Covington, the other major morale builder on the Dodgers, is a born handler of money, umpires and words. He owns properties in just about every city he's played in, holds a real-estate broker's license to boot and is one of the three or four Negro ballplayers firmly in the running for jobs someday as major league managers. "The funny thing is, we almost didn't get him," says Bavasi. "I'd always heard that he was trouble. So one day he was turned loose and he got on the phone to me and asked for work. A guy like that just hates to quit playing ball. So I said, 'I've heard too much about you. You talk too much about things that aren't your business.'
"He says, 'Gee, that's not so.'
"So I said, 'Well, that's what my boys tell me. All except Gilliam. He says you're the greatest and we ought to take you on.' But I said, 'If we do, you gotta promise me you'll only speak when you're spoken to.' So we signed him and he's been absolutely great. On top of his spirit and hustle, he's won a couple of ball games for us by getting on base. We've been fortunate to have him."
Covington joined the team at the end of May and started out like a man who was lucky to have an independent income. When he was one for 29 and just about the most ineffectual ballplayer outside the Little League, he was standing on the top step of the dugout yelling and clapping with his customary �lan, shouting declarations of war at every opposing player who came within earshot, impugning the integrity of umpires good and bad and exhorting the Dodgers to pull up their socks and get on the stick, except that his exact choice of words was far more Biblical and biological. "Come on, Stuart," Covington shouted at the sardonic first baseman. "Yell it up a little."
Stuart turned slowly to his slumping teammate and said in even tones, "Wes, if you weren't so damned valuable to this ball club I'd punch you right in the nose."
Soon after, Covington broke out of his slump (although he remains no threat to the Brothers Alou or even the Sisters Dolly in terms of batting average) and took on the role of undisputed leader of the Dodger cheering staff. "He keeps the bench alive," says Walter Alston, who usually sits quietly at the third-base end of the dugout. "That's worth something."
"Yeah, it's worth something," says slow-talking Lefty Phillips, the bespectacled pitching coach whose relaxed manner has steadied the pitching staff through some of its darkest days. "But sometimes he's too good at talking it up. Sometimes we're getting the other guy's pitches and when we try to signal our batter he can't hear us over Covington."
Of his own reincarnation as a human foghorn, Covington says, "I used to have spirit when I was with the Braves, but when I left Milwaukee and went to those other ball clubs, I allowed association to do something to me. I got in a rut with the type of ball clubs I was with after the Braves. I'd get so down in the mouth. You can be a fighting individual, but when you're getting overmatched day in, day out, it takes some of the sting out of you. But playing with a contending club does something to a man, mentally and physically. You shape up fast. You play your best, you have pride in what you do, where you go, how you dress, the people that you associate with."
"Sure we have pride," says the redheaded Ron Fairly, one of the team's steadiest hitters. "Last year nobody picked us to win anything, and when it was all over, there were 19 ball clubs behind us. We've won three world championships in Los Angeles, so we know what we can do. We don't choke; we play relaxed ball out there. Sometimes you wouldn't believe how relaxed it can be. One day I'm under a pop-up that's up above everything, and there's two outs and the other team has runners on base running like hell. And Gilliam comes running over the minute the ball's hit and he says, 'Lotta room, Ron, you take it.' The ball's on its way down about 600 miles an hour and Gilliam says, 'It's coming now. You're right under it.' And just before I make the catch, he says, 'Now don't get hit in the head.' Runners crossing the plate like flies, and he's trying to make me laugh."
The Dodgers' capacity for jollity, as the long season grinds on, has had to survive a series of injuries that would have sapped the morale of a traveling troupe of Pierrots. Until a few weeks ago there was an apt cartoon tacked to the press-box bulletin board. It showed a catcher and a pitcher in emergency session on the mound, and the catcher was saying something like, "Give him as much of a curve as your bursitis will allow, right in on that jammed wrist of his, but not too hard because of my bone chips." The cartoon was funny until the Dodger clubhouse began to look like a city-hospital emergency room on Saturday night; then the cartoon mysteriously disappeared. To be sure, the Dodgers are not the only team in baseball with the medical problems. Every manager can point to injuries toward the end of any season, but the Dodgers have carried the clich� to a ridiculous extreme. Maury Wills has been playing infrequently, and when he does start a game it is said that the Ace bandage people declare a dividend. The pitching staff was on a walking-wounded basis for several weeks. In one recent four-game stretch Claude Osteen started and had to quit in the sixth with a pulled thigh muscle; Koufax was forced to retire with the miseries after six innings; Don Drysdale reinjured a trick knee and turned himself over to the medics after two innings; and Don Sutton, whose 12 wins make him the most successful rookie pitcher in Los Angeles Dodger history, kinked up the flexor muscle on his pitching arm and was taken out in the third. The result of those foreshortened pitching appearances was four straight wins, high tribute to a bullpen which features Tiger castoff Phil Regan, winner of 13 games, saver of 15 and composer of a Dodger fight song, The Ballad of the Blue Berets. To relieve the strain on the suffering pitching staff, Alston called up Bill Singer, strikeout leader of the Pacific Coast League, and Nick Willhite, a sometime major-leaguer whose hernia enabled him to fit perfectly into the scheme of things. Characteristically, the Dodgers tried to kid their way through the agonies. "I understand we're also recalling Dr. Ben Casey," said Fairly, and somebody else observed that the pennant was in the hands of Sharp and Dohme.