How I became friends with Wally Westlake
On April 18, 1947, the Pittsburgh Pirates had their home opener with the Cincinnati Reds at Forbes Field. That morning, Elmer Hurte and his oldest son Bobby packed sack of chip-chopped ham sandwiches and a jug of iced tea. With lunch in hand they rushed out the door to catch the streetcar from the North side to the Oakland section of the city. The round trip fare was twelve cents, a seat in the Forbes Field bleachers cost sixty-five.
When they arrived at the corner of Sennott and Boquet Streets, their eyes were greeted with a sight of a crowd that rivaled a Hollywood premiere! That day the ballpark was packed with 38,216 fans. So management decided to rope off part of the outfield to accommodate the crowd’s overflow.
Among the dignitaries in attendance that day were Pennsylvania Governor James D. Duff, Tom Herbert of Ohio and Pittsburgh’s popular mayor D. L. Lawrence along with Happy Chandler, the Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Frick, the President of the National League and movie star Bing Crosby, who was also a part owner of the Pirates!
Aside from it being the home opener, it was also the Pittsburgh debut of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg and the unveiling of “Greenberg Gardens,” a section of chain linked fence that shorten the distance to leftfield and assist their new slugger. (The moniker would be changed to ‘Kiner’s Korner’ the following season.)
Pirate fans had high hopes for their Buccos. The 1947 squad featured both the reigning American (Greenberg) and National League (Kiner) homerun champions.
But before I go any further, I must interject a necessary fact to this story. Ever since I was old enough to understand and watch baseball with my father, I heard about this guy Wally Westlake?
I lived in the New York Mets viewing area and grew up watching former Pirate Ralph Kiner announce the games. I would pepper my dad with questions about Kiner. He would say how he hit a lot of homers but his favorite player was this guy Westlake?
Apparently during that game on April 18, 1947, my father and grandfather bought ticket in the roped off area with hopes of seeing the “great” Greenberg ups close. Unfortunately that day, Pirate first baseman Elbie Fletcher got hurt causing Greenberg moved to first base and a stocky rookie from northern California took his place in the outfield. His name was Wally Westlake. He pleased the Pirate’s faithful by slugging two homers into Greenberg Garden as the Pirates beat the Reds 12-11.
But it was another long fly ball that made my dad a Westlake fan. A ball came out to deep right field. Wally gave chase and leaped over the rope to snag it, at the same time knocking my grandfather to the ground. After tossing the ball in, he helped Elmer to his feet and asked if he was okay. From that day on, my dad became a Wally Westlake fan!
For the longest time, it had been a tradition of mine on my father’s birthday to give him a brand new Steelers’ cap and a six-pack of his favorite beer. He would wear the cap, then we went down to the basement to talk sports and finish off the beer. But on his seventieth birthday I wanted to something different, something special. As an avid collector of baseball autographs, I decided to get him an autographed baseball. Then it popped in my head, what autograph would be better to get than Wally Westlake?
So I got out Jack Smalling’s address book about collecting baseball player’s autographs and wrote Wally a letter. I asked him if he would mind signing a ball wishing my father happy birthday? After a week went by, I received an envelope from Sacramento, California. Inside was a note, “Send me the ball. -W.W.” Which I did and a week later an autographed ball with the inscription “Happy Birthday Bob, Wally Westlake came in the mail!
I bought a plastic cube and carefully placed the autographed ball inside. You could imagine how hard it was to contain my excitement!
When we went inside my parent’s house, I placed my gift on the coffee table. When it came time to hand out presents, I grabbed it and gave it to my father. Needless to say, after opening it, he had tears in his eyes.
I think that it meant as much to me, as it did to my father. Baseball was a bond between my father and me. Wally Westlake always played a significant role in that relationship.
A couple of years later, my dad’s health issues took a turn for the worse. Since I wrote bios for the Society of American Baseball Research, I decided to do one on Wally. I did it mainly for my father but also for me to learn about this man who had quietly become a part of my life.
I tenaciously researched the archives of several newspapers to learn about his career, but wanted to learn more about him personally. So I wrote him a letter and asked if we could talk. A week went pass before I received an envelope from Sacramento, California. Inside was a note, “Just remember the time difference. Call after twelve-noon, I need to fee the chickens.” His telephone number was written below it. So called him up. Before Wally picked up the phone, after a few minutes of conversation, I actually felt like I saw him play. In fact, he seemed to get a kick out of talking with me. We spoke for close to an hour. A our conversation came to an end, he said to me, “I like talking with you, if you feel like talking like baseball again, give me a call!”
Well, I took him up on his offer and called again, again and again. It has now been over six years! We exchange Christmas cards each year; have provided comfort after the loss of love ones, his wife, and my son. I count Wally Westlake as one of my dear friends!
Once again, I decided to do something special for my dad on his birthday. I asked Wally if he would wish my dad a happy birthday, which he did! I could see the fifteen-year-old boy in my father’s eyes as he talked to his childhood hero. Dad and Wally spoke for about a half an hour. A lot longer than the first time they spoke. The day that I became friends with Wally Westlake!