By Phil Wood
As an 8-year-old baseball fan in Washington, DC, I was cognizant of the fact that the Senators never seemed to be playing in the World Series. The New York Yankees were the American League’s juggernaut in the 1950’s, winning all but two pennants. The Senators seemed to exist merely to provide competition for the other 7 AL teams 22 times every season. Still, despite all of the hoopla that surrounded the Bronx Bombers and their superstar centerfielder Mickey Mantle, we took great pride in the slugging exploits of our own, Roy Sievers.
Roy, who passed away April 3 at his home in suburban St. Louis at the age of 90, was a genuine All-American power hitter. After arriving in Washington in a trade the Baltimore Orioles may still be regretting - Sievers for outfielder Gil Coan, straight up - Roy spent six full seasons at Griffith Stadium, 1954-59. In the prime of his career, between the ages of 27 and 32, Sievers averaged 30 home runs and 96 RBI every 154 games. He batted .267 during that period of time (also his career batting average), and averaged 72 walks and only 68 strikeouts per season. In today’s market, he’d be a $15-20 million a year player.
Oh yes, the Senators during those years had an average annual W-L record of 59-95.
The very first autograph I ever got on a baseball was Roy Sievers. It was June 21, 1959, and my dad and I went to Griffith Stadium for a Sunday doubleheader against Detroit. I had a brand new ball and my dad said to bring it along in case the opportunity for an autograph came along. Once inside after the gates opened - my dad really liked to watch batting practice - I noticed a lot of other boys close to my age were standing along the railing to one side of the Senators’ dugout. Dad suggested I join them with my ball and pen. Just as I got there, Sievers bounded out of the dugout, came right over and starting signing whatever was handed to him. He took my ball, signed it, and handed it back. A minute later Pedro Ramos - who was starting the second game - came out and did the same thing. Suddenly I had my first two autographs. Others signed the ball later, but Sievers is still the lone signature on the sweet spot. Washington swept Detroit that day, and Roy homered in the nightcap.
My heart was broken when the Nats traded Roy to the White Sox two weeks before the 1960 home opener. In return they received catcher Earl Battey, first baseman Don Mincher, and $150,000. My dad figured it was the cash that made the difference, but it seemed odd to see Roy in a Chicago uniform when the Pale Hose came to town.
I kept up with Roy’s career thereafter when the Sox sent him to Philadelphia in 1962, and was surprised when the Phils sold him to the expansion Senators in mid-July of 1964. He was joining another bad ballclub, but that aspect almost didn’t matter.
Roy mainly pinch hit for manager Gil Hodges, and his first hit in a home game was August 18, a month after he'd been acquired. It turned out to be a milestone. Batting for pitcher Alan Koch, leading off the bottom of the eighth inning, he homered off of his old Senators’ teammate Camilo Pascual. It was Washington’s only run that evening in a 6-1 loss to Minnesota. It was also the 315th home run of Roy’s career, and last one he’d hit in Washington. He hit three more long balls that year, with his final career dinger coming at Fenway Park on the season’s last day in another pinch hitting appearance.
It was my good fortune to get to know Roy over the last 30 or so years of his life. He came through town several times for card shows, and we’d sit and chat. When the Orioles were moving from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards the Orioles asked me to go through their old player personnel files and use my own judgement to determine which ones they should keep. They were not interested in the files of players who never actually wore an Orioles uniform, so when I came across Sievers’ St. Louis Browns file, I asked them to let me send it to Roy.
I did, and a couple of weeks later I received a note from Roy. He said he and his wife had spent an evening going through the file at the dining room table. “We laughed, we cried, it was wonderful,” he said adding “I didn’t remember how bad my handwriting was back then.”
Roy Sievers never “big leagued” anybody in his life. He was unfailingly kind to anyone who remembered his playing days, and had no shortage of stories about almost player he played with or against. He was a player of distinction on some second division teams in Washington that sometimes had very little else to offer their fans. Roy was the cornerstone of the Washington offense, a reason to go to the ballpark. He never got to play a postseason game, but he had no regrets. He often said getting traded to the Nats was the best thing that happened to him during his career. It was certainly one of the best trades the Griffith family ever made, and local fans of a certain age are eternally grateful he passed this way.
Phil Wood, a member of the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame nominating committee, is a commentator for WJFK (106.7) and MASN-TV.