My Favorite Player: Roy Sievers
Anytime I hear Judy Garland sing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” I think of the first Major League baseball game I saw. And I think of how the kindness of a St. Louis native who was one of the game’s brightest stars at the time made that game unforgettable.
It was April 1959. I was a third grader at Richfield School in Richfield, North Carolina, where all 12 grades and 320 or so students were housed in the same 1920s-vintage redbrick building.
My father ran a small grocery store and service station a few steps from the campus of Pfeiffer College, a school of around 600 students in neighboring Misenheimer.
It was the era of flattops and penny loafers, bobby socks and ponytails. Elvis Presley was in the Army and Marilyn Monroe’s new movie, Some Like It Hot, was in the theaters. It cost four cents to mail a letter, and you could buy a new Chevrolet Impala, complete with huge “batwing” tailfins and wraparound chrome trim, for around $2,700.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Misenheimer and Richfield if you were nine years old, and baseball became the window through which my friends and I viewed the world. Most Saturdays I spent at least part of my allowance on baseball cards at my father’s store. I played in choose-up baseball games, and an older cousin called me “Willie” after Willie Mays. The nickname stuck.
One of my classmates was Keith Douglass, whose father was an administrator at Pfeiffer. Keith and his family were from Massachusetts and were passionate Boston Red Sox fans.
In those days, the Washington Senators had a Class AA minor league farm team in Charlotte, about 40 miles away. On April 6, 1959, the Senators played a final exhibition game in Charlotte against the Chicago White Sox.
Keith’s dad got tickets, and Keith invited me.
It was a big deal for me to watch my older cousin play for the Richfield High School baseball team. Seeing a Major League game would be the biggest event of my young life.
The game was played in Charlotte’s old Griffith Park, a WPA-era ballpark seating about 5,000. It was like dozens of similar ballparks around the country, with the intimacy and rustic charm that came from being built in an era of low budgets and lower expectations. But to me, it could have been Yankee Stadium.
Clark Griffith Stadium
Source: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, http://www.cmstory.org
Keith’s parents got us to the ballpark well ahead of game time. I remember the vista of the wooden seats and playing field as we emerged from the entrance into the grandstand. Over the public address speakers I heard, “Meet me in Saint Louie, Louie/Meet me at the fair./Don’t tell me the lights are shining/Any place but there.”
That moment—sunshine, green grass, grownups chatting, excited kids, Judy Garland singing—is engraved in my memory. Keith and I set out on a dead run to chase autographs.
We spotted White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox at a water fountain, his trademark chaw of tobacco delicately balanced in one palm as he drank. Keith, the big-city kid, boldly walked up to Fox, called him by his first name, and asked for his autograph. Fox seemed delighted to sign.
Somehow Keith and I got separated. I spotted Sox pitcher Early Wynn talking to his wife in the grandstand. I approached him and asked for an autograph, although I called him “Mr. Wynn.”
Wynn tried to tease me a little. “I don’t know,” he said to his wife. “Should I give this guy an autograph?”
But Mrs. Wynn didn’t like her husband teasing a little kid. “Oh, Early, stop it,” she said. “Sign it.”
White Sox stars honored for their 1959 season—Nellie Fox is presented with the American League MVP plaque and Early Wynn receives the Cy Young Award.
I drifted down to the front of the grandstand, which extended a few feet beyond the dugout. You could stand at the corner and see into the dugout. I spotted Roy Sievers, who was leaning back on the bench with the bill of his cap pulled down low over his eyes. Sievers was a true star on a team so consistently bad that sportswriters referred to Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
I leaned over the grandstand railing and yelled into the dugout: “Mr. Sievers, can I have your autograph, please?” Sievers pushed up the bill of his cap, looked up at me, and grinned. He motioned for me to come down into the dugout.
I was a dumb hick kid, but I wasn’t that dumb. “They’ll kick me out,” I said.
“Don’t worry, kid, I won’t let them kick you out,” he said. “Come on down.”
I shook my head. He motioned more emphatically. So I climbed over the railing and dashed into the dugout.
Sievers signed my pad. But instead of handing it back, he called to the players around him, “Hey guys, sign this.”
Every player in the dugout signed it.
I was stupefied. Sievers, still grinning, handed the pad back to me. I managed to blurt something like, “Wow! Thank you Mr. Sievers!” Then I ran up the dugout steps and scrambled back into the stands.
Sievers hit a home run that day, and I clearly remember watching the ball sail over the left-field fence. But the Senators lost to the White Sox, 9–6. That pad with the autographs became one of my most prized possessions, but somehow over the years it disappeared.
Fast-forward a half-century. I’m not a kid anymore. But the memory of that moment in 1959 was still clear and shining. So I wrote about it in my blog, “Drye Goods.”
In 2014, I got an email from Terry Cole, Roy Sievers’s niece in St. Louis. She’d come across my blog post and showed it to her uncle. He wanted to replace the autograph I’d lost.
Sievers sent me a signed photo from 1949, when he’d been the AL Rookie of the Year with the St. Louis Browns. That correspondence led to a series of phone conversations this past summer during which he reminisced with me about his playing days.
Source: Willie Drye
The little kid in me was as delighted as the day he’d invited me into the Senators’ dugout. The grownup was impressed at Sievers’s kindness and decency.
Sievers was a standout high school athlete in St. Louis and started his professional career in 1947 with the Hannibal Pilots of the Class C Central Association. He showed great promise, hitting .317 with 34 home runs, one of them a mammoth 500-foot clout at Hannibal’s Clemens Field that he still remembers. The Sporting News labeled him a “can’t miss” prospect.
In 1949, he hit .306 with 16 homers and a team-high 91 RBIs with the Browns. But the Browns finished seventh in the eight-team American League and were a poor second in attendance to the NL Cardinals in Sportsman’s Park. They remained at or near the bottom and played before sparse crowds for the rest of the time Sievers was with them.
“It’s tough to go out and play when you’re only drawing 5,000 or 8,000 people a game,” Sievers recalled. “You’ve gotta adjust to it, make the best of it.”
He had to make more adjustments. His batting average nosedived to .238 in 1950, and his sparkling debut seemed a fluke. He was sent to the minor leagues and suffered career-threatening injuries.
Baseball maverick Bill Veeck, who bought the Browns in 1951, salvaged Sievers’s career. “Bill Veeck worked with me every day at the ballpark,” Sievers said. “Without him I wouldn’t have stayed all those years in baseball.”
Sievers liked playing for Veeck. “If you hit a home run to win a ball game, you’d find a check in your locker, $100 or $200,” he recalled.
Roy Sievers was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1949.
Sievers underwent radical surgery in Baltimore to repair his injured right arm in 1952. He returned to action in 1953, the Browns’ last season in St. Louis.
One of Sievers’s teammates that year was Satchel Paige, the former Negro League star who’d pitched for Veeck when he owned the Cleveland Indians in the late 1940s. At the age of 46, Paige still had his stuff, and Sievers was impressed with his pinpoint control.
But Paige also impressed Sievers with his devotion to his fans. He recalled a Browns train trip during which he heard Paige banging away on a typewriter late into the night answering fan mail.
“He was a super guy, friendly with everybody, a great human being,” Sievers said.
Sievers’s stats improved in 1953, but new team owners traded him to the Washington Senators before moving the Browns to Baltimore for the 1954 season.
By then, Sievers had developed a swing that New York Yankees Manager Casey Stengel described as “one of the sweetest,” and he’d recovered from his injuries. His numbers began to improve.
By 1957, kids scanning baseball stats on sports pages were seeing Sievers’s name among the superstars of that era—Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron. He was a powerhouse that year, starting the season with four homers in the first eight games. During a stretch in July he hit a home run in six consecutive games.
Sievers led the AL with 42 home runs—an all-time Washington record at the time—and 114 runs batted in. He also hit .301. But fewer than 500,000 fans showed up in Griffith Stadium to witness his spectacular season. Still, the team honored him with an appreciation night and gave him a new car. He shook hands with then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
Despite Washington’s usual last-place finish, Sievers ran a close third behind Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. He was paid $36,000 for 1958—the most ever paid a Senators player at that time.
Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com
Sievers appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s edition of March 31, 1958, and he collaborated with writer Robert Creamer on an article about the art of hitting. A few months later, that sweet swing got him into the movie Damn Yankees. He was the stand-in for star Tab Hunter, who played a frustrated middle-aged Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil to become Joe Hardy, a Mickey Mantle–like young superstar who leads the perpetually hapless Senators to challenge the mighty New York Yankees for a pennant.
Hunter wore a Senators uniform with Sievers’s No. 2 on the back. During scenes in which Hardy batted, it was Sievers actually swinging the bat.
Sievers was at the apex of his career when our paths crossed for that wonderful moment in Charlotte in 1959. His old friend Veeck, now the owner of the White Sox, brought him to Chicago in 1960, and Sievers hoped he’d finally get into a World Series.
Sievers did what he was brought to Chicago to do—produce runs. In 1960, he had a 21-game hitting streak, the longest in the Major Leagues that year, and was considered a strong candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.
In 1960 and 1961, Sievers totaled 55 homers and 185 RBIs and hit just below .300 both years. But the Sox finished third in 1960 and fourth in 1961, and the affable star couldn’t connect with White Sox Manager Al Lopez.
“He didn’t particularly like me,” Sievers recalled. “I don’t know why.”
Lopez later told writer Gregory Wolf that he blamed himself for not playing Sievers more.
Sievers went on to play with the Philadelphia Phillies before closing out his career back in Washington in 1965. He tried managing in the minor leagues for a few years but decided he couldn’t raise a family on a minor league manager’s salary.
So he returned to St. Louis and went to work as a dock manager for a trucking company.
Sievers enjoyed his years in the big leagues, but he still thinks about what might have been.
“Every ballplayer, in their mind and heart, wants to play in the World Series,” he said.
During his 17-year career, Sievers amassed some impressive stats. He hit 318 home runs. At the time of his retirement, he and Brooklyn Dodgers star Gil Hodges were the only players with more than 300 home runs who were not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His home run total included 10 grand slams—more than Hall of Famers Mays, Mantle, and Frank Robinson. He also hit 10 pinch-hit homers and nine “walk-off” home runs. He was named to the American League All-Star team four times.
Terry Cole, Sievers’s niece who facilitated my phone conversations with him, said her uncle is “genuinely a good guy” and she wasn’t surprised that he’d invited me into the Senators’ dugout on that long-ago spring afternoon.
“He’s a quiet man but a wonderful ambassador for the game,” she said.
There are no stats for creating dazzling memories for nine-year-old kids, but I imagine “Mr. Sievers” is among career leaders in that category.
After retiring as a player, Sievers joined the Cincinnati Reds as a coach for the 1966 season.
Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com
North Carolina author Willie Drye’s new book, For Sale—American Paradise, will be published in October 2015 by Lyons Press.
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