Players Past: George Sisler

sislerumProbably the most successful professional player ever to hail from Michigan, George Sisler was a do it all kind of player.  The hard throwing lefty pitched plenty for the Wolverines, but also kept up a batting average around .445.  Sisler chose Michigan almost on a whim; his parents had demanded he put off his big league aspirations for a while and get a college education.  Bypassing the two primary teams recruiting him (Western Reserve and Penn), George came to Michigan following his high school catcher Russ Baer.

While at Michigan, Sisler played for the first-year engineering school team as a freshman in the intramural league.  At the time, freshmen couldn’t play for the varsity squad.  His MVP performance over the juniors of the law school in the championship was enough to catch the eye of Professional & College Hall of Fame coach Branch Rickey.  Sisler became an immediate starter in his sophomore season of 1913.  The 1913 season was a big break through for the Wolverines who posted a 21-4-1 record, their first 20 win season in history.  Sisler was a big part of that, both pitching and playing the field.  While overall stats aren’t easily available, the one game that stood out in Sisler’s career at Michigan was the 1915 start against the Michigan Agricultural College Aggies (now MSU Spartans).  Sisler threw a complete game 2 hitter.  He struck out 10 batters that day, but also went 4 for 5 with a pair of triples, 2 steals, 3 runs, and 5 fielding assists (one started a double play).  How’s that for domination?  Sisler would finish the year with a .445 batting average and win All-American honors for his pitching and outfield play.

from Library of Congress

from Library of Congress

In 1914, Sisler battled some arm trouble but still managed a batting average around .500.  After seeing a doctor about the arm in the off season, Sisler returned for the 1915 season and was an All-American again.  By this time, he had earned his degree and was ready for the big leagues.  After some battles in court over an illegal contract he signed as a minor, former Michigan coach Branch Rickey helped Sisler put the lawsuit to rest and sign Sisler as a free agent.  Rickey was then with the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals) baseball club of the American League.  Sisler left Ann Arbor and was pitching for St. Louis that summer, throwing 6 complete games in 8 starts.  Sisler also started playing first base and the outfield during his days off from pitching, hitting a modest .285 for the season, a career low for a full season.

As the years went by, Sisler pitched less and less due to his value at the plate.  He became the full time first baseman for the Browns in 1916 and became know as “the next Ty Cobb.”  He didn’t disappoint either.  In 1920, he won the batting title with a .407 average with a record setting 257 hits in a season.  That record stood until 2004 when Ichiro finally broke it (they only played 154 games in Sisler’s time, but Ichiro had 162 games to break the record).  Sisler also had a career high 122 RBIs that season.  Sisler won the first ever AL MVP award for his 1922 season, batting .420 with 105 RBIs. His hitting streak of 41 games was a record (not broken until Joe DiMaggio overtook him in 1941), and his 51 stolen bases were a career high.

Sisler would miss the 1923 season in its entirety due to a massive sinus infection that plagued him with severe headaches and double vision.  Upon his return in 1924, Sisler never had that same edge he had before the infection.  Before, he could place a hit anywhere he wanted.  Afterward, he still hit for a good average (.290-.340), but never at the near .400 levels he was accustomed to.  Sisler also took over managerial duties for the Browns.  That job didn’t last too long, ending in 1926.  Sisler admitted he never felt that he was ready to take over as a manager.

Sisler was traded to the Washington Senators (who would become the Minnesota Twins) in 1928, but would only be there a few weeks before being traded to the Boston Braves (to become the Milwaukee then Atlanta Braves).  Sisler did well with his first year with the Braves, but tailed off the following two seasons before being demoted to the minors.  He played a season with Rochester in the International League and one with Shreveport-Tyler in the Texas League.  He would retire from the game in 1932.

After retiring, Sisler opened a sporting good store and started the American Softball Association (the biggest name in softball today).  Sisler engineered the first lighted softball field, leading to an explosion in the sport in the 1930s. In 1939, George was also inducted into the first ever class to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1942, he was reunited with Branch Rickey and offered a position in the Cardinals’ organization as a scout.  He would later work for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a scout and player developer.  Sisler was one of Jackie Robinson’s coaches, teaching how to play first base to ease his transition into the major leagues.  Sisler would follow Rickey one more time to Pittsburgh where he continued as a scout and player developer where he coached Roberto Clemente on hitting.  He would stick with the Pirates for the remainder of his career as a hitting coach at various levels.

George Sisler died on March 26, 1973.

George Sisler, The Baseball Biography Project

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