George Sisler

Sisler was the greatest St. Louis Brown of them all and one of the half-dozen finest first basemen in baseball history. Like Babe Ruth, he came to the majors as a lefthanded pitcher. Like Ruth, his hitting was too phenomenal to be restricted to a pitcher’s schedule. He arrived in St. Louis in 1915, the same year as Rogers Hornsby, and for 11 seasons they were rivals in excellence.

Branch Rickey was his mentor: Coach at Michigan in George’s undergraduate days as an outstanding college pitcher, wily counselor in the maneuvering that eventually led him to the Browns, and manager of the team when he got there.

Other major league clubs were interested in him; Barney Dreyfuss was certain that the Pirates owned him and, under baseball law, perhaps he did. In 1911 underage and without parental consent, George signed a professional contract. He received no money and played no games, but while he pursued his education the contract was sold to Pittsburgh. After four years of anguish, argument and indecision, the National Commission ruled the contract invalid and made Sisler a free agent. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, considered a fistful of offers, including one from Pittsburgh, and decided for manager Rickey and the Browns. His was the first of several player-allocation cases that eventually moved irate club owners like Dreyfuss to unseat the Commission and replace it with Judge Landis.

Sisler had promise as a pitcher. His ERA was impressive, and among his five wins were two complete-game victories over Walter Johnson. Still, it was unthinkable not to have his bat in the lineup every day, and his glove at first base, a chronic Brown weak spot where seven players had been tried in the previous six years. In the field Sisler was fast, adroit, and graceful, a combination that gave elegance to his execution of plays. He led the AL seven times in assists and his career total of 1,528 heads the all-time list. In double plays he topped the league three times, starting 13 deft 3-6-3 double plays in 1920. On one occasion against Washington, with Joe Judge on third, George anticipated a squeeze bunt by Roger Peckinpaugh. Darting in with the pitch, he fielded the ball before the right-handed Peck was fairly started down the line, brush-tagged him, and flipped to Hank Severeid to nip Judge at the plate. Two outs on a squeeze are not usual, but that was George.

Sisler’s career batting average is tied with Lou Gehrig‘s for the fifteenth lifetime, although he never had Lou’s power or his size. An inch or two under six feet and a trim 170 pounds, Sisler swung a 42-ounce bat, often choking up, and had six seasons with more than 200 hits. His 257 in 1920 is the best single-season mark ever. As a run producer, he was good, if not overwhelming. On the lifetime list his 1,175 RBI are one ahead of Vern Stephens; he is tied with Jake Daubert for triples and Sherry Magee for doubles.

His 1920 season was as mighty performance as any player has ever produced. Playing every inning of 154 games, he hit .407. Among his 399 total bases were 49 doubles, 18 triples and 19 home runs. He went hitless in only 23 games and climaxed the season with prodigious averages of .442 and .448 in August and September. He drove in 122 runs, his high mark, and stole 42 bases. In 1922, when the Browns missed the pennant by one game, he hit safely in 41 consecutive games and achieved a .420 average.

In 1923 severe sinusitis infected his optic nerves and for a time he saw double. He missed the entire season. Dutch Schliebner, acquired from Brooklyn, spent his one major league season as Sisler’s replacement. He hit .275 as the Browns slumped to fifth. Sisler returned in 1924 with a $25,000 contract as player-manager. He hit .305 in 151 games and moved the Browns to third. In 1925 he was on track with 224 hits and a .345 average. In fact, he only had one sub-.300 season in seven after the illness. They were seasons most players would have been proud of, but he was not really himself. His eyes never regained their former acuity.

In the winter of 1927 the Browns made a good trade, sending Harry Rice, Elam Vangilder, and Chick Galloway to Detroit for Heinie Manush and Sisler’s successor at first, Lu Blue. Washington bought Sisler for $25,000, then moved him along to the Braves, where he was reunited with Hornsby. The St. Louis prodigies put on a good show, Rogers leading the league with .387, George contributing a handsome .340. In 1929, at age thirty-six, he batted .326 average with 205 hits.

After 1930 he drifted into the minors, ran a Sisler printing company in St. Louis, then a Sisler sporting-goods firm. Rickey recalled him to baseball in the 1940s as a scout and special hitting instructor at Brooklyn and Pittsburgh.

Sisler’s sons were baseball men. George Jr. was president of the International League. Dick and Dave both had major league careers.