Monday, November 09, 2015


I know it's a stretch, but so is the life of a 1st baseman. And so it is, that this music blog pays tribute to the non-musical normal Norm Siebern, a Kansas City (Athletics) Star.

He was a humble, soft-spoken guy. Not that I ever spoke to him. I did write to him, to express some of what you'll find below. He could've personalized the two photos I sent him, but he just autographed them without sentiment ("Thanks for remembering," "Glad you're a fan," etc.) and sent them back. He obviously was very much like I thought he was, a modest fellow not given to a lot of emotion.

Now, you're probably saying WHO in the world is Norm Siebern? Quite rightly so. There were few obits: the New York Times noted the death of the ex-Yankee, the Kansas City Star covered their Athletics' hero and a local paper in Naples, Florida paid tribute to its most famous retired citizen. All the write-ups led headlined what the average baseball fan knows: he was traded for Roger Maris. Which is better than the obits for Tracy Stallard, the pitcher whose only claim to fame was giving up Maris's record-breaking 61st home run. PS, Norm had a far longer and more illustrious career than Stallard, including All-Star game appearances.

The trade was actually a multi-player deal, but Siebern and Maris were the main attractions.

In addition to Maris, the Yankees got obscure infielders Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri, neither of whom remained in baseball past 1961. In addition to Norm, Kansas City got two old ex-stars (Don Larsen and Hank Bauer who Maris was replacing in right field) and the mediocre Marv Throneberry, who would eventually be traded to the New York Mets and become a symbol of their early years of ineptitude. Larsen, who had pitched a perfect game in a World Series several years earlier, was almost literally a one-game wonder. Once in Kansas City, he posted a dismal 2-10 record with a ballooned ERA of 5.20.

In "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders" Rob devotes several lively pages to whether the trade was a mistake for the A's or not. His view? Not really. That's a testament to the greatness of the little-remembered Mr. Siebern.

According to Neyer, the A's actually got the better of the deal, because despite his 61 home-run season, Maris turned in several mediocre years and flamed out. By contrast, Siebern was an All-Star with the A's, and while Maris didn't do much after his freakish 61 homer spree in 1961, Siebern was a league leader in 1962 and for several more years.

How did the promising Norm Siebern go from sure-fire left fielder to expendable in a trade for a right fielder? He had a bad day in the sun during a World Series game. Yeah, he lost two balls, but he sure had a pair anyway. Someone else would've lost confidence and never recovered after screaming headlines like: "Siebern Sunburn Singes Yanks."

Instead of becoming to baseball what heavyweight David Price is to boxing, Norm Siebern left the fabulous famous New York Yankees…to become a Kansas City Star. Yes, he set a lot of records for them, and citizens of that city remember him fondly, and so do true fans of the game and how it should be played.

As the New York Mets proved in the 2015 series, a team can do great things and then commit a lot of errors and mistakes. The 1958 Yankees were like that, in their battle with the Braves.

The great Yogi Berra (who would ironically be sent out to play left field after Norm was traded) let a called third strike get by him, setting up the winning run for the Braves in game #1. In Game #2 Bob Turley was pounded in the first inning, only getting one player out before being lifted. Part of that rally included a mis-play by Elston Howard, who was in left field instead of Siebern, because manager Casey Stengel started right-hand hitting Elston Howard in some games, left-handed Norm in others).

Norm got his chance in game #3. He walked twice, and one of his walks sparked a big inning for New York. He would scoree on a hit by aging Hank Bauer. (irony: Bauer would later become a manager, and trade for Norm.)

With a decent showing in game #3, Norm was back in left for the fatal game #4.

Norm wasn't seeing the ball well in the notorious "sun field" that late afternoon. Ace Braves pitcher Warren Spahn kept the Yankees scoreless, thanks to a break or two (the Yanks failing to bring in a man from third with less than one out). Meanwhile Whitey Ford was pitching just as well for the Yankees. in the sixth, Norm and Mickey Mantle let a ball hit to left-center get between them for a double.

Norm was blamed for it more than superstar Mickey. Tony Kubek's subsequent error led to a run scoring. Braves led 1-0. Norm definitely lost the ball in the sun in the eighth. You could see how bright the sun and lights were reflecting against the left field wall and the spectators. Norm had a bead on it, but at the last moment as the ball dipped, he suddenly cringed helplessly, knowing he might hit him in the face. Instead, the ball bounced near him and landed in the stands for a ground rule double. The Braves scored another run that inning, and Siebern, trying to redeem himself in the bottom of the frame, haplessly struck out.

The Series did end up going the full seven games, but Elston Howard was used in the remaining contests. Siebern was benched.

Charlie Keller, who had played left field during the Joe Dimaggio era, knew that the sun hadn't changed in the Mickey Mantle era, especially in late September. He rather poetically said, "“During the World Series the sun is low behind the stands. There’s a purple haze from the tobacco smoke. You have to play the position by ear because you never see a ball. You try to judge where it will go from the sound of the bat, and then you just pray that you guessed right.”

Keller was referring to the "natural" problems in left during his playing days. During World Series time in the late 50's, game were now on television and being filmed by color 35mm cameras. The already problematic sun glare was abetted by orders to turn on the glaring artificial lights so that the cameras could have better focus.

Norm made no excuses. He told reporters that he missed a few "in the sun and against the lights," Stengel stood by Norm: "I'm not asking waivers on him, and you can print that! He's a nice kid and I know he'll worry over this. He's playing the toughest left field in baseball, don't forget. He hit .300 for me. He's good at getting walks and he's good at going from first to third. I think he did real good in his first full year in the majors. He's not an easy man to get out."

Siebern stayed with the Yankees in 1959 but in a diminished role, thanks to the option of using Yogi Berra or Elston Howard in left instead. On December 11, 1959, the Yankees tossed Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe and a few others to the A's, in return for Roger Maris and a few others. Maris was by no means considered a star at the time. It was simply felt that Siebern was done, and Maris had potential (and the Yankees were getting a few other decent players, too). Rob Neyer: "From July 30 through the end of the (1958) season, Maris batted .162. " PS, Mr. Powerhouse only popped two homers through all of August and September. Yet, the .300 hitting Siebern who had a bad day in the sun was sent packing.

Neyer: "Siebern wasn't the player Maris was. But the difference between them certainly wasn't huge, particularly considering that Maris probably enjoyed at least some advantage from batting just ahead of Mickey Mantle…From '60 through '63 the Yankees finished eight, eight, five and ten games ahead of the runners-up. They'd have won those titles with Siebern in right field rather than Maris.

"Did trading Maris hurt the A's? They didn't finish within twenty games of first place in any of those five seasons…" Considering that Maris batted only .235 in 1957 and .240 in 1958, there was nothing to suggest he'd be a huge star, even for one season. Compare what Siebern did in 1958. Just 24, and a promising star, he batted .300 with 19 doubles, five triples, and 14 home runs. He walked 66 times and, irony of ironies, won a Gold Glove for his play in left field. The Yankees had every reason to think they had the best left fielder since Charlie Keller. Considering that the great Yankee outfielders were always in enter (Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle) or right (Babe Ruth), Casey Stengel had welcomed Siebern to New York by boasting that he "finally" had a solution to the team's left field "problem."

When Siebern came to Kansas City, the 6'2" player moved from left field to first base. This helped his confidence. In 1962, while Maris was fading (after earning MVP honors in '60 and '61), Siebern was coming on strong, playing in EVERY one of the season's 162 games, batting .308, smacking 25 doubles and 25 homers, and leading the league in several categories. He was the only member of his team selected to the All Star Game. He even made a run at the MVP, finishing 7th in the voting (Mickey Mantle was the winner that year.)

Norm was traded to the Orioles after four years. The manager was none other than Hank Bauer. In his first game against his old team, Norm came up in the bottom of the 10th and smacked a "walk off" home run.

The number of players who make it to the major leagues is few. The numbers who stay around for more than a year or two is fewer. Norm Siebern was in baseball for a dozen years. He had made it his life, after leaving Southwest Missouri State Teachers College where he was studying for a degree in journalism. In another era, he might've been able to keep studying and play in the minor leagues, but not then. He also had to give up a few years for Army duty. But after that, he progressed quickly to the majors, and was a top player from age 24 to about age 30.

Overcoming a potentially career-ruining day was one reason I admired Siebern. Generally, my favorite baseball player tend to be the ones who had good careers even without the perfect bodies of a Derek Jeter or Reggie Jackson. There was the cranky "fat kid" Thurman Munson, the also improbably built Yogi Berra, little Phil Rizzuto, and iconoclastic Jim Bouton. Add players overcoming mental blocks or physical problems (such as one-handed Jim Abbott). I also liked anyone with an odd name, from John Wockenfuss to Rusty Kuntz. No less a baseball fan than poet Marianne Moore once commented on how much she admired Bill Monbouquette. She noted that the last name translates as "my basket," and Bill had the common baseball player habit of adjusting his "basket" between pitches. But, I digress.

Both Roger Maris and Norm Siebern retired at the age of 35. Norm went on to become successful in the insurance field. He was invited to "Old Timer's Day" events once in a while by the Yankees, and much more often by the doting Kansas City A's (and their replacement team, the Kansas City Royals.) Little known fact: when new owner Charlie O. Finley came up with the idea of gaudy yellow and gold uniforms, it was Norm Siebern who donned the duds and had to pose for reporters. He later said, "I was quite frankly embarrassed, embarrassed to death!"

Still, he recalled his years with the Athletics with fondness. "I had such a great time with Kansas City," Norm said at an Old Timer's Day event there a few years ago. "I was traded from the Yankees and people thought "Well gee whiz, you're going from New York to Kansas City." I told them, "No, listen, I'm a native Missourian, I've been to Kansas City, I love Kansas City. it's a great thing to come back here and play ball with the A's."

Norm will have memorial services both in Florida, and in Missouri. Asked if he had any advice for today's players, the humble All-Star said, "Give it 100% and hope for the best. It's a tough, competitive business, but a lot of times if you give it your best, you'll win out in the end."

Below a song called "Kansas City Star," which was a pun on the town's newspaper. It's also a fitting term for a little-known but great baseball player whom true fans have always admired.

The Cover of the Kansas City Star

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