Roy Sievers, RIP: Sentimental journeys

Roy Sievers (right) with Mickey Mantle.

Roy Sievers (right) with Mickey Mantle.

Roy Sievers modeled his batting stroke on that of Joe Medwick, his baseball hero growing up in St. Louis. He made a respectable career as a slugging first baseman and a smooth swinger who studied the game and didn’t let the seedier sides of it soil his shyly genial nature.

Sievers, the first to win an American League Rookie of the Year award when it became an each-league prize (in 1949), died 3 April at 90. He’d overcome early career shoulder miseries to convert from the outfield to first base at the impetus of Bill Veeck, who owned the St. Louis Browns with whom Sievers first arose.

Traded to the Senators as the Browns prepared their move to Baltimore, in a generation that didn’t produce genuinely great first basemen, Sievers worked his way toward becoming the best of a Senators team that ran the gamut between mediocrity and occasional hilarity. He also made an overwhelming impression on a D.C. area kid named Thomas Boswell.

Well, maybe it wasn’t all that overwhelming at first. As Boswell wrote in 1990, in an appreciation he republished upon Sievers’s death, he was given his first pack of baseball cards when he was eight and only one Senator turned up in the pack: Sievers. That was better than the lone Met represented in my first baseball card pack: Galen Cisco.

“At that time he wasn’t the best player on those bad Nats teams,” Boswell wrote. “Mickey Vernon was. Sievers, however, was about to blossom into the best home run hitter in the American League. And I had ‘spotted’ him—that is, stumbled on him—a year before it happened. Maybe that’s why, to this day, I’m still childishly certain that I have a special lucky relationship with baseball.”

Sievers’ game-busting days were in the mid-to-late 1950s, especially after he stumbled upon one of Red Schoendienst’s slim-handled bats and found it better suited to his Medwick-inspired swing. They were game-busting days if he had guys to drive in, and the 1950s Senators weren’t exactly world-beating table setters.

There may be those still trying to figure out how on earth Sievers drove in 100+ runs in four out of five seasons between 1954 and 1958, including a league-leading 114 in 1957. Marry that to his league-leading 42 bombs the same season and Sievers became the first to lead the league in both while playing for a dead-last club.

Sievers was popular enough in Washington that when it came time to make the film version of Damn Yankees, he was hired to be the hitting double for actor Tab Hunter playing Joe Hardy. There’s no known record of whether he was disappointed not to be Hunter’s double in front of Gwen Verdon’s challenge, “Whatever Lola Wants.”

When he became the highest-paid Senator of all time, trade rumours began to dog him, not that he let them bother him. In fact, he harboured a hope that one of the rumours might come true: the Red Sox. “I used to talk to Ted Williams,” he once told the Society for American Baseball Research, “and he’d say, ‘Kid, if we could get you, we’d win some pennants.’ That was the one place I really wanted to play.”

Instead, Sievers found himself traded to the White Sox for 1960, after Veeck (Sievers could say he had a prodigal owner now) decided the feather-light-hitting 1959 American League champions needed some extra power. The problem was, manager Al Lopez preferred Ted Kluszewski, the former Cincinnati hulk, relegating Sievers to a platoon until Kluszewski was injured in early June.

Sievers as a St. Louis Brown, with whom he was the American League's first Rookie of the Year in 1949.

Sievers as a St. Louis Brown, with whom he was the American League’s first Rookie of the Year in 1949.

Sievers slotted in full time, did close enough to his usual the rest of the way, and found the satisfaction of playing on his first winning team. The bad news was the White Sox couldn’t repeat their 1959 pennant. (And wouldn’t, for almost five decades to follow.) He had a comparable 1961 but the White Sox fell out of contention, and he was dealt to the Phillies.

In 1962 Sievers was one of four Phillies to hit 20+ bombs on the year. (The others: Don Demeter, Tony Gonzalez, and Johnny Callison.) In 1963 he opened with getting drilled in the ribs by a Jim Maloney fastball in spring training. The reason he got to avoid the 1964 Phold was a strained calf that sapped him just enough to move the Phillies to deal him to the expansion Senators. Lucky him.

Sort of. Sievers barely had anything left; the expansion Nats released him the following May. Finding no further takers for whatever was left of him, Sievers retired.

Boswell remembered Sievers as being so nice a guy that, when the kid was taken to meet him at a store for his autograph but he got lost in the store, Sievers actually waited beyond his scheduled quit time to sign for him when he was retrieved.

“My only memory is that he was big,” Boswell wrote. “But the picture, ‘To Tommy from Roy Sievers,’ in big, handsome looping script, can still be unearthed, in mint condition, in a pinch. There was another picture, too, a standard-issue ‘Roy Sievers’ that my mother had taken in case she couldn’t find me in time. That one went on the bedroom wall and had darts and insults thrown at it after many an exasperating strikeout or pop fly came over the radio.”

Sievers was also given a Roy Sievers Night in Washington before the original Senators moved to Minnesota. He got “a night of speeches and a station wagon,” Boswell recalled, and a handshake from Vice President Richard Nixon, who called Sievers his favourite Nat, prompting the modest first baseman to tears.

In 1973, when Boswell was a copy aide and local sports writer, he took a gamble and called Sievers, who’d long since returned to his native St. Louis, where he worked for Yellow Freight for almost two decades before retiring. (He’d tried coaching and minor league managing but that ended after assorted employers decided he was “too nice” for the jobs.)

Boswell asked Sievers, who chatted with him for over an hour, what he considered his fondest baseball memory. Mired in Watergate though Nixon as president was by then, Sievers didn’t skip a beat: it was that Night when Nixon shook his hand and praised him. “I’m sentimental,” Sievers told Boswell. “That was really touching . . . in Washington I got to meet four Presidents and have lunch with two. That’s wonderful for a kid from St. Louis.”

For the record, when Nixon told Sievers he was the vice president’s favourite Nat, President Dwight Eisenhower told him his favourite Nat was Sievers’ roommate, Jim Lemon. Sievers didn’t mind.

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