George Sisler is a name seldom brought up when discussing the greatest ballplayers of all time. Given his career accolades and Hall of Fame status, that’s an injustice.
“Gentleman George”, also nicknamed “Gorgeous George”, was unquestionably the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history, and one of the games first truly elite first basemen. A quantifiable five-tool player, Sisler would play 12 of his 15 MLB seasons with the Browns, ending with a brief cup of coffee in Washington before finishing his career playing for three seasons with the Boston Braves. In that time, Sisler amassed a lifetime batting average of .340, good for 17th all time. Within that span, he would enjoy a mammoth 1920 campaign in which he hit .407 with 257 hits, a record that would last for 84 years.
As if that wasn’t enough, in 1922, Gentleman George would hit a whopping .420, while leading the league in hits, triples, stolen bases and runs scored. For his career, Sisler hit over .300 in 13 of his 15 seasons, over .350 five times, and over .400 twice. His offensive prowess, along with his base stealing ability and defensive wizardry that garnered him much comparison to the great Hal Chase, earned Sisler a rightful place on the stage at the inaugural induction ceremony in Cooperstown in 1939.
But like some other stars that rose through the deadball era, Gentleman George began his big league life as a pitcher. Albeit a short lived stint on the bump, Sisler did enjoy one or two grand accomplishments.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1915 (an extremely rare occurrence for ballplayers in that era), Sisler joined Branch Rickey’s Browns staff and posted a 4-4 mark with a 2.85 ERA in 15 games, a very strong body of work for a rookie on a second tier team. The highlight of those, and one that Sisler himself referred to as his greatest thrill in baseball (1), was a 2-1 complete game victory in which he out-dueled the great Walter Johnson. The game, in which George limited the Senators to six hits while striking out three, effectively was saved in the eighth inning by perfect execution of the infamous hidden ball trick. Ray Morgan opened the Senators’ eighth reaching on an error by shortstop Doc Lavin. Skipper Clark Griffith inserted Horace Milan as a pinch runner, who was then sacrificed over to second. On the bunt, Browns second baseman Del Pratt covered first, and after securing the putout, quickly tucked the ball under his right arm, unseen by everyone except Sisler. Moving about the hill in faux-preparedness to pitch to the next batter, Milan began his leadoff from second, when Pratt dove toward him with the ball. Umpire Billy Evans ruled the out and the Washington rally was stopped. Sisler would then finish them off in the ninth for the win.
Shortly thereafter, Sisler’s bat and glove were proving more valuable than his pitching arm, and so a few random appearances on the bump notwithstanding, he would be an every day position player instead, a path that would end in the Hall of Fame.
A year later however, in his second-to-last career start, Sisler would ironically again go up against Walter Johnson. On September 17, 1916, the two would square off at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and again it would be Gentleman George with the upper hand, shutting out Johnson and the Senators 1-0. Sisler would go the distance, allowing six hits and striking out six for the final victory of his pitching career.
In 111 career innings, Sisler would run up a 5-6 total record, with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.2 WHIP. While not staggering, and certainly nowhere near the echelons of his offensive numbers, this snapshot proves that he was more than capable of being an effective pitcher.
Due to often being on second division teams and having never played in a World Series, George Sisler is often overlooked and rarely discussed. While his Hall of Fame numbers as a first baseman are forever impressive, he did enjoy a few shining moments as a hurler as well.