Turn Back The Clock: Former Catcher Wes Westrum Recalls Career With Giants.
ON A LATE SEPTEMBER AFTERnoon in 1947, just one day before he would wear a big league uniform for the first time, Wes Westrum was behind the plate for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. During the game, Westrum broke a finger on his throwing hand, but continued to play after he "spit on it and rubbed it in the dirt," then boarded a train for Chicago to report to the New York Giants.
Westrum found his way to the Wrigley Field clubhouse and was introduced to Mel Ott, the icon and manager of the Giants, who told him he'd be in the starting lineup to catch Larry Jansen. So much for broken fingers. (Stay tuned: more about those fingers later).
So Westrum caught Jansen's three-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader. And, in his first major league at-bat, he banged a single off veteran right-hander Hank Borowy.
An auspicious debut, though Westrum would finish the season as the third catcher on the depth chart, behind Walker Cooper and Ernie Lombardi, a trio beyond even the realm of Fantasy Baseball.
Thus began the career of a big league backstop, vintage Golden Age, whose great ability as a glove man produced an 11-year run with the Giants.
His lifetime average was an unremarkable .217, but behind the plate he was perhaps a living composite of many time-worn cliches: a ballplayer's ballplayer; he hit when it counted; a leader in the clubhouse, and the kind of guy you want on your side when you go to war.
Wes was all those things and more. He looked like he came straight out of central casting--big, raw-boned and stereotypically thick-set, as catchers were supposed to be.
"You know," he recently recalled, "anytime I'd get down on myself about my batting average, I'd think what Leo Durocher told me in 1949. He said `I don't care what you hit just keep catching my pitchers the way you've been doing.'"
Not that the 78-year-old former college fullback was impotent with a bat. There was that day in 1950--June 24--that even the likes of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa would envy: three home runs and a near-miss homer that went for a triple in four at-bats. A performance that might have prompted Chuck Dressen to invoke his legendary, "I'd like to see him do that again!"
And in 1951, the Giants' miracle season, the year of Bobby Thomson, though Westrum managed only 79 hits in 124 games, he knocked in 70 runs and banged 20 homers, a season proving his ability to hit in the clutch.
The finger problems forced Wes to continually reset his hands around the bat, seeking a less painful grip. "I played many a game with a broken finger," he said. "Eight broken fingers. That's why my average was so low."
Yet, Westrum was arguably the finest defensive catcher in the National League during his time. He is proudest of his 1950 season, which he labeled "my best year:" 140 games; just one error.
Performing at that level with an oft-damaged meat hand was no small wonder. Westrum offers a modest explanation. "The Good Lord blessed me with a knack of getting rid of the ball in a hurry," he said. "And, of course, if you studied runners, you could read when they're going."
When he recounts his greatest offensive day, Westrum is typically self-conscious. Home run trots were never a Westrum thing, then or now.
The Reds were at the Polo Grounds that afternoon with left-hander Kenny Raffensberger on the mound. Westrum came up for the first time in the second inning and hit a rocket that cleared the roof in left field. "It was the hardest ball I ever hit in my life," he said.
Then, in the third, again facing the veteran Raffensberger with no one on, he hit a shot into the upper deck in left. Two-for-two, a pair of home runs.
Westrum came up next in the sixth inning, facing right-handed relief pitcher Johnny Hetki. On base were Whitey Lockman and Monte Irvin, who scored easily when Westrum ripped a line drive into the right-centerfield gap for a triple.
Finally, in the seventh, with Hetki still on the mound, Westrum poled another shot, this one into the lower deck in left. His day's output: 15 total bases.
"Before I hit the triple," Wes recalled, "I hit a ball that went just inside the foul pole in left. I missed a home run by inches."
The following year, Wes took part in the most dramatic pennant race ever, involving a bitter rivalry.
On the morning of August 12, 1951, just hours before a doubleheader with the Phillies at the Polo Grounds, the Giants trailed Brooklyn by 13 and a half games. That day, a rainy Sunday, the people of New York's Dutchess County, where Westrum and his young bride lived, held Wes Westrum Day.
Westrum remembers that day. "I'll never forget it. Three thousand people came down from Poughkeepsie, 90 miles, to honor me. I caught both games and stuck out five times," he said.
"But," he added, "we won both games and went on to win 16 in a row and we caught the Dodgers. Then, we played them and beat them two out of three and just kept going from there. And it all started on Wes Westrum Day."
Durocher's Giants, with rookie Willie Mays in center, went 37-7; the Dodgers staggered in at 24-26 and dissipated their entire lead. Thus, the historical three-game playoff. Enter Ralph Branca. (The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!)
Which they did again in '54. And in Game 1 of the World Series at the Polo Grounds, with the overpowering Cleveland Indians in town, there was Westrum, sitting back of the plate, flashing a sign to southpaw Don Liddle, calling for a fastball in tight to the power-hitting Vic Wertz.
"But Liddle got the pitch out over the plate--upstairs, about letter-high--and Wertz clobbered it."
Westrum continued. "I didn't think it was going out because anything hit to centerfield, with Mays there, I said `forget it.' He was the greatest ball player I ever saw.
"Willie's catch," he said, "set the tone for the entire series." Thus, the Giants swept Cleveland.
Wes played three more years, never catching as many as 70 games in a season. He remained with the Giants when the ballclub moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season. Manager Bill Rigney gave Westrum a choice.
"Rig told me I could be the number three catcher or he'd give me a coaching job. So I hung 'em up and became a teacher."
Following the 1963 season, after coaching six years for the Giants, Westrum was offered a trade to the Mets. "Casey wanted me over there and Cookie Lavagetto wanted to move back to San Francisco," he said. "So I said `let's do it' and I went back east. It was a straight trade, one coach for another."
But a year and a half later, Stengel suffered a broken hip, allegedly falling off a bar stool, and Westrum was suddenly thrust into the manager's seat. With the new job, came the highest salary of his baseball career: $35,000.
"Managing in New York," he said, "I had to entertain all the newspapermen and everybody, day after day, which was the main reason I wasn't happy with the job. As my mom used to say, `Ink is small, but it makes a big splash.'"
He left the Mets late in 1967 and returned to the Giants as a coach for the next four years. Then came three seasons of scouting for the Giants and another year and a half as their manager.
In 1977, as a favor to Hank Aaron, Wes signed on with the Braves to coach at Richmond and help Tommy Aaron who managed the club. He served as Tommy's pitching coach for one year.
Finally, Westrum closed out his career with a 17-year run as an advance scout for the Braves.
Westrum came to baseball out of Minnesota and still spends most of the year there. He lives in Leonard, population 26, just a short throw from Clearbrook, where he was raised.
A cancer survivor since 1987, Wes has been alone since his wife died in 1996. He lives in a large house on Clearbrook Lake, which is 40 miles from the start of the Mississippi River.
Westrum enjoys talking about the ballplayers of his day. "I enjoyed watching other catchers," he said. "Andy Seminick, Roy Campanella, Del Crandall, Bruce Edwards. But," he added, "Jim Hegan was the best. His pitchers loved him."
On playing for Leo Durocher: "He was all business on the field. If you didn't do it his way, you didn't last long."
As Stengel's bench coach, Westrum sat next to Casey every day. "I remember one game when a Met pitcher was losing his stuff. I said to Casey, `this guy's getting clobbered,' and Casey said, `I know. I want him to go nine innings so I can get rid of him tomorrow.'"
Stengel was often accused of falling asleep in the dugout, which Westrum addressed. "You know," he said, "Casey would keep his right eye open and his left eye closed. Maybe it looked like he was sleeping. But he never did." Wes could only wink when he said that.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2001|
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