Roy Sievers, who was American League home run champion for the Washington Senators in 1957, died in his hometown of Spanish Lake, Mo., at age 90 Monday. By coincidence, that was Opening Day in the District.
In 1990, I wrote this appreciation of Sievers, which originally appeared in the book “Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful.”
A baseball hero is a toy of childhood. Electric trains, cowboy guns and plastic soldiers are the same find. But with a baseball hero, a youngster reaches out, for one of the first times, into the world outside the family. That connection with a big, mysterious environment gives a certain sense of power; children discover they can invest their affections and actually get something special back in return. However, hero worship also brings with it the first morsels of the sort of pain and fear that we come to associate with the word “reality.” We begin to learn about adult disappointments and the profound uncontrollability of nature.
I was fortunate. I got a wonderful hero. When I was eight years old in the spring of 1956, somebody gave me my first pack of baseball cards. Pathetic as it sounds, I can still remember where I was standing when I opened them: beside a coffee table in the living room. In that pack was only one player from my hometown team, the Washington Senators. I’m convinced that, by the luck of the draw, the player on that card was destined to be my first (and, as it turned out, only) hero. It could have been Herb Plews, who made four errors in one inning, or Chuck Stobbs, who lost 13 games in a row.
But it was Roy Sievers.
At that time he wasn’t the best player on those bad Nats teams. 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.
At the ages of nine and 10, I felt intimately connected with the most mythic public figure in my town — a man who hit 42 home runs in ’57 and then 39 in ’58. That doesn’t sound like so many, but for that sliver of time (so symbolic to me), it was more than anybody in baseball except Ernie Banks. Yes, more than Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays.
Sievers never failed me. In the pulp magazines and sports pages of the time, he was portrayed as modest to the point of shyness, as well as unselfish and charitable. On his home runs, he always trotted the bases with his head down as though embarrassed and eager to get back into the dugout. Every story discussed the wide respect he’d earned by making “a dramatic comeback” after a shoulder injury nearly ended a promising career that had begun with a Rookie of the Year Award in ’49.
When I finally met him, he surpassed all expectations. One night in ’58, when he was at the height of his fame and I was 10 years old, my mother took me to Hecht’s department store where Sievers was giving autographs. Not selling them. Not hawking an autobiography. For all I know, maybe not even getting a fee from the store. Just giving autographs.
I got lost. Thought I knew better than my mother where he would be. So I took off on my own. As the store closed down and I knew he had to leave, I cried with a frustration perhaps only children know.
Finally, my mother found me. Sievers should have left a half-hour before. But he was waiting. Alone. For the mother and the lost little boy to come back.
My only memory is that he was big. 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.
I watched Sievers play many times in Griffith Stadium and on TV. But what I remember much more clearly is reading about him, keeping scrapbooks of box scores and statistics and, above all, listening to absolutely every game on the radio. Or should I say praying on the radio. The incredible power of that daily connection is the unique hold that baseball has on its fans.
Listening to that radio under the covers long after bedtime. I learned that heroes fail, even my heroes, that they fall from public favor while they are still in yours, that ultimately there is a world that does not care that you are listening in.
In his prime, before injuries and Harmon Killebrew pushed him out of the headlines, Sievers was given a “night.” Not the kind that Ted Williams and Stan Musial got, with fancy cars, but a night with plenty of speeches and a station wagon. Vice President Richard Nixon did the talking, and Sievers hung his head and cried when Nixon shook his hand. That required a breakfast-table explanation.
In ’59, Sievers’s play went downhill; there was trade talk. I wrote in a protest to Calvin Griffith — an 11-year-old’s letter. Griffith wrote back — a club owner’s letter. With fans like me, Sievers would never be traded. There was nothing to worry about. And would my family and I be interested in season tickets?
Before the next season, Sievers was traded. By that time I was too old to cry . . . much. After that, his name was no longer a constant part of my thoughts. When I was 17, Sievers was traded back to the expansion Senators from the Phillies in midseason of 1964. I barely noticed. At the time, it never crossed my mind that he escaped the Phillie Phold. (Or, perhaps, missed his chance to prevent it.) I had my own high school games to play, and besides, I wore Ted Williams’ number.
Still, for years, when the name would sneak up on me on a TV sportscast, it would give a little private shock, like certain girls’ names when you don’t expect to hear them.
A couple of years after college, when I was working as a copy aide in the sports department of The Washington Post — fetching coffee, covering high school sports and trying to find a way to get a story longer than six paragraphs in the paper under my byline — I decided to search for Sievers.
There he was, in his hometown St. Louis phone book, living in a place called Spanish Lake. And there he was, again, picking up the phone and chatting with me for an hour like it was nothing. Answering personal questions about how the A’s had fired him as a minor-league manager (“too nice”) and how his son Robin was getting scant encouragement from the Cardinals in the minors.
He sounded relaxed and fairly happy, like a man who didn’t require much to be content, certainly nothing as grand as hitting 318 home runs in the major leagues. Working as a salesman for the Yellow Freight Company and raising three kids was okay by him. “I’m set up fine here,” he said, although he couldn’t keep a certain bewilderment out of his voice when he talked about how Eddie Yost was still in the major leagues, as a coach with the Mets. How do you do that?
The night I called him, Watergate was near its height. Not too far away, Woodward and Bernstein were probably digging. I asked my childhood hero what his fondest memory had been. Roy Sievers said it was the night Richard Nixon shook his hand at home plate. “I’m sentimental. 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.”
From the day I got his baseball card to the day I interviewed him (and got my first decent story in the Post sports pages) was 16 years. Then I didn’t hear of Sievers again for 16 more years. His name vanished from baseball so completely that, even to a writer on the baseball beat, like me, he was nonexistent.
Finally, one day in 1988, a friend asked if I’d seen that TV commercial for the Maryland lottery. The funny one with the two old Senators ballplayers talking about how small salaries were in the ’50s and how much money you could win now in the lottery.
I watched with trepidation. Sievers would be 62 years old.
In the commercial, Sievers looked young, handsome and happy, with a great smile. At least that’s how it looked on my TV.