Coveleski, Coveleskie, or Kowalewski? Who was the great Hall of Fame pitcher?

They have been mining coal for a long time here in North America. The Hopi Indians were coal mining in the 14th century, and by the 1880s, coal had replaced wood as the primary heat source in the United States. In the first twenty-five years of the 21st century coal accounted for 75 percent of the energy in America. It was during that coal boom in the early 1900s that young men like Stanislaus Kowalewski first lowered themselves into a mine.

Kowalewski was the youngest of five boys who grew up in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, which happened to sit like a cherry on top of the geologic sundae that contained millions of tons of hard coal. So much coal was being dug from the ground in Pennsylvania that the railroads laid track directly into the holes. Stanley was only 12 years old when he took a job as a breaker boy for a large mining company. A breaker boy sorted impurities from the coal by hand. It was performed mostly by children because they had small hands, or by older men who could no longer work as miners. It was hazardous: the breaker boy sat on wooden benches perched over the conveyor belts that carried the coal. When a breaker needed to stop the conveyor he pressed his feet on a steam breaker that shot warm air into him, he then had to grab the slate and remove it from the coal. Slate was sharp and the breaker boys worked without gloves (so they could better feel through the coal). Often they went home with their hands and fingers bleeding. For their work a breaker boy earned five cents an hour.

All five of the Kowalewski brothers worked their way through the mining hierarchy. The pinnacle was to become a miner, lowered deep into the earth in the dark, the only light coming from a lamp on their helmet. Thousands of miners were buried alive in the holes dug across Pennsylvania. “There was nothing strange in those days about a 12-year-old Polish kid working in the mines for 72 hours a week at a nickel an hour”, Stanley said years later. “What was strange is that I ever got out of there.”

Each mining company fielded a baseball team (or several) and played in league competition. By his 17th birthday, Stanley was one of the better young pitchers, exhibiting uncanny control. He accepted an offer to pitch for a semi-professional team near to Shamokin, who paid him $5 for every game he completed. He quickly left the mines and concentrated on baseball. He and his brother John both signed to play in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when Stan was 19 years old.

When Stanley signed his first professional contract he decided to Anglicize his name to Coveleskie and it remained that way until sometime after his retirement when some editor somewhere dropped the last “e”, but Stan never signed his name Coveleski, he always wrote “Covey.”

Coveleskie was the best pitcher in the Tri-State League with Lancaster immediately. Having practiced as a youngster by throwing rocks at tin cans, the task of putting a baseball inside a strike zone seventeen inches wide. Throwing with a dead ball, Coveleskie kept the ball low and didn’t mind if the batter made contact. He had last-second movement on his fastball, but his best pitch was the spitball, which he applied with alum that he kept in his cheek.

The lean righthander caught the eye of a scout for the Philadelphia A’s, earning a late-season trial under the eye of Connie Mack. Coveleskie made two starts in 1912 for the Athletics, but Mack felt “The Big Pole” needed more experience and tucked him away in the Northwestern League way out in Washington with Spokane. Stan showed great durability in three more seasons in the minor leagues, topping 290 innings each year and establishing himself as one of the best hurlers on the west coast. But Mack forgot that he owned the rights to Covey and in 1916 those rights expired, making Coveleskie a free agent. He signed with the Indians, who promised to bring him to the major leagues. By this time, Stan’s older brother Harry had been in the majors for years and was toiling for the Tigers. In the first week of the season the brothers were scheduled to face each other, but Harry declined and bumped his start one day to avoid competing with his younger sibling. Between them, Stan and Harry achieved eight 20-win seasons, five for Stan.

Stan won 15 games as a rookie with Cleveland and improved his win total the next three years, to 19, 22, and finally 24 (twice). Using his patented spitter, his arm never seemed to tire, and in 1918 he pitched an 18-inning complete game.

The 1920 season was both a triumph and a tragedy for Stan. In May he received a phone call from Shamokin that his wife had died from an illness. Shaken, he left the team for a week but returned to pour himself into his pitching. After nearly two weeks away from the mound, Coveleskie was hit hard, but tossed a complete game in his next outing, dedicating the victory to his wife. Two months later tragedy struck when his teammate Ray Chapman died after being hit in the head by a pitch. Coveleskie was pitching that day and recorded his 19th win of the season. After the loss of his wife and now a teammate, Stan wasn’t sure if he could muster the strength to complete the season. But he did, winning five games in September and saving another as the Indians captured their first pennant. 

When people discuss the greatest performances in World Series history they usually forget about Stan Coveleskie’s pitching in the 1920 World Series. The spitballer started Game One, Game Four, and Game Seven (it was a best-of-nine back then). He allowed a total of two earned runs in his three starts and also only walked two batters, winning all three games. He pitched Game Four on three days rest and Game Seven on two days rest. With grief still on his mind, Coveleskie pitched brilliantly to lead the Indians to their first World Series title. It was a long way from sorting coal by hand.             

He helped pitch the Senators to a pennant in 1925 but couldn’t repeat his Fall Classic success. A few years later he developed a sore arm and was out of the game after a brief comeback attempt with the Yankees in 1928. He won 215 games and 60 percent of his decisions, had five twenty-win seasons and led the league in ERA twice. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker agreed that Covey’s spitball was the best in the game. In 1969 after a long wait, Stan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, they even continued the mistake and spelled his name without the “e” at the end. Covey didn’t mind and he lived another 15 years, until his death at the age of 94.

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