covington endured the tribulations of professional baseball’s slow and uneasy erasing of the colour line. Some white baseball writers detected in the young athlete an “unbecoming cockiness” — perhaps a judgment on a rookie’s self-assurance, or perhaps an expression of resentment at an African-American confident of his talents.

Covington went into business after his playing days ended, eventually moving to Canada, where he established himself in Edmonton, his home for more than a quarter-century.

“I had to be away from a major-league city,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seven years ago. “I didn’t want to be a baseball bum.”

John Wesley Covington was born on March 27, 1932, at Laurinburg, N.C., a textile city in the state’s Sandhills region. The city’s natural beauty — it is known for its shade trees — was offset by segregated public facilities as well as a certain Gothic quality to life. (One of the city’s longtime attractions was the embalmed body of an Italian-born itinerant carnival worker, popularly known as Spaghetti. The body of the hapless roustabout was displayed in a glass case in a garage before finally being buried in 1972, 61 years after his death.)

Covington attended the all-black Hillside High in Durham, 180 kilometres north of his hometown, where he starred on the basketball court and football field, as well as on the track, recording a stellar 9.9-second time in the 100-yard dash.

He intended to play professional football — the New York Giants expressed interest — but a knee injury made him doubtful about his prospects. Instead, he signed with the Boston Braves of the National League, a struggling franchise destined to abandon Massachusetts for Wisconsin at the end of the season. The Braves assigned the 20-year-old prospect to their farm team in Eau Claire, Wis., where he was joined by a teenaged shortstop by the name of Henry Aaron.

While white players roomed with white families, the duo joined black catcher William (Julie) Bowers in staying at the YMCA. Local residents tended to stare at the black athletes. “I felt like a sideshow freak,” Covington said. Once, the trio hid in the bushes at a popular lookout to avoid a carload of angry teenagers who suspected the players were dating white girls.

A local restaurant offered a steak dinner to any player who hit a homer for the home team, a promotion cancelled, according to the book A Summer Up North, by Jerry Poling, after patrons complained of sharing the dining room with blacks.

Covington smashes into wall (see below).
Aaron hit nine home runs that season, while Covington swatted 24, including four grand slams. “If people had known that one of our players would someday be the all-time, major-league home-run leader,” Aaron later wrote in his memoir, “everybody would have assumed that Covington would be the guy.” Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 homers in 1974.

Covington lost two seasons of pro ball to military service, during which he played for an army team at Fort Lee, Va. On his return to civilian life, the outfielder was assigned to Jacksonville, Fla., where he led the South Atlantic League in hitting with a .326 average. The circuit, known as the Sally League, was not a kind one for black athletes, who were refused admission to restaurants and played before segregated crowds.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound slugger gained promotion to Milwaukee in 1956, assigned part-time duty in the outfield. A month into the 1957 season, Covington’s uncertain defence and a drought at the plate led to a demotion to Wichita, Kan. A month later, he returned to the parent club.

Covington’s distinctive batting stance as a left-handed hitter involved peeking “from behind his right elbow as if he was afraid someone would notice the unusual way he held his bat,” a magazine once reported. “Covington’s bat would be pointed back, almost drooping groundward, rather than pointed skyward in the conventional manner.” Another writer called it a Caveman Grip, saying he looked “like a man with a hoe handle waiting at a rat hole for a mouse to appear.”

He also had a ritual that drove opposition pitchers to distraction, a “spike-knocking, cap-adjusting, hand-dusting, shoe-tying, uniform-tugging and bat-waggling” production that Baseball Digest called more intricate than the Bolshoi Ballet.

In 1957, the Braves claimed the National League pennant by eight games over St. Louis, relying on a pitching rotation featuring the veteran Warren Spahn. Milwaukee boasted a solid offence, as Aaron hit 44 homers and third baseman Eddie Mathews contributed 32. Covington finished the season with 21. (The left-handed batter also hit eight triples, but only four doubles, a statistical oddity.) The Braves benefited from the late-season addition to the roster of Bob (Hurricane) Hazel, who hit a spectacular .403 in 134 at-bats over the final 41 games.

The team celebrated the pennant with a motorcade, Covington joining Aaron in a convertible.

The World Series against the New York Yankees opened with Casey Stengel, the rival manager, describing Milwaukee as a “bush town,” inflaming Braves fans. The city and its players would prevail in seven games, after plenty of dramatics, highlighted by Covington’s two catches.

In Game 2, with two Yankees on base and two out in the bottom of the second inning of a 1-1 game, Bobby Shantz lined a scorcher to left field. Covington, who had been playing shallow, gave chase, reaching out with his glove to snare the ball backhanded over his head. “It was going away from me,” he said after the game, “but it stayed up just long enough for me to get it.” The Braves won, 4-2.

In the fourth inning of Game 5, Covington raced back to chase a ball smashed by Gil McDougald. The outfielder collided with the fence just as the ball arrived in his outstretched glove. Covington tumbled to the ground and rolled, a sensational image captured in a series of photographs published in newspapers the following day.

“I didn’t know for sure until I started untangling whether I still had the ball,” he said.

The Braves won that game, too, by 1-0, as once again Covington’s skill made a victor out of Lew Burdette. “I carry Covington along as my personal outfield insurance,” the pitcher quipped.

The Braves’ triumph was featured on the front page alongside news of ugly efforts to prevent integration of an Arkansas high school.

“It is to be hoped that Little Rock was looking when Burdette, out of the hills of West Virginia, threw both arms around the neck of Wes Covington and hugged him tight in gratitude for a game-saving catch,” Baseball Digest said after the series. “It didn’t matter that Covington was a Negro. What did matter was that he was a teammate.”

The Yankees got their revenge the following season, defeating the Braves in seven games to reclaim the world title.

Covington stayed with the Braves until May, 1961, when he was selected off waivers by the Chicago White Sox. A month later, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, who held on to the outfielder for 23 days before trading him to the Philadelphia Phillies, his fourth team that season. He remained with the Phillies through their infamous swoon in 1964 during which they squandered a solid lead and failed to win the pennant.
Covington's 1965 Topps card.

“Those Phillies just never had any faith in themselves,” he once said.

Phillies manager Gene Mauch usually platooned the veteran outfielder, pencilling him into the lineup only when facing right-handed pitchers. Theirs was not a happy relationship. The prematurely grey-haired manager once said: “You try managing Wes Covington for five years and see what it does to the colour of your hair.”

Covington was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1966, but was released early in the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed him as a free agent. His role was a minor one as an extra power hitter and a “holler guy” on the bench. He made a single appearance as a pinch-hitter in the World Series that fall. He struck out.

Over 11 seasons, he recorded a .279 batting average. He also hit 131 home runs.

It was rare for retired black players to be hired as coaches and none had yet been made a full-time manager even two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the modern colour barrier.

The ballplayer started an eponymous company that owned land in three states, as well as a janitorial services firm. “I thought maybe I could do something for mankind by starting something where I could employ people,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1968. “It’s one of the greatest challenges to get a man who’s a borderline case and show him a better way.”

In time, he moved to Canada, eventually settling in Edmonton, which he had visited while on his way to a hunting trip in British Columbia. He operated a sporting-goods business before becoming an advertising salesman at the Edmonton Sun.

Covington represented the Edmonton Trappers, a minor-league team, as a goodwill ambassador and helped with promotions. Once a week, he ushered children onto the field to meet players and members of his eponymous club got certificates bearing his autograph.

The athlete was afforded a rare honour when a housing development in Orlando, Fla., named streets after prominent African-American figures. Covington Street intersects with Attucks Avenue, Belafonte Lake and Liston Court.

Covington died of cancer in Edmonton on July 4. He leaves his third wife, Pat, whom he married in 1990. He also leaves two daughters, five stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. He was predeceased by a daughter and a brother.

In retirement, he developed and registered a trademark for a product called the Wash My Back Towel With Handles, a product for those whose mobility makes it difficult to dry off after bathing. One of the towels was presented to each mourner who attended a celebration of his life.

Photographic sequence shows Wes Covington tumbling after colliding with the outfield fence in Game 5 of the 1957 World Series. He said he did not know whether he had caught Gil McDougald's long drive until after he got untangled.

Wes Covington's 1960 Topps card.

1 comment:

Tor Hershman said...

But no team could stop the Bucs in '60.