Monday, January 03, 2005

January 3rd, 2003

Jim Westlake Dies

A lot of people, baseball fans or not, have seen Field of Dreams. One of its supporting characters is "Moonlight" Graham. Graham is based on an actual player who played a single inning of a game in 1905, never coming to bat. He retired shortly thereafter to become a doctor. It’s seemingly not an appealing fate, although the movie Graham (played by Burt Lancaster) seems comfortable enough with it, remarking that if he'd "only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy."

Like Graham, Jim Westlake appeared in just one major-league game. Unlike Graham, he had an at-bat. In the ninth inning of a "Ladies' Day" game at the Polo Grounds in 1955,
Westlake was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Jack Spring against the defending champion Giants. With his Phillies down 8-3, Westlake struck out, and would never again play in the Major Leagues. Westlake was just twenty-four at the time, but would be out of baseball shortly thereafter and spend most of the rest of his life as a salesman for a paper company.

It is easy to look at the story of someone like Jim Westlake and see it as a failure. But of course,
Westlake wasn't a failure. Not just in the absolutely literal sense (having earned a Major League at-bat puts one in exclusive company statistically speaking), but also as a ballplayer. When he was just nineteen, Westlake played for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and was selected (along with Lew Burdette, Lefty O'Doul and others) to tour Japan as part of a PCL All-Star team. Westlake remembered "I could not believe the reception we got at all these cities. There were about a half a million people greeting us as we came through." The team met Gen. MacArthur and went 16-0 in the course of their tour.

Jim Westlake's stat line looks depressing all on its own: 1 Game, .000/.000/.000, 1 K, in a meaningless at-bat of a blowout no less. I had even initially planned to write words to that effect. But like Moonlight Graham, Jim Westlake's career--and his life--was more than just MLB stats.

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