January 7th, 2013
Yes, I am on a bit of a jag here, presenting deadball-era stars’ memories of their greatest day in baseball. The sources for these interviews are John Carmichael’s columns in the Chicago Daily News, plus a handful of other reminiscences added to his book collection, My Greatest Day in Baseball (Barnes, 1945). Below is one of these additions. George Sisler was an undeniably great ballplayer, starring for the St. Louis Browns from 1915 to 1927 and finishing with the Boston Braves in 1930. His lifetime batting average was .340, and his .420 mark in 1922 is still tops for American League batters since Nap Lajoie’s mark in the circuit’s first season; in that 1920 campaign he struck out only 14 times in 655 plate appearances. Sisler also hit .407 in 1920, the year he set a record with 257 hits, which survived until Ichiro Suzuki collected 262 hits (in 70 more plate appearances) in 2004.
In my youth there was still a debate among oldtimers whether he or Lou Gehrig deserved the accolade of best first baseman all-time. Yet in the sabermetric era, with its emphasis on slugging and on base percentage, Sisler’s star dimmed. In 1999, when MLB created its all-century team, the fans voted in two first basemen, Gehrig and Mark McGwire. Here is the unfairly neglected George Sisler, as interviewed by Lyall Smith.
Every American kid has a baseball idol. Mine was Walter Johnson, the “Big Train.” Come to think about it, Walter still is my idea of the real baseball player. He was graceful. He had rhythm and when he heaved that ball in to the plate he threw with his whole body just so easy-like that you’d think the ball was flowing off his arm and hand.
I was just a husky kid in Akron (Ohio) High School back around 1910-11 when Johnson began making a name for himself with the Senators and I was so crazy about the man that I’d read every line and kept every picture of him I could get my hands on.
Naturally, admiring Johnson as I did, I decided to be a pitcher and even though I wound up as a first baseman my biggest day in baseball was a hot muggy afternoon in St. Louis when I pitched against him and beat him. Never knew that, did you? Most fans don’t. But it’s right. Me, a kid just out of the University of Michigan beat the great Walter Johnson. It was on August 29, 1915, my first year as a baseball player, the first time I ever was in a game against the man who I thought was the greatest pitcher in the world.
I guess I was a pretty fair pitcher myself at Central High in Akron. I had a strong left arm and I could throw them in there all day long and never have an ache or pain. Anyway, I got a lot of publicity in my last year in high school and when I was still a student I signed up one day to play with Akron.
I didn’t know at the time I signed that contract I was stepping into a rumpus that went on and on until it finally involved the National Baseball Commission, the owners of two big league clubs and Judge Landis.
I was only 17 years old when I wrote my name on the slip of paper that made me property of Akron, a club in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League and a farm club of Columbus in the Association. After I signed it I got scared and didn’t even tell my dad or anybody ’cause I knew my folks wanted me to go on to college and I figured they’d be sore if they knew I wanted to be a ballplayer.
In a way, that’s what saved me, I guess. For by not telling my dad he never had a chance to okay my signature and in that way the contract didn’t hold. The way it worked out Akron sold me to Columbus and Columbus sold me to Pittsburgh and all the time I was still in high school and hadn’t even reported to the team I signed with! Wasn’t even legally signed the way it turned out.
They wanted me to join the club when I graduated from high school but I was all set to go to Michigan so I said “no” and went up to Ann Arbor. Well, to make a long story short the story came out in the open there and when the whole thing was over I had been made a free agent by the old National Commission and signed up with Branch Rickey who at that time was manager of the St. Louis Browns.
I pitched three years of varsity ball up at Michigan and when I graduated on June 10, 1915, Rickey wired me to join the Browns in Chicago. Now, all this time I was up at school I still had my sights set on Walter Johnson. When he pitched his 56 consecutive scoreless innings in 1912 I was as proud as though I’d done it myself. After all, I felt as though I had adopted him. He was my hero. He won 36 games and lost only seven in 1913 and he came back the next season to win 28 more and lose 18. He was really getting the headlines in those days and I was keeping all of them in my scrapbook.
Well, then I left Michigan in 1915 and came down to Chicago where I officially became a professional ballplayer. I hit town one morning and that same day we were getting beat pretty bad so Rickey called me over to the dugout.
“George,” he said, “I know you just got in town and that you don’t know any of the players and you’re probably tired and nervous. But I want to see what you have in that left arm of yours. Let’s see what you can do in these last three innings.”
I gulped hard a couple of times, muttered something that sounded like “thanks” and went out and pitched those last three innings. Did pretty good, too. I gave up one hit but the Sox didn’t get any runs so I figured that I was all right.
Next day, though, I was out warming up and meeting more of the Browns when Rickey came over to me. He was carrying a first baseman’s glove. “Here,” he said. “Put this on and get over there on first base.”
Well, nothing much happened between the time I joined the club in June until long about the last part of August. Rickey would pitch me one day, stick me in the outfield the next and then put me over on first the next three or four. I was hitting pretty good and by the time we got back to St. Louis the sports writers were saying some nice things about me.
They were saying it chiefly because of my hitting. I’d only won two-three games up to then. I still remember the first one. I beat Cleveland and struck out nine men. Some clothing store gave me a pair of white flannels for winning and I was right proud of them. Didn’t even wear them for a long time, figured they were too fancy.
As I was saying, we got back to St. Louis late in August. Early one week I picked up a paper and saw that a St. Louis writer, Billy Murphy, had written a story about Washington coming to town the following Sunday and that Walter Johnson was going to pitch.
I was still a Johnson fan and I guess Murphy knew it, for when I got about halfway through the story I found out that he had me pitching against Johnson on the big day, Sunday, August 29.
That was the first I knew about it and I figured it was the first Manager Rickey knew about it, for here it was only Tuesday and Murphy had the pitchers all lined up for the following Sunday.
Well, he knew what he was talking about, because after the Saturday game Rickey stuck his head in the locker room and told me I was going to pitch against Johnson the next day. I went back to my hotel that night but I couldn’t eat. I was really nervous. I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep. At 4:00 A.M. I was tossing and rolling around and finally got up and just sat there, waiting for daylight and the big game.
I managed to stick it out, got some breakfast in me and was out at Sportsman’s Park before the gates opened. It was one of those typical August days in St. Louis and when game time finally rolled around it was so hot that the sweat ran down your face even when you were standing in the shadow of the stands.
All the time I was warming up I’d steal a look over at Johnson in the Washington bull pen. When he’d stretch ‘way out and throw in a fast ball I’d try to do the same thing. Even when I went over to the dugout just before the game started I was still watching him as he signed autographs and laughed with the photographers and writers.
Well, the game finally started and I tried to be calm. First man to face me was Moeller, Washington’s left fielder. I didn’t waste any time and stuck three fast ones in there to strike him out. Eddie Foster was up next and he singled to right field. Charley [sic; actual name Clyde] Milan singled to right center and I was really scared. I could see Mr. Rickey leaning out of the dugout watching me real close so I kept them high to Shanks and got him to fly out to Walker in center field. He hit it back pretty far though and Foster, a fast man, started out for third base. Walker made a perfect peg into the infield but Johnny Lavan, our shortstop, fumbled the relay and Foster kept right on going to score. That was all they got in that inning, but I wasn’t feeling too sure when I came in to the bench. I figured we weren’t going to get many runs off Johnson and I knew I couldn’t be giving up many runs myself.
Then Johnson went out to face us and I really got a thrill out of watching him pitch. He struck out the first two Brownies and made Del Pratt fly to short center. Then I had to go out again and I got by all right. In the second inning, Walker led off with a single to center field and Baby Doll Jacobson dumped a bunt in front of the plate. Otto Williams, Washington catcher, scooped it up and threw it 10 feet over the first baseman’s head. Walker already was around second and he came in and scored while the Baby Doll reached third.
I think I actually felt sorry for Johnson. I knew just how he felt because after all, the same thing had happened to me in the first inning. Del Howard was next up for us and he singled Jacobson home to give us two runs and give me a 2-1 lead.
Well, that was all the scoring for the day, although I gave up five more hits over the route. Johnson got one in the first of the fifth, a blooper over second. I was up in the last of the same inning and I’ll be darned if I didn’t get the same kind. So he and I were even up anyway. We each hit one man, too.
There wasn’t much more to the game. Only one man reached third on me after the first inning and only two got that far on Johnson.
When I got the last man out in the first of the ninth and went off the field I looked down at the Washington bench hoping to get another look at Johnson. But he already had ducked down to the locker room.
I don’t know what I expected to do if I had seen him. For a minute I thought maybe I’d go over and shake his hand and tell him that I was sorry I beat him but I guess that was just the silly idea of a young kid who had just come face to face with his idol and beaten him.