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CLEARBROOK, MINN.: Wes Westrum's collection heads to Arizona

CLEARBROOK, Minn. -- By the box load one day nearly two decades ago, several Clearbrook couples removed items of Wes Westrum's professional life from his Clearwater Lake home. They still recall his reaction.

CLEARBROOK, Minn. -- By the box load one day nearly two decades ago, several Clearbrook couples removed items of Wes Westrum's professional life from his Clearwater Lake home. They still recall his reaction.

"You don't want to take all this junk to town," said Westrum, who hadn't looked at the items in years, even decades.

"Well," Alvin Bergman replied, "we've got a nice room for it."

Months later, in that 25-by-50-foot room of American Legion Melvin Johnson Post 256 in Clearbrook, an old ballplayer's life stood before his eyes as he viewed, for the first time, the completed Wes Westrum Baseball Museum.

A hometown tribute to Clearbrook's native son and hometown hero.

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"Oh, my," the former major league catcher, manager and coach muttered repeatedly, walking slowly through a treasure trove of memorabilia. "Oh, my."

But on Sunday, the start of Major League Baseball's 2007 regular season, Opening Day was closing day for Clearbrook's museum.

They began taking down Wes Westrum's "junk" Sunday, most of the same people who made a museum of it. Alvin and Sybil Bergman were there, as were Lloyd and Phyllis Engen, and Larry and Norma Emerson. With help from Westrum's nephew and niece, Nancy and Jim Goudge, they opened display cases and removed transparent glass-like sheets from flat displays to gain access to photos, clippings, reproductions and congratulatory telegraphs, to autographed baseballs and to big league uniforms.

They took out items from Westrum's early 1940s minor-league days with the Minneapolis Millers. They removed memorabilia from years in the 1950s as a burly New York Giants All-Star catcher, a low-average clutch hitter and defensive whiz. They gathered items from his years as a manager and coach for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants in the 1960s and '70s, and as a major-league scout in later years.

"We all put it up. Exactly us, the same crew," Sybil Bergman said, smiling. "We might have been a little more limber then. And we weren't so fat, either."

They enjoyed talking about Wes and about his Clearbrook years, about what the humble ex-ballplayer meant to the Clearwater County town of fewer than 600 people. But inside, the work tugged at their hearts. Outside, it was rainy with snow flurries, overcast and chilly. Not a good day for baseball in Clearbrook.

"It's kind of sad to see it being torn down," Alvin Bergman said, watching several others sort through old photographs.

Family's turn

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Kurt Bowser stood nearby, a son-in-law still marveling at the museum he last saw five years earlier. That's when Westrum's family and friends buried Westrum, at 79 a victim of skin cancer, about a half-mile away at Silver Creek Cemetery.

Bowser recalled how filled the church was for Westrum's funeral, and how the people understood when the service music included "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

Westrum, namesake of Clearbrook's ball field and old school gymnasium, still is widely quoted for this observation: "Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand."

"There's so much to ponder," Bowser said, looking appreciatively around the museum. "Clearbrook meant the world to Wes, and Wes meant the world to Clearbrook. Five years after his death, it's like he never left."

But in the next few days, most of the museum pieces belonging to Westrum will be packed up and shipped back to Arizona, home to Bowser and his wife, Joann, Westrum's daughter. It's a family decision. Arizona is where Westrum once lived and, in his later years, spent his winters.

Westrum's granddaughters from Arizona used to visit his Clearwater Lake home during the summer. Now, his memorabilia will come to them. One granddaughter in particular, Jessica, 21, who wore Westrum's No. 9 when she played ball, "is just dying to see this and have some for herself," Bowser said. "She's back home chomping at the bit."

Himself a baseball fan, Bowser appreciates his daughter's excitement. He remembers his own years ago in Arizona when he learned on an early date with Joann about her father. "When she said, 'Wes Westrum,' I just about fell out of the booth. I was peppering her the rest of the night with questions."

Moving anyway

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The modest Westrum would rather talk about grandchildren than baseball, Bowser said. That sounded a lot like the Wes Westrum who Clearbrook knew.

But the Clearbrook he knew is changing. The American Legion building, including the bar, is being sold to a private party. The town's dwindling Legion membership will still meet there, but the museum space no longer is available.

"The fact that they were selling the building now," Bowser explained, "it just seemed like the right thing to do now, bringing this home."

The community hopes to create a new, if smaller tribute to Westrum in the old Clearbrook school, now used as the community center. Sunday, Bowser talked with the museum organizers about photocopies, reprints of photos and articles and a few items that might be left behind, or perhaps even sent back.

"We're not going to just leave people here high and dry," he said.

Nobody will get the museum's two striking murals, both by former McIntosh, Minn., artist Andy Nelson. They were painted on drywall that won't be removed. One shows a scene of Clearbrook town ballgame about 90 years ago; the other, a spectator's field-wide view of baseball legend Willie Mays' famous over-the-shoulder, back-to-the-diamond, center-field catch during the 1954 World Series. May's teammate, the catcher with the big No. 9, is behind the plate.

Then there was a reprint of a 1990 Chicago newspaper column about Clearbrook's Wes Westrum Day and the museum's grand opening. According to the column, someone told Westrum "that he had done a lot for Clearbrook, that he 'put Clearbrook on the map.'

"You've got that wrong," Westrum insisted. "The people here have done more for me than I've done for them. I don't deserve this honor."

Said Engen on Sunday, "He didn't consider himself a celebrity. I'm just like you,' he said.

Clearbrook considered that high praise.

Reach Brue at (701) 780-1267; (800) 477-6572, ext. 267; or mbrue@gfherald.com .

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