Looking back at the so-called “dead ball era,” when ballplayers were idiosyncratic to a fault instead of cookie-cutter products of their agents’ marketing imaginations, we summon up one of the greatest pure hitters, most elegant fielders and dazzling baserunners of all time, George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns (eventually to become the Baltimore Orioles after two generations of incompetent ownership made the team terminally unprofitable).
Sisler’s low profile among the usual suspects of his age was due mainly to how idiosyncratic he was in his own special way: a well educated engineering graduate of the University of Michigan when the newly incorporated Ann Arbor was no more than a couple of square miles of rudimentary campus surrounded by reality, owner of a successful printing company, a soft spoken, practically teetotaling gentleman and dedicated family man, peacemaker among clubhouse antagonists to rival Henry Clay, whose career was interrupted and ultimately degraded by an injury as unspectacular as his personal life: a sinus infection. In later photographs Sisler sometimes appears to be squinting, another long term effect of his illness. Even his one big legal problem, that he was conned into signing a contract with the then aptly-named Pirates while still a minor, got settled quietly without holdouts or public relations battles in the newspapers through the intervention of the MLB front orifice. Curt Flood should only have paid more attention. Ah well.
From the perspective of the contemporary fan balked about by famine for the sensational, everything about Sisler except his play was…well…boring. But I’m here to tell you that Sisler’s play was as spectacular in its way as that of Cobb, Wagner, Speaker or Ruth—all of whom regarded him as their equal. Ruth picked him as first baseman for his all-time all-star team, at least as much because he was a “college educated true gentleman I would be proud to call my teammate” as because he was the last man to bat over .400 multiple times. He hit .407 in 1920, when he racked up his long standing record of 257 hits, and .420 in 1922, the year before his sinus infection cost him an entire season and the raptor-like eyesight behind his hitting prowess. One can only speculate what his lifetime BA of .340 would have been if he’d not become ill.
Here’s your best source for the life and times of this great ballplayer who has been called “unsung” and “unknown” when in fact he was neither. Just quiet. No bar fights. No explosions of temper, no seething hostility between himself and any teammates or crosstown rivals. Talk about flat champagne. I give you The Sizzler: George Sisler, Baseball’s Forgotten Great, by Rick Huhn.
Here we go again with that “forgotten” thing, right? Well, at least that’s a nice shot of the Browns’ long since demolished Sportsman’s Park behind him (which today would probably be known as Maull’s Original Barbecue Sauce Field or maybe even Monsanto Mutants Necropolis). But I question even the assumption that Sisler was neglected, overlooked, forgotten or unknown. He was among the first selections to the Hall of Fame, for example. I recall fighting with my little brother over his Strat-O-Matic card. Of course, Sisler always turns up in any book about the deadball era or any biographies about the giants of his time. Somebody remembered him. I suspect this “forgotten great” meme is itself a backassward marketing ploy meant to make a reader pay closer attention.
I also question the book’s title. Did anyone else ever refer to George as “the Sizzler”? I searched the book itself – a treasure chest of quotidian information about this relentlessly reasonable family man and workmanlike ballplayer – for the origin of this nickname. If you Google it, all you get is referred back to the book title. Perhaps it was just Huhn’s attempt to make the sure and steady life of George Sisler sound more exciting than it was, his dazzling achievements afield notwithstanding. Oh, and those “dazzling” plays. Huhn emphasizes that Sisler was such a smooth-fielding first baseman that he made even the most difficult plays seem ordinary. What are you gonna do? I had seen references to Sisler as “Gorgeous George,” based mostly on his elegant play at first base and the fact that the ladies found him handsome. But that’s it.
The book is cleanly written, bereft of rhetorical flourishes which would have been incongruous with its subject’s demeanor. You do get an occasional dash of color from quotations by those who knew or played with or against him, and Huhn takes care to blanch the blunderings of the Browns ownership of unseemly comic effects. Its narrative is strictly chronological, without any of those jarring flashbacks or memorial sequences. Its accounts of Sisler’s play are buttressed with stats and related in a perfectly objective manner. It’s thorough, professional, meticulously researched.
Unfortunately, except for the sinus infection that cost him an entire season when he was at the height of his powers, and which affected his eyesight for years afterwards, Sisler’s life was so reputable it’s hard to generate out of it any truly memorable narratives. I think Huhn has done about as good a job as he could have, with the caveat that Sisler’s largely successful efforts to reconcile Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb could surely have come in for a richer treatment. Huhn, though, is a professional documentarist, allergic to the speculation in which he would have had to engage to flesh out the details of Sisler’s intermediary role.
So, what we’re left with is the detailed account of a very nice guy who grew up middle class, learned manners, smacked the living crap out of the ball for fifteen years (five or six of which were marred by decline due to his eye problems, but even so, he was such an incredible batsman he “declined” into a measly .300 hitter), never got to the World Series and then retired. He became an advisor, scout, occasional minor league manager and steward of a printing company.
It was left to the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki to “resurrect” Sisler’s memory during his 2004 run at the Browns’ master batsman’s single-season hit record of 257. Yet it took even Ichiro 160 games to break the record Sisler set in 154. That season, when the Crew of the Minnow’s record was an appalling 63-99, has been documented, after a fashion, by Mark Arnold in his slim volume Ichiro and Gorgeous George.
Let me make clear that I do not recommend this book to any but the real connoisseurs of baseball history. They alone would be determined enough to finish it. First of all, its account of the 2004 season is dull. Arnold is too much the Mariners homeboy to mine the wealth of inadvertent comedy running in vein after vein through a season so otherwise misbegotten. I felt like I was reading transcriptions from the voice recorder of a fan praying his fantasy of announcing for the Mariners would be twinkled by some eldritch entity’s magic wand. Speaking of 2004, this clunker recalled another book I expected more from than it delivered. That was no less a wordsmith than Stephen King’s account of the Red Sox’s championship season in Faithful (co-authored by someone named Stewart O’Nan, the comic possibilities of which King avoided as well). Both emphasize what happens when a reader picks up a book by someone working outside his element (which in King’s case is horror, and in Arnold’s case must have been Certified Public Accounting). Also, I hate to say it but it seems as though any book backhandedly blessed by too much information about George Sisler is doomed to ennui.
But that’s not what I disliked most about this book. In its own effort to transcend ennui, it tries to leap through a stargate. Its blurb on Amazon—written either by Arnold himself, my first guess, or by some really credulous agent or family member —speaks of the “stunning possibility” Arnold has discovered in the course of writing this account which illuminates the “spiritual” dimensions of sports.
Are you ready?
Arnold has concluded that Ichiro Suzuki is—literally—George Sisler’s reincarnation. No kidding. Arnold makes this claim with the textual equivalent of a straight face. His rationale? That Sisler died before Suzuki was born. Take it for what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t pay you with Monopoly money for it.
As an aside, in what we might consider a temporally displaced Bon ceremony, Suzuki visited George Sisler’s grave during the 2009 All-Star break when the game was held in St. Louis. I think I’ll end here and leave these two immortals of the diamond to commiserate.