Grave Story: Dick Siebert (1912-1978)

Here lies Dick Siebert, who was written off by three major-league teams before establishing himself as an All-Star first baseman. He later became one of the winningest coaches in NCAA baseball history with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1932, 1936), St. Louis Cardinals (1937-38) and Philadelphia Athletics (1939-45). His son, Paul, was a pitcher who had a 6-year career in the majors in the 1970s.

Dick Siebert was born in Fall River, Mass., on February 19, 1912. Fall River is the home of a number of baseball players, including Jerry Remy and Charlie Buffinton. Lizzie Borden, who also was from Fall River, never made the majors but had a helluva swing.

Allegedly.

Baseball wasn’t in Siebert’s plans at all at the start. His family moved to Minnesota, and he attended Concordia Academy and later Concordia College in St. Paul. He entered professional baseball and spent a couple seasons as a pitcher in the Cardinals organization, but he hurt his arm and was released. He had plans to enter the ministry and went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he also played on the baseball team as a first baseman. A higher power – the New York Yankees – intervened, signing him as a free agent in June 1932.

Source: The Dayton Herald, July 20, 1939.

Siebert reported to the Dayton Ducks and tore up the Central League, hitting .345 with 16 triples and 15 home runs. Toward the end of the season, he was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought him directly to the major leagues for an audition. It so happened that Max Carey, the Dodgers manager, attended Concordia Seminary himself. It wasn’t much of an audition though – 9 plate appearances in 6 games, with 2 hits and 2 walks – and Siebert returned to the minors for most of the next four years.

Siebert continued to deliver in the minor leagues. Playing for five different teams between 1933 and 1936, Siebert hit over or close to .300 and showed a little power. He played both first base and the outfield, though first base was clearly his best position. He also graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1934 with a bachelor of arts degree. For all his minor-league success, the only other action he saw with the Dodgers came at the start of 1936, when he went hitless in 2 at-bats. When the rosters contracted to 25, Siebert was sent down to Indianapolis.

He wasn’t done moving around the baseball landscape yet. He was taken by the Cubs in the minor-league draft, which was the predecessor of today’s Rule V. The Cubs, though, had Phil Cavaretta and Rip Collins ahead of Siebert on the depth chart, so the team sold his contract to St. Louis. Cardinals GM Branch Rickey said that the team had been interested in him for a while – and swore that the signing was not due to the fact that young slugger Johnny Mize was a contract holdout.

“I still feel that if Stuart Martin recovers his full health he will be the one to beat out for the first base job with the Cardinals,” Rickey said, demonstrating that bluffing, at least at this time in his career, was not his strong suit. Anyway, Mize came back and hit over .360, and Siebert hit .184 in 25 games, spending most of the season with the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association.

The following year, 1938, was the year that changed Siebert’s playing career. He broke camp with the Cardinals, singled in his only at-bat with the team and was sent back to the minor leagues. But on the way, he stopped to talk with MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Landis. Siebert was 26, had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, and had just 31 major-league games to his credit. Landis had taken an active role in his time as commissioner to make sure teams, particularly the Cardinals, didn’t use their fledgling farm systems to “stash” players. In some cases, Landis even voided contracts and granted long-time minor leaguers free agency.

“I wasn’t looking for free agency. All I wanted to know was where I stood,” Siebert said.

Siebert, in his role of University of Minnesota baseball coach. Source: The Minneapolis Star, April 3, 1976.

Landis didn’t make him a free agent, but the Cardinals shortly after traded the first baseman to the Philadelphia A’s. His new manager Connie Mack stuck him into the lineup as the cleanup hitter for his first game, and he responded with 2 hits in 4 at-bats. Over 48 games, he hit a steady .284 with 28 RBIs, and he didn’t commit a single error at first base. Injuries cut into his playing time, but he finally had a team that believed in him.

Injuries got his 1939 season off to a slow start, but once he overcame them, he became a staple of the A’s lineup for the next seven seasons. He never turned into a power first baseman like Mize or Gehrig, but he was a good contact hitter who rarely struck out. He also became known as one of the AL’s best-fielding first basemen. From 1939 through 1945, Siebert played in an average of 137 games and had a slash line of .283/.332/.382. He also broke up two Bob Feller no-hitters.

Siebert’s best season came in 1941, when he hit .334, good for 5th in the American League (behind Ted Williams’ .406 mark). He knocked in a career high 79 runs and hit 5 home runs. Two of those came off the Yankees on April 16, leading the A’s to a 10-7 win. He also racked up a 16-game hitting streak in May, batting .391 during that stretch. He finished in 17th place in the MVP race.

He earned his one and only All-Star nod in 1943, which was arguably his worst season with the A’s. He was hitting just .259 at the All-Star break but was picked by Yankees manager Joe McCarthy as the starter over Rudy York of the Tigers. York was clearly better on offense, but McCarthy chose the better defensive first baseman. Siebert flew out against Cardinals’ pitcher Mort Cooper before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. He finished the year with a .251 average and just one home run.

Siebert rebounded with a .306 average in 1944, once again placing in the Top 10 in the AL in batting. He hit a career-high 7 home runs in 1945, though his average dropped to .267. Siebert had been subject to trade talks off-and-on in his A’s career. The team finally pulled the trigger on October 15, 1945, sending him to the St. Louis Browns for first baseman George McQuinn. Siebert might have reported to the Browns for Spring Training in 1946, but he received a contract offer that would pay him $10,000, or $2,000 less than what he had earned with the A’s the previous season. Rather than take a pay cut, he abruptly quit baseball entirely and went back to St. Paul, where he got a job announcing St. Paul Saints games on the radio.

Siebert played in parts of 11 seasons, accumulating a slash line of .282/.332/.379. He had 1,104 hits, including 204 doubles, 40 triples and 32 home runs. He had 482 RBIs, a career OPS+ of 96 and a total of 7.9 Wins over Replacement.

While he wasn’t working on the radio, Siebert coached at Concordia Junior College and served as the athletic director. The University of Minnesota happened to have a vacancy in its coaching ranks in June 1947, and athletic director Frank McCormick hired Siebert as the new coach of the Gophers baseball team. To him, it was a temporary job.

“When I took the Minnesota post I intended to just keep it one or two years, or five years at the most, and then enter the business world,” Siebert later recalled. He stayed on as the Gophers coach for the final 31 years of his life.

From 1947 through 1978, Siebert’s teams won three College World Series titles and 11 Big Ten titles, and he twice was named College Coach of the Year. Many of his players made it to the major leagues, including Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. “I think he helped me most with my hitting. In that respect he helped me move the ball around. He just helped me get to Milwaukee,” said Molitor, then a rookie on the Brewers.

He tried to recruit his son Paul, but the University of Arizona offered a full scholarship that Siebert just couldn’t beat. It ended up being a moot point, as the Astros drafted Paul out of high school in 1971.

Siebert and his son Paul, who pitched in the majors for six years. Source: Quad City Times, June 6, 1971.

Siebert noted that when he entered the coaching ranks, he could play baseball but knew little about coaching it.

“The only thing anyone ever told me in the major leagues was once Al Simmons said, ‘Relax, bend your knees a little,’” he said. He threw himself into learning as much about the game as he could so he could teach it to his kids. He ran a baseball clinic for years with other coaches and baseball experts, and it eventually turned into a barnstorming tour around the state. He even wrote a book, Learning How… Baseball, in 1968.

Siebert won the Lefty Gomez Award in 1978, as voted by the College Baseball Coaches Association, for his contributions to college baseball the previous year. Siebert was slowing down due to some health problems by then, but he had no intention of retiring. Retirement age at the University was 68, so he had a couple of years still to go.

“What would I do if I didn’t coach baseball?” he said in an April profile in The Minneapolis Star. “I don’t hunt and I don’t fish and I don’t play golf anymore. When I’m involved in baseball I feel my best. I have no intention of retiring.”

Later that year, on November 9, 1978, Dick Siebert was admitted to University Hospitals for the treatment of ulcers and had surgery to remove his spleen three days after that. He then suffered from complications, including a bout of pneumonia. He died a month after he was admitted, on December 9, at the age of 66.

“The nurse told me his heart just finally gave out,” his wife, Marie, tole the Star Tribune.

Siebert, at the time of his death, was one of three major college coaches who had won more than 700 games. He was a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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