Forget ERA, Sivess' true passion was for CIA's game of intrigue

March 17, 1996|By John Steadman

ST. MICHAELS - What Pete Sivess achieved as a major-league pitcher wasn't important, certainly not to him. It was just a game to be played and enjoyed . . . . merely an interval experience, a sidelight while on the way to dealing with high-stakes secrecy, code names and international intrigue.

He moved directly from the Dickinson College campus, after playing four varsity sports, to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1936. That doesn't happen every season. Then or now.

Still later, he put in parts of two years with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, a teammate of such players as Gene Corbett, Elmer Burkart, Don Kerr and catcher-manager Bucky Crouse.

It was what occurred away from baseball that gave Sivess an identity he tries to minimize but can't deny. The living-room setting is tranquil, far removed from the clandestine circumstances he lived with for more than three decades. Now 82, with a fierce look and the unflappable attitude of a man who doesn't deal in compromise, he gazes out the window to a scenic cove to observe the serenity of nature . . . . sea birds dive-bombing one another, the tide eating at the shoreline and the sun causing the waters to take on a glow of incandescence.

Wife Eleanor, married to Pete for 52 years, is with him as they discuss, but only to a point, how their lives have been entwined in history and also mystery. "In the beginning, baseball was fun, and the Phillies' manager, Jimmie Wilson, was one of the finest men I ever met," he says. "I was there the day Chuck Klein hit four home runs in one game."

He also remembers allowing back-to-back home runs to the Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd, both Hall of Famers. "It was in Baker Bowl, a cigar box," Sivess says. "I didn't want it to happen, but after the homers were hit, there wasn't anything I could do about it." That's still the Sivess way. Stoic. Matter-of-fact. Little 22 elaboration.

When World War II exploded and Sivess enlisted in the Navy, he was asked if he'd like to join the baseball team at Quonset Point, R.I. "I joined to do my part in the war, and baseball was the last thing I was thinking about. That's what I told them."

Sivess was to be used as a Naval intelligence officer. He spent time in Romania, where he had much to do supervising the port of Constanta, on the Black Sea, in a country that at the time was considered the hottest flash point for espionage in the world.

During the postwar years, with spies and undercover types working both sides of the street, the Central Intelligence Agency, evolving from the Office of Strategic Services, reached out for Sivess. His parents had immigrated from Russia, so he spoke the language fluently. He had been raised in South River, N.J., and was college educated.

Sivess was hard to hide. At 6 feet 4, 215 pounds, with massive arms that looked as if they belonged on an oak tree, he could be intimidating. It was clearly understood that he could handle himself in any situation he encountered whether it took force or finesse.

His intellect was likewise extraordinary. He had worked frequently in joint operations with Soviet forces as an ally during the war. Then in 1946, he was acting naval attache to the Allied Patrol Commission in Romania and had involvement with the intelligence community.

Next came his distinguished service with the CIA, where he debriefed major Soviet defectors and served as Chief of the Alien Staff at headquarters. Sensitivity was imperative. He gained the confidence of defectors and, like a competent reporter, knew how to get information.

Included in his charge was the supervision of Ashford Farm, a 62-acre estate on the Choptank River. It was a comfortable hideaway where defectors found asylum during the Cold War and where security was maximized.

The storied Nicholas Shadrin, one of the highest-ranking Russian officers to defect, whom Sivess called Nick and Eleanor says seemed like a son to them, had been in their early care. "A fine person" is how Sivess describes him. Shadrin disappeared in 1977 while on a trip to Vienna for the FBI, never to be heard from again.

Asked if he knows the fate of Shadrin, all he'll say is it's a "hidden story." Shadrin and Sivess had a rapport that became strong during a 17-year association. They hunted and fished together in and around Chesapeake Bay.

Many of the secrets of the past have been opened up since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some former CIA agents have talked about their involvements. Books have been written, in-depth interviews given. But not by Sivess.

His son George, a West Point graduate, now an executive with Kimberly Clark, says, "My father took an oath of confidentiality, .. so getting him to discuss what went on is never going to happen. This tells you something about the kind of man and patriot he is."

Growing up in Cheverly, Md., George remembers his father would call and frequently advise, "I won't be home for dinner. I'll see you and Mother in three or four days."

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