Sisler, George Harold

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SISLER, George Harold

(b. 24 March 1893 in Manchester, Ohio; d. 26 March 1973 in Richmond Heights, Missouri), professional baseball player who amassed a lifetime batting average of .340 and was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Son of Cassius Sisler, a coal mine manager, and Mary Whipple Sisler, Sisler was an all-star athlete and ace pitcher at Akron Central High School in Ohio. At age seventeen he signed his first professional contract, making him the property of Akron's team in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League, a farm team of Columbus. Akron later sold Sisler to Columbus, which in turn sold the left-hander to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates demanded that Sisler join the team as soon as he graduated from high school, but Sisler refused. He had already set his heart on attending the University of Michigan and playing ball for the legendary Branch Rickey, who was then the university's baseball coach. The dispute was appealed to the National Commission, at that time responsible for overseeing the sport, which ruled that Sisler's contract was meaningless because he had signed it as a minor without his parents' consent.

Sisler entered the University of Michigan as a student in 1910. After graduating with a B.S. in mechanical engineeringin 1915, he married Kathleen Holznagle, a fellow student, in 1916. They had four children, and all three sons had careers in baseball. George, Jr. was president of the International League, and both Dick and Dave had major league careers. After three successful seasons playing with the University of Michigan's baseball team, Sisler signed a contract with the St. Louis Browns, who had hired Rickey as their manager. The southpaw pitcher made his debut with the Browns in 1915, and in one of his earliest outings with the team he had the pleasure of striking out one of his boyhood idols, Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators.

Known by his teammates as "Gorgeous George," Sisler may have managed to beat Johnson, but overall his pitching skills were found wanting by Rickey. The manager soon gave Sisler a first baseman's mitt and suggested he familiarize himself with the position. To do so, Sisler shuttled between the pitcher's mound and first base and occasional service in the outfield. Final statistics for the 1915 season showed that Sisler played thirty-seven games at first base, twenty-nine in the outfield, and only fifteen on the pitcher's mound.

In 1916, his second full year in Major League Baseball, Sisler's brilliance as a hitter began to overshadow his contributions on the defensive side of the game. That year he hit an average of .305 and boasted a total of 34 stolen bases. The following year, Sisler's batting average climbed to .353, second only to Ty Cobb in the American League (AL). In 1918 Sisler took third place in the AL batting race, trailing Cobb and George Burns of the Philadelphia Athletics with a batting average of .341. But he did manage to take the crown for stolen bases that year with a total of 45. With a batting average of .352 in 1919, Sisler again found himself in third place, after Cobb and Bobby Veach.

Sisler blew away the competition in the batting derby of 1920, his batting average of .407 winning him his first batting crown. His overall performance that year was nothing short of remarkable: Sisler played every inning of all 154 games, amassing a league-high 631 at-bats, in which he managed to blast 257 hits, a record that still stands. Sisler's amazing performance in 1920 was unfortunately overshadowed by Babe Ruth's landmark 54-homer campaign, which grabbed most of the headlines in baseball that season.

Still batting a very respectable .371 in 1921, Sisler came in fourth that year in batting, trailing Detroit's Harry Heilmann, Cobb, and Ruth. For the second year in a row, he managed to accumulate more than 200 hits. He also won his second stolen-base title with a total of 35. Sisler bounced back in 1922, turning in an amazing batting average of .420. He led the AL with nearly 250 hits, the third season in a row in which he tallied more than 200 hits. Perhaps even more amazingly, Sisler struck out only 14 times in 586 at-bats. He also hit safely in 41 straight games, a record unsurpassed until Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 games in 1941.

From the heady successes of 1922, Sisler dropped to the lowest of low profiles in 1923. A severe case of sinusitis spread to his optic nerves, causing Sisler to see double. He had no choice but to sit out the entire season. Without Sisler's batting power, the Browns fell to fifth place and an overall record of 74 wins and 78 losses. When he returned to the game in 1924, he came back not only as a player but also as manager. Sadly, Sisler's performance as both a batter and first baseman began to suffer, and the team was unable to improve on its record of the previous year, again finishing with a total of 74 wins and 78 losses. Sisler finished the year with a batting average of only .305 and finished 29th among the batters of the AL.

In 1925 Sisler bounced back once again, finishing the year with a batting average of .345 and a total of 12 homers, the second highest total of his career. However, 1926 brought great disappointment and saw his batting average slip below .300 for the first time since 1915. He was back on his game in 1927, batting .327 and posting his fifth season with more than 200 hits. However, at the end of the season, the Browns sold Sisler to the Washington Senators for the paltry sum of $25,000. Then in 1928, after only twenty games, Washington sold him to the Boston Braves for $7,500.

Playing with Sisler on the Braves for the season of 1928 was Rogers Hornsby, who had made his first appearance for the St. Louis Browns along with Sisler in 1915. Both men turned in impressive performances for Boston in 1928, Hornsby winning his seventh batting title and Sisler leading all AL first basemen in assists.

Sisler proved he was still a formidable force at the plate in 1929, finishing the year with a batting average of .326, but his abilities on the defensive side of the game deteriorated sharply. He committed a career-high 28 errors at first base. In 1930, Sisler's final year in the majors, he turned in a very respectable batting average of .309. A few years after leaving baseball, Sisler published a slim booklet entitled The Knack of Batting (1934), outlining his thoughts about what it takes to be a good hitter.

After leaving the major leagues, Sisler drifted into the minors briefly, operated a St. Louis printing company and then a sporting goods store, and finally returned to the majors as a scout for Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. Looking back on his very impressive career, Sisler remained proudest of striking out Walter Johnson, his boyhood idol, in his very first year in the major leagues. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 and became commissioner of the National Baseball Congress the same year.

After retirement, Sisler settled in St. Louis, home of his greatest baseball glories. He died there two days after his eightieth birthday, and is buried in the DesPeres Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Ty Cobb, considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time, described Sisler as "the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer." A sizzling hitter—his .420 average in 1922 was the third highest in baseball history—Sisler was also one of the greatest first basemen in baseball history.

Sisler shared some thoughts about his lengthy career in baseball in Sisler on Baseball: A Manual for Players and Coaches (1954). Other books that cover Sisler's life in baseball include Red Barber, Walk in the Spirit (1969); Bill Starr, Clearing the Bases: Baseball Then and Now (1989); and Roger A. Godin, The 1922 St. Louis Browns: Best of the American League ' s Worst (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch (both 27 Mar. 1973).

Don Amerman