Saturday, January 28, 2017
227. Dick Sipek: The Deafening Roar of the Crowd
When I was a kid back in the late 1970's, my dream was to be a relief pitcher for the New York Mets. Many a summer afternoon I would daydream about hearing the roar of the Shea Stadium crowd as the helmet car took me out of the bullpen and onto the field. I'd imagine PA announcer Jack Franchetti's voice bellowing "Now pitching for New York... number 21... Gary Cieradkowski..." echoing around the ballpark as I fired in my warm up throws to Ron Hodges behind the plate. With the exception of the helmet car and some slight details, my daydream was no probably no different than any other boy's since the turn of the century.
Growing up on Chicago South Side in the 1930's, Dick Sipek's daydreams were no different - with one major exception that is - his was completely devoid of sound. No PA announcer to herald his big moment, no roar of the crowd, not even any ribbing from the opposing bench. See, Dick Sipek was deaf.
Dick was the second of John and Emily Sipek's four kids. The family shared an apartment on Chicago's Komensky Avenue with Emily's widowed father who had immigrated from Bohemia at the turn of the century. Around the age of five, the boy lost his hearing. Even Dick himself had no idea how or why it happened - some said it was due to a fall down the stairs and others put the blame on some kind of illness. Regardless of the cause, back in 1930's Chicago, there wasn't too many career avenues for a person afflicted with hearing loss. Schools didn't offer any kind of special needs programs like today, and soon Dick fell far behind the progress made by his other classmates. Fortunately, John and Emily Sipek enrolled their boy in the Illinois School for the Deaf, located in Jacksonville. In an environment geared towards his unique disability, Dick flourished academically and became an honor student.
The school gave its students vocational training in jobs that people with hearing loss could competently hold when they graduated. Sipek trained as a baker, but what he really wanted was to play in the major leagues. Dick possessed all the basic elements of a professional athlete - he was strong, fast, and co-ordinated. He played basketball and was an all-state back in football, but baseball was his true love. While most people with a handicap such as Sipek's would have thought a career in pro ball was beyond his grasp, the Illinois School for the Deaf had a person on staff who proved just such a thing was possible. The school's baseball coach was none other than former New York Giants ace Luther Taylor. Besides winning 116 big league games from 1900 to 1908, Taylor, like Dick Sipek, was deaf. Taylor was the second deaf player in the majors after William Hoy, who began his big league career in 1888 and was still in the league when Taylor made his debut. In accordance with the parlance of the time, both deaf players were saddled with the nickname "Dummy", which didn't have as nasty a meaning back then as it does today. In fact, William Hoy referred to himself by his nickname until he passed away in the 1960's.
At first Taylor tried to make Sipek into a pitcher like himself, but the kid wanted to play everyday and insisted on the outfield. Taylor's coaching helped Sipek develop into a first-class ballplayer, and the old pitcher's example allowed him to believe that making the major leagues was indeed possible. World events would also inadvertently contribute to making Sipek's dream come true.
America's entry in World War II drained the ranks of professional baseball of most of the game's stars. By 1943 many players who normally would have never been able to crack a major league roster were now playing in the big leagues. The Washington Senators had a New York City garbageman on vacation playing in the outfield and one-armed Pete Gray was burning up the minor leagues on his way to the major leagues. It was in this environment that Dick Sipek got his big chance.
In 1943 Coach Taylor contacted his old friends at the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds and told of his star pupil. The Giants brushed him off, but Warren Giles, GM of the Reds, took Taylor's word for it and signed the kid, sight unseen, to a professional contract. The Reds assigned the 20 year-old to the Birmingham Barons, who in turn farmed the kid out to the Erwin Aces in the Appalachian League. After three dozen games Sipek was hitting well over .400 and the Barons recalled him to see what he could do in Birmingham. Right from the start he made a good impression with his hustle and drive. If at first people were skeptical of Dick's ability to play without hearing, he quickly put them to rest. His teammates warmed up to the rookie whose jovial personality put them at ease. Most of the team willingly learned some American Sign Language and his roommate, Kermit Wahl, went so far as to familiarize himself with the whole alphabet and key words. What couldn't be said with sign language was taken care of with a handy pad and pencil and over the years he'd become quite proficient in lip reading. Everyone's biggest fear was, of course, communication in the outfield. Though he was often referred to as a "deaf-mute", Sipek had lost his hearing after learning how to talk, so he could sound out words when needed. While saying "I got it" helped him out half-way, Barons' manager, Johnny Riddle, came up with a simple, but effective plan to deal with his deaf outfielder. He put Sipek in right field and instructed the center fielder and second and first basemen to let Sipek take any ball he called for. If he didn't call for it, the ball was theirs. It worked: Sipek made just 5 errors all season.
By the end of 1943 Sipek has batted .336 with a pair of homers. As a side bonus, the Rickwood Field fans voted him their favorite Baron of 1943. The Black fans who sat in the segregated right field bleachers took a particular liking to Sipek, and passed the hat amongst themselves, collecting $7.50 in nickles and dimes as a token of their admiration. He came back the next season and hit .319, again earning the fan's vote as the most popular player on the team. As a side-note, one of Sipek's teammates that summer was a fifteen year-old lefty named Joe Nuxhall. Sipek's stats in Birmingham earned him a late-season call-up to the Reds, who like every other Major League team, was hurting the loss of quality players to the war effort. Though he didn't get into any games that year, newspapers opined that he'd be a Reds outfielder in 1945. They were right.
The 22 year-old joined the other young hopefuls at the Reds spring training camp in Bloomington, Indiana. Because of the war, big league teams were required to hold spring training close to their home parks instead of the warmer climates of Florida and California. From the start, Sipek emerged as a good prospect for the big club, and he cemented this evaluation when his 9th inning home run beat the Cubs in an April 7th exhibition game before 7,000 soldiers at Fort Knox. When the team broke camp and headed to Cincinnati to begin the 1945 season, Dick Sipek was with them.
Wearing number 21 on his back, Dick Sipek made his major league debut as a pinch hitter on April 28 at Crosley Field. Batting for catcher Joe Just, Sipek drew a walk from Blix Donnelly of the Cardinals. He was sent up to pinch hit again the next day but was struck out by Ken Burkhart. Sipek would have to wait almost a month before he had his first major league hit, a pinch hit single that scored a run against the Phillies on May 16. In the meantime, his teammates learned to adjust to having a hearing impaired player in their midst. Just like in Birmingham, Sipek's good nature made him fit right in, and soon he was "one of the boys". Due to his hearing loss, Sipek was, of course, exempt from military service. Although the loss of his hearing was almost complete, he could hear extremely loud noises. When his teammates found out about that, they exploited it for all it was worth, dropping large objects behind his back and accusing him of faking his disability by chanting "Go to the army! Go to the army!"
Though most of his 82 appearances with the Reds in 1945 were as a pinch hitter, Sipek did play 31 games in the outfield, split between left and right field. Over the course of the season he was charged with two errors for a .972 fielding average, ranking him number 40 of 66 National League outfielders. This was just below the league average of .977. Sipek made his last appearance in the majors on September 29 against the Cardinals. Pinch hitting for pitcher Howie Fox. Sipek popped out to shortstop, freezing his major league batting average at .244 with 6 doubles, a pair of triples and 13 RBI.
The next spring saw the return of all the former ballplayers from the service. Players like Dick Sipek were relegated to the minors. The Reds sent him to their top farm team in Syracuse but after only hitting .245 he was sent to a series of lower minor leagues. As his baseball career was winding down, his personal life picked up. While at the Illinois School for the Deaf, Dick had met fellow student Betty Ann Schmidt. The couple married in 1947 began planning a family. In 1948 Sipek was sent to the Reidsville Luckies of the Carolina League where he hit .318 with 13 homers. He stayed with the Luckies for four summers where he became a favorite of the Reidsville fans. A broken collarbone ended his career in 1951 and he returned to Illinois.
By now the Sipek's had a son, Ron, and the family would eventually grow to include two daughters, Janice and Nancy. They made their home in Quincy, Illinois, where Betty Ann grew up and Dick put his high school training to use working for the Bueters Bakery. Both Ron and Janice lost their hearing and went on to attend the Illinois School for the Deaf. Ron followed in his father's athletic footsteps and and was the quarterback for the schools undefeated 1969 squad. Nancy did not develop hearing loss but her son eventually did.
After working in the bakery for many years, Dick took a job as custodian at St. Mary's Catholic School in Quincy. The old ballplayer spent the rest of his life sharing his memories with countless young kids with hearing disabilities. One of the stories Sipek liked to tell was of meeting another ballplayer who also triumphed over what seemed like insurmountable odds. One afternoon in 1946, Sipek, then playing for the Syracuse Chiefs, headed onto the field for batting practice and passed a Montreal Royals player who was headed to the locker room. That player was Jackie Robinson, then in his first season of professional baseball. Sipek asked Robinson "how you feeling?" and Jackie replied "I'm good, good", then, acknowledging that he knew of his handicap, added "keep it up". Dick then said "You're black and I'm deaf - the two of us are the same". The two ballplayers then shook hands and parted ways, one on his way back from becoming the third deaf player in the majors, the other on his way to breaking baseball's color barrier.
Although he wasn't a star, Dick Sipek's 82 games in the majors proved that deaf players could make it in the big league, inspiring several generations of children to look past their handicaps. Sipek lived to see another deaf player in the major leagues when Curtis Pride took the field for the Montreal Expos in 1993.
Dick Sipek passed away in 2005 at the age of 82. Although he never heard the roar of the crowd, he sure knew what it was like to be a major league ballplayer.