120th birthday: George Sislerby Chris Jaffe
March 24, 2013
120 years ago, one of the best pure hitters in baseball history debuted: George Sisler. He twice hit .400 and retired with a career mark of .340. He recorded nearly 3,000 hits, and would’ve made it into that club if it weren’t for a weird mid-career eye problem.
Despite that, Sisler’s great hitting career had quite a few odd hitches before it really began.
First, he got a later start than many of the greatest athletes of his generation. Oh, he played baseball, but not as a pro. Instead he went to college and earned a degree in engineering.
While there, Sisler did play baseball and did excel enough to attract the attention of big league scouts—but not as a hitter. No, you see Sisler was initially a pitcher. A good one, too. As a freshman in college, he fanned 20 in one game. Actually, it was even better than that—those 20 Ks came in just seven innings work.
Actually, Sisler would’ve become a professional earlier, but his initial contract had been declared void. He signed with the Pirates before going to college, and then a dispute emerged over it. Sisler eventually succeeded in having the contract voided, leaving the Pirates empty-handed and Sisler a free agent when he was done with college.
The St. Louis Browns, not yet a perennial joke in the AL, laid their hands on him. Sisler was highly touted enough (and the game’s infrastructure was insubstantial enough) to allow him to leap directly to the majors.
He did all right on the mound in his rookie campaign in 1915, but it didn’t take the team too long to realize that Sisler might have greater gifts to give the team than his arm. He pitched in 15 games in 1915, but appeared in 81. Sisler batted .285, second only to star second baseman Del Pratt.
Well, that was it. The Browns made him their first baseman and he developed a standout reputation as a fielder. More importantly, he swiftly became one of the best hitters. He hit .300 in 1916 and then .350 in 1917. He led the AL in steals in 1918, and then two years later banged out 257 hits—a record until Ichiro Suzuki broke it just a few years ago.
At the end of 1922, Sisler had 1,498 hits in barely over 1,000 games with a career .361 average. He looked liked a less talented version of Ty Cobb.
Then he missed all 1923 with double vision. He recovered enough to return to action, but was never anywhere nearly as great as he had been. Still, his prime was remembered and he hung around long enough to tally 2,812 hits. He became one of the first men elected into Cooperstown in 1939.
As it happens, modern analysis doesn’t find Sisler as impressive as his peers did. He did have an amazing batting average, but his pair of .400 seasons came in the 1920s, a hitters' era. He didn’t have much power and never drew many walks, so it was an empty average. Stats like Win Shares don’t see much brilliance in his fielding. He’s got a great average, but he arguably has the emptiest batting average in history.
That said, if Sisler is overrated, that doesn’t mean he was bad. An empty .340 batting average is still a .340 batting average and, era be damned, that’s still impressive. All things considered, Sisler did have quite a nice career—and it all began with his birth, 120 years ago today.
Aside from that, many other baseball events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something occurring X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
1,000 days since Jim Thome legs out his first triple in over six years.
1,000 days since the Cardinals top the Diamondbacks 6-5 on a walk-off error that lets the tying and winning runs both score. Ouch. In fact, St. Louis scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth courtesy of a pair of Arizona muffs. Double ouch.
3,000 days since the Giants sign free agent Moises Alou.
4,000 days since the Orioles score 12 runs in one inning in a 15-6 win over Tampa.
5,000 days since Carlos Beltran reaches on error three times in one game.
5,000 days since Lance Berkman makes his big league debut.
9,000 days since the Reds sign free agent Ken Griffey Sr.
15,000 days since Hank Aaron becomes the first player to sign a $200,000-a-year contract.
40,000 days since Chick Fraser throws a no-hitter for a 10-0 Phillies win over the Cubs.
40,000 days since the AL and NL agree that their respective pennant winners will meet in a best-of-nine series in the postseason to determine who is the champion of the world.
1872 Left fielder Kip Selbach is born. He’ll be a good power hitter, most notably leading the 1895 NL with 22 triples. (Back then, triples were a slugger’s stat, not a sprinter’s achievement).
1874 Roy Thomas, on base machine center fielder, is born.
1891 Ernie Shore, pitcher who once retired all 26 batters he faced while in relief, is born.
1903 After months of wrangling, star hitter Ed Delahanty arrives in Washington to play.
1911 Cardinals owner Stanley Robinson dies. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Frank de Hans Robinson, becomes the first female owner.
1942 Jesus Alou, outfielder, is born.
1943 Brooklyn trades two players (including former Tigers star pitcher Schoolboy Rowe) to the Phillies for future manager Bobby Bragan.
1947 Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler holds a four-hour hearing at the Sarasota Terrace Hotel with Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in which Durocher admits to betting in card games. His consorting with gamblers will soon lead to a weird yearlong suspension. (Weird because it was less that Durocher did something that bad and more that Chandler wanted to look like a strong commissioner).
1956 Garry Templeton, star shortstop, is born.
1958 Bruce Hurst, solid pitcher for the 1980s Red Sox, is born.
1961 The Senate approves $55 million for a new stadium in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. It’ll be Shea Stadium.
1970 Starting pitcher Wilson Alvarez is born.
1972 The Reds trade starting pitcher Tony Cloninger to the Cardinals for Julian Javier.
1972 Relief pitcher Steve Karsay is born.
1972 Dick Coffman dies at age 65. He was the lead Giants reliever in the 1930s, twice leading the league in games finished, once in games pitched, and once in saves. (Of course, no one knew about that last stat back then.)
1973 The A’s trade prospect outfielder George Hendrick and backup catcher Dave Duncan to the Indians for backstop Ray Fosse and Jack Heidemann.
1978 Jose Valverde, closer, is born.
1982 Corey Hart, Brewers outfielder, is born. He’s twice represented them in the All-Star game, 2008 and 2010.
1983 The International Olympic Committee agrees to stage a six-team exhibition baseball tournament as part of the 1984 Summer Olympics. Baseball becomes a demonstration sport.
1983 The Yankees release former star slugger John Mayberry.
1984 The Phillies trade reliever Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman to the Tigers for Glenn Wilson and the great-named John Wockenfuss. Hernandez has a star season in 1984 for the Tigers.
1985 The Giants trade aging outfielder Dusty Baker to Oakland, where he’ll end his playing career.
1988 The Braves sell aging third baseman Graig Nettles to the Expos.
1988 Minnesota trades former stud prospect Billy Beane to the Tigers.
1990 Starlin Castro, young star shortstop for the Cubs, is born.
1995 The Indians sign Gregg Olson as a free agent.
1996 Shortstop Tony Fernandez fractures his right elbow while playing in an exhibition game for the Yankees against Houston.
1999 Birdie Tebbetts, former Reds manager, dies at age 86. He was also a four-time All-Star backstop.
2001 Tim Belcher, starting pitcher and former No. 1 overall draft pick, retires.
2002 Mace Brown dies at age 92. He was an early star reliever, earning an All-Star nod in 1938 with the Pirates for his work out of the bullpen.
2003 The Giants trade pitcher Livan Hernandez to Montreal in a four-player deal.
2004 Tampa releases veteran closer Todd Jones.
2006 The Red Sox claim first baseman Hee Seop Choi off of waivers from Los Angeles.
2009 Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell dies at age 86.
2010 Former super-prospect pitcher Dwight Gooden gets in legal trouble. After leaving the scene of an accident at 9 a.m. in Franklin Lanes, N.J., he’s charged with DUI, child endangerment, and leaving the scene of an accident.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.