Ray Webster

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Ray Webster played in 47 major-league games in 1959 and 1960, and 732 games over eight seasons in the minor leagues, playing for teams ranging from Quebec to Hawaii. He was primarily a middle infielder but also played 75 games at third base and 35 in the outfield. During his time in the big leagues, there were 12 games in which he was called on to pinch-hit and 12 games in which he was brought in to pinch-run.

Webster grew up in Browns Valley, California. He was born in the nearby hospital at Grass Valley on November 15, 1937. Born prematurely to Bill and Norma (Fretwell) Webster, Ray weighed only three pounds four ounces at birth.1 Bill Webster worked for Pacific Gas & Electric, doing a variety of tasks. He even bought his own Caterpillar and worked to help building dams. Norma Webster worked some at a department store. After retirement, Bill bought and sold some properties and did well for himself.

Ray attended Fruitland Union for his first eight grades and then Marysville (California) High School, graduating in 1955. He was signed to a professional baseball contract by Vince Castino to play for the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons, according to information dated 1961 and contained in Webster’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In January 2014, however, he wrote autograph collector Bill Kearns that he had been signed by Dave Kelley of the Solons.2

Webster was already playing semipro baseball that spring, for the Yuba-Sutter Rebels in the Sacramento Valley Baseball League. He was shortstop for the league’s All-Star team. Late in the year, on a Sacramento contract signed on July 17, he appeared in seven games for the Salem (Oregon) Senators in the Class-B Northwest League. He was 5-for-13 with one double, a .385 average. Webster played for Salem again in 1956, getting a full season of work in 132 games. He hit .253, but was given the opportunity to play Single-A ball in 1957 for the Amarillo Gold Sox in the Western League.

For Amarillo he hit 19 homers and batted for a .284 average in 154 games and Dave Kelley of the Solons acknowledged that he’d started to hear some bids from some major-league teams.3

When Solons shortstop Leo Righetti announced in March that he was going to give up playing baseball for a position in his father’s tallow works, Webster’s path to play for Sacramento itself was opened. He played in 102 games under manager Sibby Sisti, batting .244 with 10 home runs in what was Triple-A ball. Early in the season Sisti declared, “He is a major league prospect.”4

In a 1958 article, the former Sacramento catcher – Castino – said he’d seen Ray right after he finished Marysville High. “I liked him the first time I saw him. He was a splendid fielder and he possessed a strong arm. He has grown three inches since then. I feel sure he will become a major leaguer.”5 Webster is listed as having been an even six feet tall and weighing 175 pounds. Castino added, “I convinced Ray he would be able to advance to the majors quicker by signing with an independent club like Sacramento.”

Webster added that he had been scouted by several other clubs, “but I decided that Sacramento in those days was in the big leagues.”6 Indeed, the Pacific Coast League had for many years been seen as something of a third major league.

Webster said that he had pitched and caught some as a younger player – even throwing a no-hitter and a one-hitter in a junior league at Marysville, but he preferred shortstop and no one along the way had ever suggested he try working out at another position.7 He had better than average speed, fast enough that when he wasn’t playing he was often called on to pinch-run.

On May 19, he was carried from the field on a stretcher after his spikes caught on the bag, causing him to tumble and fall, injuring his left knee. He returned to the lineup on July 4 but reinjured his knee rounding first base, this time not as seriously.

The Solons looked forward to having him with them for a full season in 1959, but a change in regulations made him eligible to be drafted by a major-league organization.8

In October a benefit game was staged at Sacramento’s Edmonds Field to raise money for Ken Penner, who had recently been forced to retire due to a diagnosis of ALS after a long career as player, coach, and scout. A mixture of players from various teams suited up to play each other, Managing the “Nationals” was Bill Posedel, then a Northern California scout for the Cleveland Indians. Webster was shortstop for the Nationals.

At the winter meetings on December 1, the Indians selected Webster in the Rule 5 draft. The date was also his younger sister Nadine’s 16th birthday. Life was precious in the Webster family. Ray and Nadine had two brothers as well, but one died at birth and the other only lived to be one year old.

It probably hadn’t hurt in the selection process that Cleveland manager Joe Gordon lived a few miles from Webster. For Webster himself, learning he’d been drafted was a real surprise. He was working for the Yuba County Public Works Department as a surveyor when he received a phone call from his mother telling him he had been drafted.9

“It is the realization of a dream for me,” Webster said. A big-league scout was quoted as saying, “He has not cut his eye teeth yet. All of us respect his bat even though his .244 average does not seem too impressive. It may be that Ray is not a shortstop but with his strong wrists he can go far swinging the bat.”10

Gordon himself said, “We figure we made a good draft in Webster…He has a good bat and he does not have to stick at shortstop. There is no telling where he will play but we believe we can take a chance on him and might carry him all year.” That they did. “He can do some pinch hitting and pinch running if we need him. We’re going to take a good look at him next spring.”11

At the time of spring training in 1959, Ray and his wife Anne were married. Still happily married 57 years later, as of March 2017, Webster said, “We’ve been very lucky.”12

He remembers his starting salary as $7,500, and that with his signing bonus he purchased a Chevy Bel-Air which cost about $2,200.

Apparently he had some deficiencies in his throwing while training at Tucson in the spring of 1959, and it appeared he was going to be returned to Sacramento (see an article in the March 22 Oregonian), but he turned things around in the final weeks of the spring. In early April. Indians GM Frank Lane called Webster “our ace in the hole. If [Gene] Leek can’t make it and if Randy Jackson’s fielding is too bad, we’ve still got Webster for third base. I talked to Gordon last night and he agrees. The boy’s got wonderful hands and good reflexes and he can sting the ball. Throws better from third than from short, too. He could be our guy, and I’ll guarantee he won’t embarrass us.”13

Webster stuck.

Webster’s major-league debut was on April 17 in Cleveland. The game against the Athletics was tied, 3-3, in the bottom of the seventh inning, thanks to a bases-loaded walk to Hal Naragon. Webster came up with nobody out and the bases still loaded. The Athletics brought in Bud Daley to relieve. It was a big moment. Webster pinch-hit for Tito Francona. He lined out to third base. Both Minnie Minoso and Rocky Colavito fouled out. Webster stayed in the game, at second. In another key moment, still tied 3-3, there were runners on first and second with just one out. Daley struck him out, for the second out of the inning, and would have closed out the inning, but Minoso’s ground ball hit to third base resulted in an E-5, and the winning run scored.

Webster’s first big-league base hit came in the aftermath of a pinch-hitting assignment on May 6. It was the bottom of the seventh and the Indians were losing to the Orioles, 6-1. He pinch-hit for Billy Martin and hit a Milt Pappas pitch for a fly ball to center field. But he stayed in the game and got another opportunity in the bottom of the ninth. There were two on and nobody out, the score now 6-2. Billy Loes relieved Pappas. Webster slammed a three-run homer deep to left field. It brought the score to 6-5, but Loes got each of the next three batters to ground out and end the game.

There were only two times he pinch-hit and got a hit. The second was on September 25 at Cleveland Stadium; the Indians were hosting the Kansas City Athletics. Kansas City had a 7-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth. Two singles and two strikeouts put runners on first and third, and Joe Gordon sent Webster in to pinch-hit. He singled, driving in Rocky Colavito, and scored himself when Tito Francona singled later in the inning. The score was 7-5. Webster stayed in the game, playing second base, and came up again in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner on second. He singled in the baserunner, Carroll Hardy reached on an error, and both scored – the tying and winning runs – when Elmer Valo singled to right field.

There had been other nice moments, though, On June 13 his ninth-inning triple and a sacrifice fly gave Cleveland an 8-7win over Washington.

Over the course of the season, Webster appeared in 40 games for the Indians, averaging exactly two plate appearances per game. He hit for a .203 batting average with 10 RBIs. He hit two home runs. Most of the time he was in the field, he played second base. He committed five errors in 70 chances (.939). Third base was tough – in four games, he committed three errors.

On January 8, 1960, Webster was traded to the Boston Red Sox for left-handed relief pitcher Leo Kiely. There had been rumors a month earlier that the two teams had talked of trading Webster and John Romano to the Red Sox for Sammy White and Marty Keough. That didn’t fly, but the Indians reportedly suggested White and Leo Kiely to Boston for Romano (Webster not being part of the trade.)14 The trade, as executed, was the fifth one an active Red Sox team had made since the conclusion of the season. They felt good about acquiring Webster, whom they had seen often during Cactus League play since both teams trained at the time in Arizona.15

The plan was to use Webster in a utility role, spelling Don Buddin at short, Pumpsie Green or Pete Runnels at second, and Frank Malzone at third. At the time of the trade, Webster was in the U. S. Army at Fort Dix serving a six-month stretch. He was expected to be unable to report for spring training until as late as early April.16 In fact, he arrived in early March, first reported as taking extra batting practice in the March 8 Boston Traveler. The paper, however, suggested, “Webster will be lucky to make the Red Sox club.”17 And Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant was mystified at the trade, writing that Webster was “at the moment…in the big leagues by the skin of his teeth.”18

Webster wasn’t as sharp as the team would have liked. On March 23, he could have ended an inning with a double play but apparently thought that he had retired the side; meanwhile, a run scored. And on March 31, another run scored due to “an erratic throw” which prevented another double play.19 Joe Cashman of the Record was not impressed with Webster’s experience, saying that he was “virtually untested as a major leaguer.”20 He was, indeed, still only 22 years old.

Webster had made the team. His first two appearances for the Red Sox were as a pinch-runner, on April 19 and 21. On April 22, he contributed at a game in Washington – after taking over for Ted Williams. Williams had pinch-hit in the top of the eighth and flied out. But the Red Sox scored three runs in the inning, leading to a 3-3 tie. Heading into the bottom of the inning, manager Billy Jurges made three defensive moves. One was to place Webster at second base (Pumpsie Green had been pinch-hit for). The Senators scored once in the bottom of the eighth, but the Red Sox tied it up again in the top of the ninth when a couple of singles put runners on first and third – and Webster hit a sacrifice fly to center field to score Lou Clinton. The Red Sox won it in 11.

Two days later, he pinch-hit and reached base on an error, then scored when Bobby Thomson homered.

He had three more pinch-hitting assignments but made an out in all three. His line for the season was .000 with one RBI. On May 15, the Red Sox had to cut the roster down to 25 and Webster was optioned to the Double-A Indianapolis Indians. In a classic understatement, Webster said, “I wish I’d been with the Red Sox a little bit longer.” He felt it was a mismatch. “I shouldn’t have been traded to the Red Sox. Pete Runnels led the league in batting.”

He didn’t play much at all for Indianapolis, only appearing in 14 games and batting .178. In 72 games for the Triple-A Montreal Royals, he fared much better, batting .241 with six homers. On September 14, the Red Sox assigned his contract to the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, as part of a deal through which they had earlier acquired Chet Nichols.

During the 1961 season, he played both for Vancouver and the Hawaiian Islanders (primarily at second base) with combined stats in 119 games of .220, seven home runs, and 33 RBIs.

He played the 1962 season with the Islanders but only appeared in 26 games and hit just .206. His final season in pro ball was with the Charlotte Hornets in the Double-A South Atlantic League. There he played in 104 games and hit. 225.

In 2017, in his 80th year, Webster was quick to note, “I still work. After I got out [of baseball], I could have had a job at PG&E as a PR guy, but I went to work with an insurance company and I’ve been in insurance ever since. General agent. Sales. I did pretty well in it. I don’t do much anymore. I just go in the office to see the pretty girls. Nothing wrong with that, is there?” Not with a marriage that is 57 years and still strong. The couple had no children. Anne Webster worked as a social worker, but they were doing well enough that Ray urged her not to worry about work.

Webster said, “You can never look back.” Had he been brought up a little too quickly? “Maybe. I think the biggest problem with Cleveland was, I didn’t get a chance to play. I was behind Billy Martin. I was hitting the ball pretty good. At that age, though, you’re a little cocky. You never know. But I’m still happy that I got to go there. I got to see the man I liked the most, Mr. Williams. That guy had the greatest memory in the world. I consider myself very lucky.”

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Norman Macht and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Webster's player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Rod Nelson of SABR's Scouts Committee, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Author interview with Ray Webster on March 1, 2017.

2 Email from Rod Nelson, Scouts Committee, SABR, February 14, 2017.

3 Tom Kane, “Solons Receive Good Reports On 2 Rookies,” Sacramento Bee, October 19, 1957: 23.

4 McClatchey Newspaper Service, “Sacs’ Rally Wins Finale To Take Phoenix Series,” Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1958: 19.

5 Wilbur Adams, “Between the Sport Lines,” Sacramento Bee, May 3, 1958: 25.

6 Author interview.

7 “Ray Webster Once Hurled No-Hit Game,” Sacramento Bee, May 10, 1958: 19.

8 Tom Kane, “Sacs’ Webster May Be Eligible for Major Draft,” Sacramento Bee, September 16, 1958: 29.

9 “Webster, Shortstop with Big Bat, Eyes Tribe Job,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 12, 1959: 29. A photograph of Webster surveying accompanied the article.

10 Tom Kane, “Webster’s Good Wrists Earn Him Majors Try,” Sacramento Bee, December 2, 1958: 20.

11 Tom Kane, “David Says Solon Tieup with Major Club is Being Considered,” Sacramento Bee, December 6, 1958: 104.

12 Author interview.

13 Gordon Cobbledick, “”Plain Dealing,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 8, 1959: 23.

14 Tom Monahan, “More Trades Likely for Sox Next Week,” Boston Traveler, December 9, 1959: 69.

15 George Sullivan, “Sox Trade Kiely for Ray Webster,” Boston American, January 8, 1960: 14.

16 “Red Sox Plan Utility Role for Webster,” Boston American, January 9, 1960: 6.

17 Bill Liston, “Sox Stunned by White Deal,” Boston Traveler, March 17, 1960: 38.

18 Bill Lee, “With Malice Toward None,” Harford Courant, January 10, 1960: 1C1.

19 Boston Record, March 24, 1960: 21, and April 1, 1960: 24.

20 Joe Cashman, “Red Sox Shy On Infield Reserves,” Boston Record, April 14, 1960: 21.