Requiem for the “Sizzler”

George Sisler (1893-1973)

George Sisler, also known as the “Sizzler” because of his hot bat, was the greatest player ever to don a St. Louis Browns baseball uniform. First baseman for the Brownies between 1915 and 1927 Sisler compiled a .340 lifetime batting average, batted over .400 twice, led the league in stolen bases four times, and set a record at first base with 1,528 assists that stood for over sixty years.

Sisler was a Brownie until 1928 when he was traded to another American League team, the Washington Senators which quickly flipped him to the Boston Braves of the National League where he played the 1928-1930 seasons before retiring. In 1999 he was named as one of the top one-hundred greatest baseball players of the twentieth century. Appropriately enough, he is ensconced in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

Sisler also led the Browns during their most successful era, the 1920s. In 1920 the team finished in the first division for the first time since 1908 with Sisler setting the pace. He led the league with a .407 batting average, drove in 122 runs, hit 18 triples, stole 51 bases, and set the single season record of 257 base hits that stood until broken by Ichiro Suzuki’s 262 hits for the Seattle Mariners in 2004.

Ably assisted by outfielder Ken Williams, who hit 24 home runs and drove in 117, and pitcher Urban Shocker, who won 20 games and lost 10, the Browns made a run at the pennant. In 1921 they finished third, with the same cadre of players. It looked like 1922 would be the year of the Browns, and everyone in St. Louis was poised to take a championship.

SislerThey nearly did. In 1922 the Browns won 93 games, the most ever in the franchise’s history, but they finished one game behind the New York Yankees. Even so, it was probably the best team in Browns’ history. Sisler had a career year, batting a league high .420, and both Williams and Shocker also had exceptional years. The Browns ran neck and neck with the Yankees all summer, and were in first place as late as July 22. The fans in St. Louis were jubilant, rocking the city’s center with impromptu street parties and at least one riot. At a game on Labor Day, fans unable to get tickets to the Browns/Cleveland Indians game in St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park, a palace of a playing field by the standards of the day, rushed the gate. Police had to restore order. The Browns barely lost the 1922 pennant to the New York Yankees, who went on to lose the World Series to the rival New York Giants.

The 1922 season represented the high-water mark for the Browns. The next year, absent George Sisler, who missed the season with an eye infection that nearly did him in, the Browns slipped to fifth in the league. When Sisler returned in 1924, the team improved its record and vied for the pennant, finishing fourth. It finished third in both 1925 and 1926 but slipped to seventh in 1927, the last year of Sisler’s tenure in St. Louis. He moved on to play three years in Boston while the Browns, absent Sisler, began a collapse that lasted until their only pennant-winning year of 1944. Ironically, Sisler never played in the postseason, perhaps the greatest player never to have done so.

Sisler (1)Contrary to other colorful characters in the history of baseball—contemporaries Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth come to mind—George Sisler led a relatively quiet and noncontroversial life. After his retirement at the end of the 1930 season he worked for a time a scout and front office executive, usually with Branch Rickey who had originally signed him to play for the Browns. Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, also played in the Major Leagues in the 1950s while a third, George Jr., served as the president of the International League. Sisler was still employed as a scout for the Pirates at the time of his death in 1973.

George Sisler was one of those excellent, competitive, and effective players who quietly toiled in Major League Baseball without great fame or fortune. He is largely forgotten today despite his importance as a player in the 1920s. I wonder how he would be remembered had he been with a better team or in a larger city with more extensive media?

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