Cooperstown Confidential: Remembering Wes Covingtonby Bruce Markusen
July 08, 2011
Yet, baseball has such a rich and detailed history, and the internet is such a wonderful tool, I’m still able to develop an appreciation for him as a ballplayer.
Based upon what I‘ve read and heard, Covington was the Oscar Gamble of the 1960s, a subpar defensive outfielder who made his living as an imposing hitter, particularly against right-handed pitching. I certainly remember Oscar Gamble, so I have a better mental impression of Wes Covington.
Covington, who fell victim to cancer on the Fourth of July at the age of 79, was a pretty fair country ballplayer who became an essential part of the history of the Milwaukee Braves. Without Covington, the Braves probably don’t win their only championship of the Milwaukee years.
At one time, the Braves considered Covington a better power prospect than Hank Aaron, a belief that Aaron wrote about in his biography, I Had a Hammer. As a minor leaguer, Covington had a stronger physique than Aaron, who was still skinny and had not yet filled out.
Much like Aaron, Covington had to deal with the racial nonsense of segregation and second-class treatment that plagued so many black players at the time, particularly in minor league cities located in the South.
There was also the demand of military service. A one-year stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War delayed his minor league development while leaving him with a leg wound that affected his foot speed.
Covington first entered the national consciousness in 1957 when the Braves recalled him and fellow outfielder Bob “Hurricane” Hazle from Triple-A in midseason. Both neophytes had an immediate impact; Hazle hit a combined .403 during July and August, while Covington moved into a platoon role as the Braves’ left fielder.
Covington actually had debuted with the Braves the previous summer, but a so-so performance landed him in Triple-A Wichita to start the ‘57 season. The Braves called him up in late April, but he really did not start to see significant game time until May. He would go on to appear in 96 games, pounding out 21 home runs and slugging .537.
The left-handed hitting Covington gave the Braves a third legitimate power hitter to go along with the lethal left-right combination of Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, helping the Braves stake claim to the National League pennant.
That fall’s World Series would make Covington a household name. In Game Two against the Yankees, he drove in what proved to be the game-winning run. Though never highly regarded as a fielder—he didn’t really like playing defense—Covington made two critical plays that led directly to a pair of Series victories. In that same Game Two, Covington made a terrific backhanded snatch of a drive hit by Yankee pitcher Bobby Shantz, robbing him of a sure double, and possibly a triple.
The play helped preserve a 4-2 victory for the Braves and Lew Burdette. And then in Game Five, Covington ran back on a deep drive by Gil McDougald, eventually crashing into the left field fence, but holding onto the ball to rob the Yankees of a potential home run. That defensive gem proved huge; the Braves won the game, 1-0, again behind Burdette, on their way to winning their first and only world championship in Milwaukee.
For many players, an encore performance might have proven difficult, but not so for Covington. In 1958, he put together what would be the finest season of his career. Though limited to 90 games because of his continuing status as a platoon player, Covington hit a rabid .330, reached base 38 percent of the time, hit a personal high of 24 home runs and achieved a career-best OPS of 1.003.
With Covington playing an enormous role, the Braves repeated as National League champions and then extended the Yankees to seven games in losing a highly-competitive World Series rematch.
The 1958 season stamped Covington as one of the game’s finest platoon players. He would never accumulate more than 378 at-bats in a season, mostly because of his platoon splits. Limited against left-handed pitching, Covington reached opposite extremes against right-handers. In much the same way that a player like Gamble would perform in the 1970s and 80s, Covington absolutely obliterated right-hand throwers.
In 1957, he slugged .578 against right-handers. In 1958, he terrorized righties to the tune of a .715 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.127. Even some of the game’s best right-handers could fall prey to Covington’s magic wand. One was Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, whom Covington torched over his career, hitting .354 with six lifetime home runs.
Not only did Covington abuse right-handers, but he also annoyed them to no end. His stalling techniques at the plate became legendary. Attempting to disrupt the rhythm of opposing pitchers, Covington often stepped out, fidgeted with his cap, and sometimes even re-traced the outline of the batter’s box.
Such stall tactics made him unpopular with National League pitchers—and some writers—who resented his time-wasting efforts, but it became an effective tool in ratting some of the more temperamental hurlers he faced.
Covington never again matched his peak season of 1958. He remained an effective, if not intimidating, role player for the next two years, but a bad start to the 1961 season spelled the end of his days in Milwaukee. The Braves tried to sneak him through waivers, but the White Sox placed a claim on the veteran outfielder.
He would slug .508 through a one-month stretch with the White Sox, but that would serve only to boost his trade value. On June 10, the Sox packaged him with Bob Shaw and two other players, sending them to the Kansas City A’s for a package headlined by Don Larsen and Andy Carey.
Now a traveling man, Covington lasted less than a month in Kansas City. On July 2, the A’s traded him to the Phillies for journeyman outfielder Bobby Del Greco. By joining the Phils, Covington became one of a handful of men to play for four different teams in a single season. Dave Kingman and Dave Martinez would later match Covington as one-season journeymen.
Thankfully, Covington found some stability in Philadelphia. He resumed his one-time role as a left-handed hammer against right-handed pitching. In 1963, he batted .320 in a pinch-hitting role for Gene Mauch. For three straight seasons, he reached double figures in home runs and achieved OPS marks of .800 or better. He took a particular liking to the right field wall, which featured a giant metal scoreboard, at Connie Mack Stadium. During batting practice, Covington entertained spectators by hitting balls at, and over, that famed barrier.
Unfortunately, Covington’s final season in Philly coincided with the Phillies’ infamous late-September freefall, when they allowed a six and a half-game lead to evaporate during a horrendous 12-game collapse. From that disappointment, Covington finished out his career with two lackluster seasons split between the Cubs and Dodgers, though he did make a cameo for Los Angeles in the 1966 World Series.
Though I never had the pleasure of watching him play, I do remember Covington for making some memorable appearances on Topps baseball cards. His 1961 Topps card shows him eyeing the cameraman while selecting a bat from the bat rack in the Braves’ dugout. In 1962, Topps pictures him holding two bats while flashing a wide smile in the Phillies’ dugout.
Yet, it is one of his 1966 cards that stands out as a personal favorite. In one of Topps’ famed multi-player cards, we see Covington standing with Phillies teammate Johnny Callison, their bats crossing each other. I once heard that crossed bats represented bad luck, but the pose didn’t seem to bother the two Phillies corner outfielders, both of whom seem happy and relaxed.
The card makes Covington looks like a good-natured sort, a personality trait confirmed by many of his former teammates. In recent days, some of his ex-Brave mates have praised Covington for his kindness and his willingness to take part in the general fun of the clubhouse.
But Covington became reclusive during his post-playing days. He moved to Western Canada, where he ran a sporting goods store, worked in newspaper advertising, took a turn as a special ambassador for the Edmonton Trappers of the Pacific Coast League, and then retired. He rarely took part in interviews or card shows, and did not make a return to Milwaukee until 2003, his first appearance there in 40 years, when he was invited to town by the Braves Historical Association.
It wasn’t that Covington felt bitter toward Milwaukee, or the game of baseball. He just did not want to become, in his words, “a baseball bum living in the past.” A man with a humble heart, Covington didn’t like talking about himself, so it’s left up to us writers and fans to talk about him now. Wes Covington, especially for fans tied to the history of the Milwaukee Braves, was an important player, a player worth remembering.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.