Wally Westlake, One of the Last Living Members of 1954 Team, Dies at 98
Vince Guerrieri | On 11, Sep 2019
And then there was one.
This year’s been a rough one for members of the 1954 Indians. Pitcher Don Mossi died in July at the age of 90. Hal Naragon, who backed up Jim Hegan as catcher and returned to his native Barberton after his playing and coaching days (where the high school field is named in his honor), died at the end of August at the age of 91.
And now, Wally Westlake, who was the second-oldest living former major leaguer, has died. Westlake died Friday, according to team sources, at the age of 98. (Ironically, the second-oldest former major leaguer is now Eddie Robinson, the last living player from the last Indians team to win a World Series, in 1948.)
Westlake signed as an amateur with the Dodgers in 1940, and two years later, returned to his native California to play in the Pacific Coast League as he worked his way through the minors. World War II intervened, and Westlake served in his home state in the military. Following his discharge, he returned to the PCL, by then a Triple-A league, and played for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks. Among his teammates was a combat-wounded knuckleball pitcher named Gene Bearden, who would have his own moment with the Indians two years later.
In September 1946, his contract was bought by the Pirates, and the following year, he made his major league debut with Pittsburgh, a team that was packed with star power but going nowhere fast. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was with the Pirates, on his last legs, where he provided advice and counsel to younger players, including Westlake and a slugging outfielder named Ralph Kiner. The coaching staff also included another Pirates legend, Honus Wagner.
As a rookie, Westlake became a piece of what he called “fairly meaningless baseball history.” On August 26, 1947, he became the first white batter hit by a pitch from a black pitcher, Dan Bankhead of the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Westlake shrugged it off and took his base. “I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said later.
Westlake was a mainstay in the Pirates lineup for most of the next four years, but on June 15, 1951, he was part of a seven-player trade that sent him to the Cardinals. He was a dependable part of the lineup in St. Louis before being traded less than a year later to the Reds. His stay in Cincinnati lasted less than three months, when he was sent to the Indians, which had to seem like dying and going to baseball heaven compared to his National League stops. The Indians were the class of the American League – if not quite as good as their contemporaries in the Bronx (managed by none other than Casey Stengel).
Although he never played more than 100 games in a season again, Westlake was a reliable part-time outfielder with a decent bat and enough defensive skills that manager Al Lopez didn’t worry about him. He hit 11 home runs and batted .263 as the Indians won 111 games to end the Yankees’ five-year stretch of pennants.
Westlake started the season in Cleveland in 1955, but was dealt to Baltimore. The Orioles released him a month later, and he latched on with the Phillies. He played five games for Philadelphia and hung it up, returning to his native California where he lived out the remainder of his life.
With Westlake’s death, the only living member of the 1954 Indians is Avon Lake native Dick Tomanek – who remains in his hometown as of this writing.