Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected president over Adlai Stevenson in a Republican landslide in 1956. John Kennedy won a cliffhanger over Richard Nixon in 1960. Lyndon Johnson walloped Barry Goldwater in a Democratic landslide in 1964.
A half-century later, we can say this: Those obscure links to a sports result that pundits like to suggest can foretell the outcome of a presidential election … none applied to the Gophers baseball team.
Dick Siebert’s Gophers claimed the championship of the College World Series in 1956, 1960 and 1964. And the country’s electorate followed with conflicting results.
“We didn’t really think about an election year being good luck for us until we made it to Omaha in ’64,” first baseman Bill Davis said. “That’s when people started mentioning it.”
Jerry Kindall was a star infielder with the 1956 Gophers. He received a $50,000 signing bonus that put him on the Chicago Cubs roster for 1957. Cubs manager Bob Scheffing had this question for Kindall in spring training:
“How does a team from Minnesota, from up there in the snow, put together a team that can win the College World Series?”
All these decades later, the three championships have to be more of a mystery to followers of big-time college baseball than the first one was to Scheffing. In the 50 years since the Gophers won their third title, there has been only one more champion from America’s snow belt, and that was Ohio State in 1966.
Siebert not only won the three titles in nine winter-shortened baseball seasons, but he did so with rosters that were 95 percent (or higher) home-state players. A panel of those players assembled at the Gophers’ new Siebert Field recently to answer the question:
How did Dick Siebert, known as the Chief, and his players make this happen?
The group included pitcher Jerry Thomas, first baseman Doug Gillen and third baseman Jack McCartan from the 1956 team; pitching star Jim Rantz from the 1960 team; and Davis and third baseman Jerry Cawley from the 1964 team.
What was the Siebert formula?
Thomas: “This might sound simple, but it started with teaching fundamentals. I can attest to this, because I played four years of pro ball, and wasn’t taught one thing that I did not already know from playing for Dick Siebert.”
Davis: “We started every day working on game situations and making the right play. Even in an unpredictable game like baseball, there wasn’t much we faced that we weren’t prepared to handle.”
Gillen: “The five-man infield … we did that regularly to defend against a sacrifice bunt. Chief would make a signal, an outfielder would come in to play first base, and the first baseman and third baseman would come in and stand right on top of the hitter.
“I remember doing that with [Ohio State’s] Frank Howard at the plate. He was what, 6-foot-8? That was no fun.”
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Rantz said there was also this: Siebert’s relentless search in Minnesota and near its borders for players who could help the Gophers. Siebert still would be looking for players in the summer, in American Legion or amateur tournaments.
Rantz, a standout hockey player and pitcher at St. Paul Washington, had not heard a word from Siebert as a high school senior.
“I was pitching in a tournament that summer, and Siebert just showed up in the stands,” Rantz said. “That was the first time I talked to him about playing baseball at the U.”
Rantz played hockey for John Mariucci and baseball for Siebert at Minnesota. That’s another remarkable contrast from today: the number of two-sport Gophers who were major contributors to the baseball championships.
McCartan was a standout goaltender (and the hero of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medalists) and a slugging third baseman for the ’56 champs. Shorty Cochran and Dean Maas were noted football players.
Rantz and another standout pitcher, Bob Wasko, were hockey players in 1960. Tom Moe was a football player.
Davis, Archie Clark and Al Druskin were all basketball players, as well as important members of the ’64 baseball Gophers.
There were many other all-around athletes leaned on by Siebert. Paul Giel, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy as a Gophers running back in 1953, signed a bonus-baby contract with the New York Giants as a bullet-throwing pitcher. Ken Yackel was a standout in three sports: football, hockey and baseball.
The 6-7 Davis was well-known for his basketball exploits at Richfield High School. He was a coveted recruit for both basketball coach John Kundla and Siebert.
“Starting in January, I would run over after basketball practice and take some swings in the nets,” Davis said. “I was playing summer ball in the Dakotas, 50 games in the Basin League, so I would actually spend more time on baseball than basketball.”
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The 1963-64 Gophers basketball season ended on March 7. With Siebert, the Gophers made an annual trip to Texas to start the schedule. The first game was on March 23, a loss to Texas. The Gophers went 2-7 over a five-day period, including a pair of losses at Texas A&M.
“That’s what I remember about the season: How terrible we were on the Texas trip, and we wound up winning the national championship,” Davis said.
The ’64 Gophers had to sweep Northwestern and Wisconsin (with the outstanding Rick Reichardt) on the final weekend and get the Big Ten’s single bid to the NCAA tournament.
They defeated Kent State in the Mideast Regional to make it to Omaha, and opened the College World Series against Texas A&M.
“The A&M players mentioned in the newspapers that they wanted us again in Omaha,” said Archie Clark in a phone interview. “And they got us.”
The Gophers beat A&M, Maine and Southern California, lost to Missouri, and then beat Mizzou 5-1 in the decisive title game.
“Joe Pollock won three complete games,” Jerry Cawley said. “I still can’t figure out why he didn’t win the MVP award in Omaha.”
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The 1960 title came in dramatic fashion — centering on three games vs. Southern Cal. The Gophers were down 11-2 to USC after 6½ innings in a winners bracket game, and made the biggest comeback in CWS history for a 12-11, 10-inning victory.
Three nights later, the Trojans beat the Gophers 4-3 in 11 innings to stay alive and force the decisive game in the double-elimination tournament. Siebert came to Rantz, strictly a reliever during his Gophers career, after the loss and said that he would start and have to finish Monday night’s title game.
“I had two outs in the ninth and a 1-0 lead and an NCAA guy came and handed Chief the trophy in the dugout,” Rantz said. “And then I walked my ninth guy of the game, and he came around to score, and we went extra innings.
“You could say I was a happy guy when Cal Rolloff drew a walk that forced in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th. Nobody was warming up, so I was going back out there.”
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The 1956 title also came after the Gophers lost a chance to go through the double-elimination tournament undefeated. Arizona stayed alive with a 10-4 victory on a Wednesday night.
“Then, we came out the next night and thumped them, 12-1,” Jerry Thomas said. “Bill Horning, our captain, hit a couple of home runs, and I was throwing well that night.”
Thomas pitched went nine innings on a five-hitter. His assortment of pitches included an excellent changeup.
“We heard a lot here about Frankie Viola and the circle changeup that made him so great for the Twins in 1987,” Thomas said. “Dick Siebert taught me the circle changeup in 1955.”
McCartan nodded and said: “That was the Chief; he was a step ahead of almost everybody in baseball.”