OUT OF SIGHT
It’s merely a coincidence that one of baseball’s purest souls owns arguably one of the sport’s most basic records.
But the fit couldn’t be more perfect.
George Sisler’s audacious record for hits in a season, one of the longest-held records in the sport, is safe for another year, continuing a theme that figures to be difficult to ever change.
The Angels’ Darin Erstad has had a career year and was on pace to break the hits record for four months, but an August slump and injuries have put his quest out of reach.
So Sisler’s name will continue to live at the top of a list that simply wouldn’t seem right without his contributions.
In 1920, Sisler had one of baseball’s most phenomenal seasons and 80 years later his accomplishments still leave even the most hardened of historians flabbergasted.
The crown jewel of Sisler’s remarkable body of work that season is found in three digits--257.
That’s the number of hits the 5-foot-11, Ohio-born first baseman totaled after playing every inning of a 154-game schedule for the St. Louis Browns.
Understated excellence. Consistency. Durability. All are admired qualities, but rarely do they bring the fanfare reserved for the super-stardom of home run hitters or strikeout pitchers.
The man they called “Gentleman George,” “Gorgeous George” and even “The Sizzler,” would go on to hit .407 that season, only to surpass that level two years later in 1922 when he batted a remarkable .420.
He still is one of only three players in major league history to bat better than .400 more than once. Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby are the others.
Why, then, doesn’t 257 bring forth the same reverence as 54, 56, 61, 715 or many other of baseball’s magical numbers?
Part of the answer lies with a player named Babe Ruth.
The same season the left-handed Sisler reached 257 hits, Ruth smashed a then-record 54 home runs. Sisler finished second in the league in homers that year . . . with 19.
Of course, Ruth’s obliteration of the home run record drew all the attention from fans and newspapermen, while Sisler’s mark was pushed to the side and perhaps left unappreciated during what was a golden age of pure hitters.
Time has been Sisler’s ally in recognizing the achievement, but even today chasing a record for hits simply doesn’t evoke the emotions that a home run chase can.
Since 1920, many have tried and failed to match Sisler’s 257. Even with the benefit of eight extra regular-season games now, it rarely has brought anyone very close in the last 50 years.
Erstad is the latest to take his swings at Sisler, but even he wasn’t able to endure the pace of what it takes. At least not yet.
In baseball, August is a month where record chases often go to die, and that once again has proved to be the case.
Even Erstad, ever the harsh self-critic, cautioned earlier this season when it was pointed out he was on pace to match Sisler’s mark.
“The key words there are ‘on pace’ ” Erstad said June 30. “There’s a long way to go.”
Baseball accomplishments aside, Sisler took more pride in his high moral character and clean family living than in any record he set.
His existence was unique during his playing days for more than just baseball reasons.
Just like his parents, Cassius and Mary, Sisler was an educated man, having attended the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1915 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“He was a very unique person,” said Sisler’s oldest son, George Jr., who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “Back then, there weren’t many college-educated ballplayers. He met Mom [Kathleen] at Michigan, and they never stopped emphasizing the importance of education and doing the right thing.”
At Michigan, Sisler’s coach was Branch Rickey, who was better known later for helping break baseball’s color line in 1947 by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Sisler became Rickey’s first real find. At that time, Sisler made his name as a pitcher, compiling a 50-0 college record. But his grace, speed, athletic ability and prowess as a hitter eventually were too much to merely contain him to a featured role every few days.
After Michigan, Sisler followed Rickey to the majors, signing with the St. Louis Browns, where Rickey became manager. He started his major league career as a pitcher and even defeated his boyhood idol Walter Johnson twice. But it wasn’t long before Rickey put a first baseman’s glove in Sisler’s hands.
“Playing organized baseball wasn’t a big thing to him,” Sisler’s youngest son, David, said, “but then he realized he was good.”
Sisler meant more to his family as a father than as a ballplayer.
Frances Drochelman, Sisler’s only daughter among his four children (he had another son, Dick, who died in 1998 after a major league career as a player, coach and manager), remembers her father’s love of the game.
“We’d be sitting around the dinner table and he’d always be talking baseball with my brothers and I’d get so sick of it,” Drochelman said, laughing at the thought. “But the important thing is that we’d always have dinner together--the family. His family was important to him.”
And when he was away from home, Sisler never dropped his guard or compromised his integrity.
“Dad thought Babe Ruth was a great ballplayer,” said David, who still lives near his sister in the St. Louis area. “He always said Ruth could run and throw and hit. But he didn’t care for him as an individual.”
Ruth’s flamboyance, larger-than-life persona and his carousing were legendary. Sisler didn’t drink, smoke or make a spectacle of himself in public.
“My father was the most conservative person in the world,” David said. “But he was just an absolute gentleman. He was the nicest person and had scruples like you wouldn’t believe. All he ever tried to do was pass that on to his kids.”
Bob Broeg, former sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who still writes a weekly column and grew up watching Sisler play as part of the Knothole Gang at Sportsman’s Park, said the first baseman’s nicknames are easy to understand.
“He was a modest man and they called him Gorgeous George before the wrestler ever came along, and that had more to do with the beauty that he showed as a human being,” Broeg said. “He was a straight arrow.”
George Jr., 81, recalls a moment in his life that defines the values his family instilled.
It was the summer of 1939 and George Jr. was set to graduate from Colgate University. It happened that his graduation coincided with his father’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the first ceremony of its kind.
Aside from Sisler, others inducted into the Hall that summer included Ruth, Cobb, Johnson, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker and Cy Young.
“Colgate was about 100 miles away from Cooperstown and I really didn’t know what would happen,” said George Jr., who never played in the majors but went on to become president of the International League. “But my mother chose to attend my graduation and not my father’s induction. I consider that one of the very greatest things to ever happen to me, and it said a lot about what we valued.”
His father, who died two days after his 80th birthday on March 26, 1973, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Finishing second to Ruth in home runs in 1920 put a smile on Sisler’s face as much as the record 257 hits.
“Dad was very proud of those 19 home runs,” David said.
But it was the purity of his hitting that has stood the test of time. The closest anyone has come to Sisler’s total is the mark of 254 by Bill Terry of the New York Giants in 1930, which tied the National League-record total of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Lefty O’Doul set a year earlier.
More recently, Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox has come closest with 240 hits in 1985 and Lance Johnson had 227 in 1996 for the New York Mets.
Eighty years have passed since Sisler put together one of baseball’s greatest offensive seasons.
He hit .407 that year, collecting 49 doubles, 18 triples and the 19 homers--all career highs. Sisler also established career marks with 137 runs scored, 122 RBIs, 46 walks and a .632 slugging percentage. He also stole 42 bases.
“There were only 30 games that year where he went hitless,” Broeg said. “In fact, just twice did he go two games in a row without a hit.”
Sisler’s averages by month paint the picture of consistency as clear as anything.
In April, he hit .333, following that with .360 in May, .407 in June, .325 in July, .442 in August and an astonishing .448 in September.
On the final day of the season, Sisler got three hits and also pitched the last inning, striking out two after not having pitched in a competitive situation in four years.
Overshadowed that season were Sisler’s contributions on defense, where he was considered one of the most graceful fielders ever.
“My dad was very stylish on the field, in addition to being a picture-perfect hitter,” David Sisler said.
Although Sisler played 15 seasons in the majors, his career was cut short by a severe sinus infection that affected his eyesight his last seven seasons as a player.
Sisler sat out the 1923 season and nearly lost his vision, according to his sons. Upon his return, he did manage to hit .305 in 1924 and .345 in 1925, but by the next season it was clear his skills were never going to be the same.
It was a sad ending for a man Cobb once said was “the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer.”
It’s hard to say if Sisler’s record will ever be broken, but a player like Erstad seems to be a logical candidate to make a run at it.
“I like his style,” David Sisler said of Erstad. “I used to watch [Tony] Gwynn and figured he was the kind of hitter that might break it one day.”
The best hit total of Gwynn’s 19-year major league career has been 220 in 1997, but injuries always seemed to have infringed on his chances of reaching Sisler’s mark.
“I keep my own watch on things and I know August can be a tough month,” David said back in July.
Still on pace after the all-star break and into August, Erstad finally seemed to hit the wall instead of the baseball. A rib-cage injury coupled with his early August slump also slowed his progress. It has limited him to a role mostly as the designated hitter, but Erstad is glad he can still contribute.
In fact, he rebounded in the final days of August to make the chase somewhat interesting again, although still far-fetched. Entering September, Erstad needed 57 hits. His best month this season has been 48 hits, accomplished in April.
Going into tonight’s series opener in Minnesota, Erstad already has an Angel season record of 216 hits to break Alex Johnson’s previous mark of 202 set in 1970. To match Sisler’s record now, he needs 41 more in the final 16 games. That would be a near-impossible average of 2.563 per game, far higher than the 1.669 Sisler averaged for the season in 1920. Erstad’s average for hits per game has slipped to 1.479, based on all Angel games whether he has played or not.
But Erstad, 26, a disciplined free-swinger--if there can be such a hitter--comes from the perfect mold of ballplayer to be able to challenge Sisler’s record in the years to come, along with pure hitters like Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra and Colorado’s Todd Helton.
David Sisler appreciates Erstad’s hard-nosed approach and his respect for the game. It’s a quality he’s sure his father would have loved.
“I’ve watched Erstad play a couple of times and, although he’s a different sort of player than my father was, I know my father would have enjoyed watching him too,” David said.
None of Sisler’s living children can understand why more has not been made of their father’s accomplishments.
But all are certain that if their father still were alive, he’d shoo them away if they dared bring up the subject.
“He was always the last person to care about things like that,” David said. “In fact, it’s the children that get worked up over these things more than he ever would. We’re the ones that make all the noise.”
“He’d wonder what all the fuss was about,” she said. “He didn’t need attention to know his value as a person.”
Still, the Sisler children wished more people knew their father as more than just an old baseball name.
Making it difficult is the fact the St. Louis Browns no longer exist.
St. Louis is a Cardinal town now and some might say it always has been. Mention the Browns to the average person and Cleveland’s football team probably comes to mind first.
Aside from the several hundred people that belong to the St. Louis Browns fan club who still remember and embrace the team that eventually became the Baltimore Orioles, the city’s baseball heroes usually begin with Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean and, of course, span to Stan Musial and Mark McGwire.
According to David and George Jr., Baltimore barely acknowledges anything having to do with the Browns these days.
Sisler’s name still gets mentioned every now and then, but usually it’s nothing more than a fleeting reflection.
Earlier this season, the U.S. Postal Service issued commemorative stamps honoring several members of the All-Century team, Sisler among them.
“They had an unveiling ceremony in St. Louis at Busch Stadium,” David Sisler said. “It was a Cardinal promotion. They mentioned Dad in passing, but there wasn’t much to it.”
And as the years pass, things don’t figure to change.
About the only way memories of Sisler live on are through the chases of history by players like Erstad.
“It’s nice because Dad gets some attention when something like this happens,” George Jr. said. “If it means a chance for fans to hear about our father, we’ll be rooting for someone to do it.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
SOME OF THE LONGEST HELD SINGLE-SEASON RECORDS
99 years Batting average: .426, Nap Lajoie, 1901 Philadelphia A’s
96 years Games started (pitcher): 51, Jack Chesbro, 1904 New York Yankees
96 years Complete games: 48, Jack Chesbro, 1904 New York Yankees
96 years Wins: 41, Jack Chesbro, 1904 New York Yankees
95 years Losses: 29, Vic Willis, 1905 Boston Braves
92 years Innings pitched: 464, Ed Walsh, 1908 Chicago White Sox
88 years Triples: 36, Chief Wilson, 1912 Pittsburgh Pirates
86 years Lowest ERA: 0.96, Dutch Leonard, 1914 Boston Red Sox
84 years Shutouts: 16, Grover Alexander, 1916 Philadelphia Phillies
80 years Hits: 257, George Sisler, 1920 St. Louis Browns
79 years Runs scored: 177, Babe Ruth, 1921 New York Yankees
77 years Walks: 170, Babe Ruth, 1923 New York Yankees
70 years RBIs: 191, Hack Wilson, 1930 Chicago Cubs
59 years Hitting streak: 56 games, Joe DiMaggio, 1941 New York Yankees
Comparing George Sisler’s 1920 season to Darin Erstad this season (all stats are through 146 games):
Player AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB AVG Erstad 609 106 216 35 5 23 94 27 .355 Sisler 596 130 245 45 16 19 112 37 .411