Did the American League Blunder?
George Sisler Holds the Highest Batting Mark Ever Made in the American League. For Years He Was One of the Chief Luminaries of that Circuit. Yet He Was Allowed to Drift Away For the Waiver Price to Have an Excellent Year with the Boston Braves
By F. C. Lane
BASEBALL MAGAZINE June 1929
Did the American League blunder when they allowed George Sisler to go his way? Surely, this was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the season of 1928. The once peerless first baseman had been sold from the wreck of the St. Louis Browns to the Washington Club. During spring training he hit for .400. The season had not advanced far, however, when he was seated upon the bench. Then came the astonishing news that every club in the American League had waived upon his services. The Boston Braves had claimed him at the waiver price. And the man who had once been the star of the American League laid aside that uniform forever, to don the livery of the rival National circuit.
Turn back a few brilliant pages of American League history and we find those pages emblazoned with the exploits of the Big Six- Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins and George Sisler. This sensational sextet fairly dominated the big league diamond. Their like was not to be found. They were the stars of baseball. Where are they now?
Ty Cobb has definitely retired. Tris Speaker has gone to the Minors as manager. Walter Johnson has assumed the helm at Washington, though he is not expected to indulge any more in that lightning delivery that once made him the idol of the fans, the despair of opposing batters. Eddie Collins is also slated for a managerial berth sometime in the future. Meanwhile, his playing days have entered upon that drab twilight which precedes the dark. Babe Ruth remains ponderous, formidable, unapproachable as ever. But Sisler, who once upon a time was called the greatest player in the circuit, went for the waiver price.
Was Sisler so near the end of his career? The records would belie that theory. At Boston, with a club that struggled unavailingly in the toils of perpetual defeat, with no possible pennant prospects as an incentive, Sisler battled his way among the leading five hitters of the circuit in what must be reckoned a phenomenally successful season.
As that season neared its close, Sisler discussed with the editor of this magazine the singular series of events which had brought him to the Braves. Very guarded in his comments, reticent, fearful as ever of giving possible cause for offense, his pride has been touched a bit by this humiliating transfer. Who can wonder at it? But he held his head high, spoke confidently of his own condition and immediate prospects and denied all regrets.
"There are slight differences, of course," said Sisler, "between the system of play in vogue in the National and American Leagues. I can observe them and form my own opinions. But I would not care to draw any parallel between the two, for several reasons. In the first place, I have not been a National Leaguer long enough to pass a competent opinion. In the second place, if I said anything which seemed by any stretch of the imagination, critical of the American League, I would be accused of sour grapes. So I had perhaps best say little or nothing. "One thing, however, seems obvious. There could be no marked difference in playing ability between the two leagues, for both secure their players from the same sources and are directed by intelligent managers.
"The injury to my vision which occurred some years ago was real and serious. But it seems to me unnecessary, as well as unjust, that the memory of that injury should overshadow the remainder of my career. As a matter of fact, my eyes are all right, have been perfectly normal for some time. And I have repeatedly and emphatically said so. But no one seemed willing to believe me. They felt, apparently, that because my eyes were seriously out of order some years ago, they must be out of order now. That line of reasoning, if you can call it so, has always been beyond my depth. Frankly, I can't fathom it at all. People come to me every day and tell me how well I look. That's friendly of them, and I wouldn't think anything of it if they didn't think anything of it if they didn't invariably seem surprised. Why shouldn't I look all right? I'm sure I feel all right. I haven't felt so well for years.
"Some ambitious friends hint of a possible .400 batting season. I appreciate their good opinion, but I cannot agree with their prophecy. A .400 batting season is rare in any batter's career. In order to hit .400, everything must go exactly your way from the start to finish of the season. There can be no important slumps anywhere. Why should I expect to hit .400 again, in what remains to me of my major league career? I have already crossed that mark twice. Is that not enough? How many other batters, since baseball began, have hit .400 more than twice? You can count them on the fingers of one hand. If I had not been incapacitated when I was in my prime, lost an entire season and been obliged to begin all over again the next season, I, myself, might have crossed the .400 mark at least three times. This late in the game I can hardly expect to do so. But I'm hitting .350 right now and that's no average that you can go to sleep on. You have to hustle every minute. Must I apologize for an average of .350?
"There are still other reasons why I shall probably never hit .400 again. The pitching has tightened up noticeably in the past two years. It's not so easy as it used to be. Every batter will tell you that?
"Besides, I have changed my batting style somewhat. There was a time, years ago, when I put all the ingenuity I possessed into placing my hits. I followed Cobb's lead. But Cobb himself changed his style when the lively ball and slugging became so pronounced. These things put a premium on straight away, smashing hits. I hit harder than I did, and because I hit harder, I pay less respect to the direction of my hits. Not that I don't like to place them sometimes, when the occasion calls for it. Every batter tries to place his hits at least on the hit and run play. And there are other times during a game when it is a decided advantage. But in the main, sharp, ringing line drives, no matter where they go, will net bigger results for a batter than cutting down the velocity of his drives and trying to place his hits.
"Some people have felt that I objected coming to the National League. That is not true. On the contrary, I always had a curiosity to know how it would seem to face National League pitchers through a season. I had no objections whatever about coming to Boston. My only regret is that the club has not done so well as I could have hoped. "As I look back on my career, I find it rather easy to understand why the Browns let me go. They had resolved to make a sweeping change in the club personnel. They went the limit. In a way I was sorry to go, for I began my major league career at St. Louis and had my best seasons there. But I could understand the situation and made no comments, when I was sold to Washington.
"When I was training with the Washington club in the south, I hit around .400. I expected to have a good season. I got away rather poorly, however, for some reason that I can't just explain. Ty Cobb used to get away poorly when he was in his prime, but he never failed to make up for it with warmer weather. Anyway, I found myself sitting on the Washington bench, a novel experience for me.
"There is no personal feeling on my part toward Joe Judge. Baseball is a game of keen competition, where Darwin's law never ceases to prevail- "The survival of the fittest." Joe had been a fixture in the Washington infield for many years. I was an interloper. Joe had staunch friends among the Washington newspaper men. They backed him up vigorously, which was all right. It's a mighty good thing to have friends in the newspaper game. But they talked overmuch about my impaired eyesight, and the impression gained headway all over the circuit that I was on my last legs. That is the only way I can explain why all the American League clubs waived on my services.
"Possibly the salary I was getting may have deterred some of them who might otherwise have taken a chance. I do not know, nor profess to know, anything about the inside politics of the league. It seems to me, in the light of what has happened, that several clubs could have used me. But if they didn't think so, that was their affair.
"One thing I can say. All the idle gossip about my eyesight was entirely unfounded. There is nothing wrong with my eyes. If there were, would I be hitting .350? I am no longer a rookie and not so fast in the field as I used to be. No one needs to remind me of that. But certainly my eyes haven't slowed me. It's my legs. My eyes did not bother me a bit either in batting or fielding. You can make that as strong as you wish."
As a life-long admirer and intimate friend of George Sisler, I can say that his eyes back up his words. They look as clear and keen and unflinching as they seemed in that proud season when Sisler topped Ty Cobb's supremest effort and hung up the highest batting average ever recorded in the American League. There was a time when this was not so. When Sisler attempted to come back from his long layoff, his eyes did not appear normal. There was a tired, drawn look about them. One of them, in particular, seemed so weak that this weakness was obvious, even to a casual observer.
Doubtless the strange case of George Sisler was complicated by his avowed acceptance of Christian Science doctrines. Sisler has little use for doctors. Nor does he discuss ailments with the terms of the man in the street. He is particularly prone to ignore even painful injuries. When one of his ankles was swollen to double its normal size, he did not seem to spare it, even when sliding bases.
But whatever Sisler's religious beliefs, and he does not discuss them publicly, he patronizes medical experts, under certain circumstances. I once myself accompanied him for an extended x-ray examination when he thought he had fractured a bone in his feet.
Though game and inclined to minimize ordinary injuries, there is nothing bigoted in Sisler's attitude toward such things.
Quite possibly, however, these beliefs of Sisler reacted against him. Shrewd baseball men may have thought that he ignored serious disability as a matter of principle. In arriving at that conclusion they were a little perhaps too shrewd. Sisler's repeated affirmation that his eyesight was all right fell upon deaf ears, but he proved it by his great work in 1928.