Obituary: Wally Westlake (1920-2019)

RIP to Wally Westlake, An All-Star outfielder who played with six teams in a 10-year career. It has been reported that he died on September 6 at the age of 98. Westlake played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1947-51), St. Louis Cardinals (1951-52), Cincinnati Reds (1952), Cleveland Indians (1952-55), Baltimore Orioles (1955) and Philadelphia Phillies (1956). At the time of his death, he was baseball’s second-oldest former player; Val Heim is four days older.

Waldon Westlake was born on November 8, 1920 in Gridley, Calif. His younger brother Jim, who was born in 1930, also entered professional baseball and struck out in his only MLB at-bat, with the 1955 Phillies. Wally graduated from Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, and when no major-league team came calling, he went to play for the Reno Garage, a semi-pro team in Nevada. He tried out at a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball school and was signed by Bill Killifer.

Wally Westlake points out he has 5 RBIs on the day. Source: The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, June 6, 1948.

Westlake struggled in the minor leagues. He hit under .200 with the Dayton Wings of the Middle Atlantic League and had trouble with the curveball, according to one report. He was released by the team in the middle of June and went on to play for the Odgen Reds in Utah and with the semipro Sacramento Painters Union No. 487.

He was signed by the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and farmed out to the Merced Bears of the California League in 1941. Westlake made the All-Star team and hit 18 homers on the season, to go with a .265 batting average. He moved up to the Oaks the following year and had a similarly productive campaign, but he was called into military service before he could continue to develop. He played ball for the Coast Guard in California — he was teammates with Clint Conatser for a time.

Westlake returned to baseball and the Oaks in 1946, and he hit .315 with 7 homers and 57 RBIs. The Pirates acquired him at the end of the season in return for cash and a player to be named later. Westlake caught a break in the 1947 Spring Training, because first baseman Elby Fletcher caught a bad one. Fletcher hurt his ankle, and veteran outfielder Hank Greenberg moved to first base to replace him. That created a hole in right field for the Bucs, and Westlake filled it.

For his time with the Pirates, Westlake moved between right and center field, with a little time in left field as well. He even played 34 games at third base for them in 1951, although his 12 errors in those 34 games indicated he was more at home in the outfield. Regardless of where he played, Westlake hit nearly 100 home runs in a Pirates uniform and slashed .281/.346/.484.

Westlake singled off the Cubs’ Hank Borowy in his first MLB game on April 15, 1947. He made a good first impression on the Pirate faithful in his first home game on April 18, when he homered twice and drove in 4 runs for a 12-11 win over Cincinnati. He ended the season with a .273 average and 17 homers. He raised his batting average into the .280s for the next three seasons, reached the 20-homer mark with 23 in 1949 and 24 in 1950, and he drove in 104 runs in 1949 and 95 in 1950.

The power surge may have come with the help of his roommate, Ralph Kiner. “Ralph has helped me tremendously and I’m grateful,” Westlake wrote in a 1950 column. “He gives me tips when I’m in a slump and has passed along many fine things Hank Greenberg taught him when they roomed together in 1947.”

Westlake was off to another great season in 1951. Through 50 games, he was hitting .282 with 16 homers and 45 RBIs, all while giving up his right field spot to play left field and third base. On June 15, he and southpaw Cliff Chambers were traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for five players: catcher Joe Garagiola, infielder Dick Cole, outfielder Bill Bowerton and pitchers Howie Pollet and Ted Wilks. Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey made a lot of great deals in his day. This was not one of them. He gave up his second-best power hitter and a reliable lefty starter with a package that hinged on Garagiola turning into a star catcher. He didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Jack Herndon suggested that Westlake sealed his own fate in the previous offseason, when contract negotiations turned contentious. GM Rickey sent son Branch Jr. (or “Twig” as he was commonly known) to California to talk with Westlake face-to-face, and Westlake allegedly was rude to Twig.

Weeks after the trade, Westlake was added to the All-Star team for the only time in his career. He was picked mostly for his stats with the Pirates, though he made the team as a Cardinal. Westlake replaced new teammate Stan Musial in left field during the All-Star Game but never came to bat.

Wally Westlake trots home with his second homer of the day, in his first home game with the Pirates. Source: Pittsburgh Sun, April 19, 1947.

Westlake finished the 1951 season with a .266 average and 22 home runs. It was his last good year as an everyday player. He was slow out of the gate in 1952, hitting .216 with no power in 21 games with the Redbirds. He was traded to Cincinnati on May 13 for 1B/OF Dick Sisler and shortstop Virgil Stallcup. Less than three months later, he was shipped to Cleveland for a minor-leaguer. Westlake hit a combined .212 for all three teams, but at he would have better times ahead with Cleveland.

The 1953 Indians had some talented outfielders, but center fielder Larry Doby was the only lock. Westlake was part of a group of players, including Dale Mitchell, Bob Kennedy and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who filled in the corners around Doby. Westlake hit .330 with 9 homers in 82 games, and his 2.5 Wins Above Replacement was 5th best among Cleveland position players. He got particularly hot in August, at one point knocking 14 hits in 17 at-bats, to gain regular playing time.over the other left fielders.

The 1954 Indians won the AL pennant and lost the World Series to the New York Giants. Westlake hit 11 home runs and knocked in 42 RBIs in 85 games. He played in two games of the World Series and had a single in 8 at-bats. He also dropped a fly ball in right field in Game 4 that allowed the Giants to score an unearned run.

Westlake is the third member of the 1954 Indians team to pass away this year, joining Don Mossi and Hal Naragon.

Westlake spent the last couple years in the majors bouncing from Cleveland to Baltimore to Philadelphia, not really playing well anywhere. His last MLB games came with the Phillies in 1956, when he went 0-for-4 with a walk in 5 games. For his 10 years in the majors, Westlake had a slash line of .272/.345/.450, with 848 hits and 127 home runs, 6 of which were grand slams. He had 539 RBIs and scored 474 runs.

Westlake held a variety of jobs in his post-baseball career and worked for a construction company for 16 years before retiring. He never could figure out the point of that trade to St. Louis, either.

“The trade really was a disappointment to me,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Pittsburgh Press. “It came right in the middle of the year and upset me quite a bit. I just didn’t do well with St. Louis. I had one pretty good year with Cleveland later on, but after the trade it was mostly a downhill run for me.”

Westlake spent his retirement fishing as much as he could and generally not spending too much time thinking about baseball. “About my only connection with baseball is my pension,” he said. “It pays for the bait and the beer.”

For more information: https://fox40.com/2019/09/11/wally-westlake-sacramentan-who-played-during-baseballs-golden-age-dies-at-98/

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