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Thursday July 21, 2011

Outfielder endured segregation to play some great baseball

A 'spike-knocking, cap-adjusting, hand-dusting, shoe-tying, uniform-tugging and bat-waggling' player

Special to The Globe and Mail

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 died of cancer in Edmonton on July 4.

He 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.

He 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.

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 some day 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."

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 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, including 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 prevailed, 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."

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 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.

The ballplayer eventually started an eponymous company that owned land in three states, as well as a janitorial services firm.

In time, he settled in Edmonton, which he had visited while on a hunting trip to 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.

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.

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