In 1920, Sisler took backseat to others

Record: When he set the standard for hits and batted .407, the AL's top hitter was overshadowed by Babe Ruth and Black Sox.

September 29, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Sept. 28 started out swell for George Sisler. Before the game that Tuesday afternoon, the St. Louis Browns fans presented the American League's top hitter with a spanking new 1920 silver tea set - plaudits for a job well done.

The Browns had flopped that season despite Sisler's heroics - he batted .407, with 19 home runs and 122 RBIs. What's more, the sturdy first baseman had cracked his 248th base hit the day before, matching the major league record set in 1911 by the Detroit Tigers' Ty Cobb.

A quiet, modest man, Sisler accepted the gift and doffed his cap to polite applause. Everyone agreed that, at 27, Sisler had the goods. He had played every inning of every game, hit 49 doubles, stolen 42 bases. In the parlance of the times, the man knew his onions.

He proved it again that day.

Sisler was hitless in his first two trips against first-place Cleveland and its ace, Jim Bagby, a 31-game winner. Then, in the sixth inning, the left-hander strode to the plate, choked up on his 42-ounce bat and drove a Bagby pitch into the right-field pavilion at Sportsman's Park.

The ball disappeared in a sea of knickers and bobbed hair. The place went nuts. Sisler had broken Cobb's record with a home run against the game's best pitcher. Later, he added a triple.

St. Louis lost the game, 9-5. But Sisler made history 84 years ago. He finished the 1920 season with 257 hits, a feat that could fall this week.

Heading into last night, the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki had 252 hits and needed six in his final six games to pass Sisler.

The Hall of Famer, who died in 1973, would be rooting for Suzuki, Sisler's family says.

"If he breaks the record, Dad would want to have been the first person onto the field to congratulate him," Dave Sisler said. "He [Suzuki] is a good ballplayer who has had a hell of a year.

"I'm sure Dad would like to talk to him about hitting."

The consummate place hitter, Sisler batted .340 over 15 seasons and rarely struck out, despite an illness that impaired his vision from mid-career on. In 1920, Sisler averaged one strikeout for every 33 at-bats. Suzuki, no free swinger himself, has struck out three times that.

Sisler was, Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch conceded, "the perfect player."

"Most of [Sisler's] talent was God-given, but his college education helped," said his grandson, Peter Drochelman. "His degree from Michigan was in mechanical engineering. He understood physics, and how things worked.

"His acute mind solved a slump very quickly."

Sisler peaked at .420 in 1922, hitting safely in 41 straight games - a mark that would stand for two decades.

"When Joe DiMaggio broke his record [in 1941], Sisler said he was glad he'd been passed by a great player and not someone who was a fluke," said Rick Huhn, whose biography of Sisler is due out next month.

Another grandson, Bo Drochelman, said Sisler was proud but not possessive of his achievements.

"He believed his records were really Major League Baseball's records and that he didn't own them," said Drochelman. "That's how much he respected the game."

The Yankees coveted Sisler and tried to buy him in 1920 for $200,000 - twice what New York had paid a year earlier for Babe Ruth. The Browns declined.

Sisler was the antithesis of the carousing, flamboyant Ruth; in fact, he really didn't like the Babe.

"Dad was great, athletically," Dave Sisler said. "Not much leaked out by way of dissipation."

Sisler didn't drink, smoke or gamble, so his exploits were sometimes overshadowed by those of players who did. The day Sisler tied Cobb's record for base hits, Ruth stole headlines by homering twice - Nos. 52 and 53. Two days later, the Babe bumped Sisler from the news again when, in a one-car accident, he wrapped his car around a tree.

Sisler batted .448 that September. Who knew outside of St. Louis? The buzz was about the eight Chicago White Sox players who'd just been suspended for throwing the 1919 World Series.

"Between Babe Ruth and the Black Sox scandal, Sisler lost some of the spotlight in what he always said was his best year," said Huhn, the author.

Sisler shrugged it off, as he would a high strike. Years later, he was asked by his son, George Jr., which pitchers had given him fits. Minutes passed, in silence. None came to mind.

In 1923, at the peak of his career, Sisler contracted influenza, which led to sinusitis, which gave him double vision.

He missed the entire season and was never the same, finishing with 2,812 base hits.

"Doctors told me that today's antibiotics would have cleared it right up," said Huhn. "Who knows what he'd have done?"

Retiring in 1930, Sisler chose to skirt celebrity, save for a book he wrote entitled, Sisler on Baseball. Fittingly, it is Suzuki's pursuit of his record that has revived public interest in Sisler.

"There is really no franchise that is keeping his memory alive," Peter Drochelman said. The Browns, for whom he played most of his career, moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles.

Named to Cooperstown in 1939, Sisler cherished his election. Several years later, during a robbery at a Missouri train station, he protected his prize Hall of Fame ring by turning it around on his finger. The thieves didn't realize its value, and let him keep it.

"We call that `The day that Pop outfoxed the robbers,' " Peter Drochelman said.

Even if criminals didn't always recognize him, Sisler's fame spread plenty far. He was the first baseball player to grace the cover of Time, in 1925, and a favorite of one of his era's biggest celebrities, actor/comedian W.C. Fields.

Having spotted Sisler in the crowd at one of his shows, Fields invited him backstage for a nightcap. Sisler declined the hooch. Fields recoiled in horror. A major leaguer who didn't drink?

"Ah, well," Fields lamented, "not even the perfect ballplayer can have everything."

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