A baseball celebration: Siebert was Chief behind Gophers titles

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 6:53 AM
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Gophers coach Dick Siebert was surrounded by his players after they won the 1960 Big Ten championship. They went on to win the NCAA crown, too.

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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.”

• • •

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.

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  • Former Gophers players gathered at Siebert Field: from left, Jerry Thomas (1956), Bill Davis (1964), Jerry Cawley (1964), Jack McCartan (1956), Doug Gillen (1956) and Jim Rantz (1960), with Gophers coach John Anderson at the rear. Anderson played for the Gophers in the 1977 College World Series.

  • Gophers coach Dick Siebert and pitcher Jerry Thomas carried the 1956 NCAA championship banner. The Gophers won the title by beating Arizona 12-1 in the College World Series final.

  • Thomas was an All-America pitcher and the MVP of the College World Series in 1956, pitching a five-hitter in the final game.

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