July 26 – Happy Birthday Norm Siebern
Ichiro Suzuki recently became the newest starting left fielder for the New York Yankees. In franchise history, left field is traditionally the least glamorous of the team’s three outfield positions. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle converted the Yankee’s starting center field assignment into the first step in baseball sainthood. Babe Ruth played right field for the Yankees and there has been no shortage of MVPs and Hall of Famers who can also now say the same. But left fielders in Yankee history through the years never seem to find a permanent home there. Instead they come and go. Many, like DiMaggio, Ruth and Dave Winfield began their pinstriped playing careers playing the “sun-field”, but got quickly switched closer to the opposite foul line as vacancies occurred. Others, like Yogi Berra, Tom Tresh, Chuck Knoblauch and Elston Howard have been forced to play left for New York because somebody better than them was playing in their natural positions. Sure there have been a few like Roy White and Gene Woodling, who started in left, starred in left and stayed in left for their entire Yankee careers, but they were certainly exceptions to the rule. Today’s Pinstriped Birthday Celebrant is a classic example of a very good Yankee player who got lost in the team’s left-fielder shuffle.
Norm Siebern was a superb high school athlete, growing up in St. Louis. He starred in both baseball and basketball as a kid and after signing his Yankee contract, he actually played college hoops during his minor league team’s off-seasons. He got his first call-up to the Bronx during the 1956 season and it was not an impressive debut for the then 22-year-old. The platoon master, Casey Stengel was using Elston Howard as his starting left fielder at the time because Yogi Berra was still behind the plate for New York. Though not a particularly great outfielder, Howard was a strong hitter. Stengel tried platooning the left hand hitting Siebern with the right-hand hitting Howard. When Siebern hit just .204 that season he was returned to Denver the following year.
In 1958, Siebern got his second chance to play left field for the Yankees and this time, he was very ready. Stengel played him in 134 games and not only did Siebern hit .300, he also won a Gold Glove for his defense. Then, however, the youngster had a horrible World Series against the Braves. Not only did he hit just .125 against Milwaukee, he also made some critical defensive mistakes in the outfield. Though Stengel joked about it with both the press and Siebern after the Series, I don’t think anyone would have been laughing if the Yankees had failed to eventually beat the Braves in that ’58 Series. Poor postseason performances have plagued dozens of Yankee careers over the years. As Yankee fans, we all can remember instances when our favorite team has traded players or not re-signed free agents who experienced substandard individual performances in the postseason. The end may not come immediately, but Yankee front offices (and Casey Stengel) historically have had long memories when it comes to Fall Classic failures.
Siebern continued to start most of the time in left for the 1959 Yankees, but his average dipped to .271 and he experienced a decline in most of his offensive categories. He wasn’t alone, as that Yankee team finished a disappointing third in the ’59 AL Pennant race , winning just 79 games. That December, the Yankees dealt Siebern, an aging Hank Bauer, World Series hero Don Larsen and “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry to the A’s for a young outfielder named Roger Maris who had something Siebern lacked, a perfect left-handed power stroke for that short right-field porch in the old Stadium. Siebern would go on to become the A’s best player and make three consecutive All Star teams. Maris would go on to make baseball history.
Siebern, who also would play for Baltimore, the Angels and Boston, retired after the 1968 season with a .272 lifetime average and 1,217 big league hits. He shares his July 26th birthday with this one-time Yankee pinch-hitter and this “unhappy” starting pitcher.