"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Clearbrook native Wes Westrum made splash

Wes Westrum is the catcher.
We in Morris beamed with pride over having Jerry Koosman associated with our community. Years before Koosman with his powerful left arm came along, a young man from a small northwestern Minnesota town ascended to baseball's highest level. Wes Westrum was that athlete. He played catcher.
In high school he was an overall natural athlete, with football seeming to be his strongest sport. He played fullback on the gridiron. The winter months saw him play basketball. Perhaps he got lured to baseball because of an early pro opportunity. The year 1940 saw the Clearbrook MN native sign with Crookston, the Pirates of Class 'D' ball. Crookston played in the old Northern League. Westrum was just a junior at Clearbrook-Gonvick High School.
I got out the atlas and found that these towns are quite remote. They are northwest of Bemidji and to the south of Lower and Upper Red Lake. I'm sure Dave Holman of our town is familiar with the towns.
Westrum's pro exposure did not eliminate his high school eligibility to play. These youth got a break because of the scarcity of summer jobs. Westrum got a break when the player-manager of Crookston got a foot injury. Such are the vagaries in pro sports. Westrum got well established on the diamond before he, too, got hurt in an off-the-field incident: a cut right wrist in the team bus. Weird.
Catchers have quite the resilient bodies, though. Westrum would in fact become rather injury-prone. Playing catcher invites this - think of all the foul tips, sometimes taken in the head. Today there would be a concussion protocol. Oh, but not in that bygone age when Westrum had his heyday. He batted .275 with Crookston. Pro ball in Crookston! It was quite the humble beginning but an important step, as destiny was going to be kind to this young man from the desolate environment west of Bemidji. America affords opportunity to all, indeed.
Destiny would have Westrum playing eleven seasons as a catcher in the major leagues. He is firmly associated with the old heyday of baseball in New York City. By "old heyday" I mean the days when the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees entertained the fans there.
As a kid I heard references to the old Giants and Dodgers, teams that had moved to California. I heard about Bobby Thomson's home run for the Giants. It seemed strange to me that these two teams would simply move out of New York with no immediate replacement. The Yankees had a monopoly for a time. It was in that stretch of Yankee primacy that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961.
Finally in 1962, the National League came back to the Big Apple in the form of the New York Mets, a team that Westrum would eventually manage. It's strange that the major leagues forced the new Mets in 1962 to have to pay such painstaking dues, as if the city was being punished in some way. Many fans just came to see the National League stars again, stars like former New York Giant Willie Mays.
The old New York Giants played at the Polo Grounds. That's where the Mets took up residence in '62. The Dodgers played at Ebbets Field. I have a friend here in Morris who saw a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field when he was in the service. His description of the place was rather unflattering, so I don't think he'd want his name typed here. He said that stadium was a "dump."
The romance surrounding many of the old ballparks covers up their very real deficiencies. Teams could get by with those liabilities when they played in the East Coast media power corridor. Fenway Park with its oddities is accepted. But when Minnesota built a stadium, the old Met Stadium, well, it had better be really good so as to impress the likes of Roger Angell of The New Yorker. Angell described our Met Stadium as an "airy cyclotron." Writers in the East Coast power corridor can get by with that.
When Met Stadium first opened for the Twins, a major league official proclaimed it was "as good as any (stadium) and better than most." I'm sure that was true.
Wes Westrum played catcher for the New York Giants from 1947 to 1957. He was known as a superb defensive catcher. Such a player is a real asset. Certainly he was an asset when the Giants made their run at the Dodgers, coming from 13 games back on August 12, 1951. My, Westrum and his mates won 16 games in a row, sort of like the heroic team in the movie "Moneyball."
Westrum hit 20 home runs and drove in 70 runs that summer. He led National League catchers in baserunners caught stealing. The Giants and Dodgers played in the 1951 N.L. tiebreaker series. The stage was set for Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world," a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 win in the third and last game. The Giants went on to lose to the Yankees in the World Series.
Footnote regarding that season: The revelation came forward years later that the Giants cheated with sign-stealing. So much for "the good old days."
Westrum was parked behind the plate in the 1954 World Series when the Giants' foe was the Cleveland Indians. Injuries were taking a toll on Westrum along the way.
In 1958 when the Giants left Gotham for San Francisco, Westrum was offered a choice of third string catcher or a coach. At age 34, Westrum opted for coaching. He played a total of 919 games in his career and pounded out 503 hits in 2,322 at-bats. His home run total was 96. His fielding percentage was .985. He committed just one error in 139 games in 1950. His fielding percentage that year, of .999, stood as a record for N.L. catchers until 1997.
Westrum was on the All-Star team in 1952 and '53. He threw out 47 percent of would-be base-stealers in his career. Here's a memorable note: Westrum was in the cover photo of the first-ever Sports Illustrated magazine. Eddie Mathews of Milwaukee was the batter in the photo. The magazine sold for 25 cents.
Westrum joined the Mets as coach in 1964. He became pitching coach in July of '65 after the release of Warren Spahn. So a catcher, of all people, replaces Warren Spahn as pitching coach? The Mets struggled until 1969 when, with our Jerry Koosman, they rocketed to No. 1. It was probably the biggest thrill of my childhood!
Westrum became Mets manager in August of 1965, due to Casey Stengel getting hurt. Alas, the Mets made no immediate turnaround under Westrum. But in 1966 there was a flicker of hope as Westrum's Mets finished in ninth rather than tenth. It was the first time the Mets escaped the basement.
The young pitchers in the Mets system were not developing fast enough to help Westrum. The '67 season brought a return to the cellar. Westrum resigned.
Westrum went back to the Giants, where he got another managing shot in 1974. His San Francisco Giants finished one game under .500 in 1975, good for third place in the division. This was Westrum's last year as manager, and subsequently he scouted for the Atlanta Braves for a long time.
Westrum was back in his peaceful, beloved Clearbrook MN when he died on May 28, 2002. Truly his career was an exhibit for how anything is possible in the USA: coming from a place that many people would describe as "backwater" and ending up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Wes Westrum, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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