Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wes Covington, 79, 1957 World Series hero

Wes Covington, the upstart who helped spark the Milwaukee Braves to victory in the 1957 World Series, died of cancer in Edmonton, Alberta, on Monday. He was 79.

Wes Covington
Born March 27, 1932 in Laurinburg, N.C., John Wesley Covington was signed by the Boston Braves in 1952. He was sent to their farm club in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he roomed with a skinny 18-year-old from Alabama, Hank Aaron.

Covington led the team in home runs that season and according to Aaron in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, Covington was thought to be the bigger power threat.

"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 said.

Early on, Covington did show his prowess at the plate, hitting 21 and 24 homers respectively in 1957 and 1958, but his subsequent lack of defensive abilities kept him from being a full-time player. In 11 seasons, Covington belted 131 homers while playing for six different teams.

Al Spangler, who played 13 seasons in the majors, was a teammate of Covington's in 1955 with Jacksonville and then again with the Braves from 1959-1961. Spangler noted Covington's strengths tipping towards his work at the plate.

"Overall, he was a great player," Spangler said via a phone interview from his Texas home. "He didn't like to play defense, but he was a great hitter. When we played together in 1960, he played left field and I would go in the later innings and replace him for defensive purposes."

Surprisingly, Covington is famous for plays he made on defense during the 1957 World Series. His two stellar catches in left field helped to preserve victories for the Braves. In Game 2, he made a nearly impossible grab off of a drive from Bobby Shantz’s bat and in Game 5, he robbed Gil McDougald of a homer after crashing into the fence to make the catch. To his former teammates though, Covington will be best remembered for his kindness. Earl Hersh, who played with Covington in the majors with Milwaukee and the minors with Wichita, had nothing but superlatives for the fallen outfielder.

"He was to me, a first class guy," said the 79-year-old Hersh from his Pennsylvania residence. "Everything was good that I knew about him. He was a nice person and a good ballplayer. I found him fun to be around; just a good time guy."

Bobby Malkmus, who also played with Covington in Jacksonville before teaming up on the Braves, said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home that Covington remained a loyal teammate despite the racial barriers which existed during the time.

"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."

Covington, like many black players during the 1950s faced the challenges of Jim Crow segregation while traveling. Spangler recalled some of the difficulties that Covington and the other black players faced on the Jacksonville team in 1955.

“We had Wes and another African-American, Horace Garner," Spangler recalled. "They couldn't even get off the bus to go in and have lunch when we were traveling. When we arrived at a town, we never saw them again until game time.”

Malkmus, who played with Spangler and Covington in 1955, was saddened by the hardships faced by his recently deceased teammate.

“They had to stay with black families on the road," Malkmus said. "They didn't eat with us on the road. If we stopped to get something to eat, they either had to eat in the kitchen or we had to bring them food out to the bus. It was terrible.”

Malkmus was raised in the diverse city of Newark, New Jersey, which made sympathetic to the plight of his African-American teammates like Covington. He recalled the difficulties they faced in Southern cities. 

“I was born and raised in Newark amongst the blacks and got along with them really well," he said. "My experience with the South was brutal as far as blacks and whites were concerned. They didn't treat the blacks well. We used to shower and play with them, but we couldn't live with them.”

Upon finishing his baseball career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, Covington moved to Western Canada and operated a sporting goods business. He worked for the Edmonton Sun newspaper for 20 years as an advertising manager and then the Edmonton Trappers baseball club in a front office position. Covington rarely appeared in the States after moving to Canada except for the occasional Braves reunion or card show.

In 2003, Covington returned to Milwaukee after an almost 40-year absence. When asked why he had removed himself so far from the town where he built his baseball legend, Covington revealed motives outside of the sport.

“It's nothing against the city or the great fans," Covington said. "I just had other things I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to be a baseball bum, living in the past."

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