Normally, a tilt between the fifth and seventh-place teams with just two weeks remaining in the season wouldn’t be grounds for excitement, much less remarkableness.
On Sunday, September 17, 1916 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis however, there was a game that was thoroughly exciting. It was also quite remarkable.
On this day, “Gorgeous” George Sisler of the home team Browns out-dueled the great Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators 1-0 for the final win of his pitching career.
But wait, isn’t Sisler a Hall of Fame first basemen? Yes, he is. But like several other ballplayers of that era, notably Babe Ruth and Smoky Joe Wood, Sisler enjoyed some success on the hill, albeit in a smaller capacity, comparatively.
Sisler started just 12 games with 28 appearances on the mound in his 15-year MLB career, compiling a mark of 5-6 with a 2.35 ERA over 111 innings pitched. Included in those outings were nine complete games, three saves, and one shutout – coming against Johnson, no less. He started three games for his Browns in ’16, completing all of them, with a record of 1-2 and an ERA of an even 1.00. These pitching marks went alongside a strong offensive campaign for the 23-year old in which he hit .305 with 11 triples, 76 RBI and 34 steals.
His final, and lone pitching victory of 1916 was a dandy.
In a game late in the season with both teams long out of pennant contention, the young Sisler took the bump opposite the Big Train himself. In an otherwise meaningless contest, the two pitchers locked horns in an epic standoff. The solitary run of the game crossed the plate in the bottom of the fifth inning. Browns center fielder Armando Marsans drew a walk by Johnson and was shortly thereafter singled home by catcher Grover Hartley. It was the only threat the Browns mustered all day, as Johnson was his typical brilliant self, scattering four hits while striking out eight. One of his two walks on the day, that to Marsans, would be the difference in the game.
For his part, Sisler allowed six Senators hits, while walking two and striking out six in a game that took just one hour, forty-seven minutes.
Although this was the last time Sisler would throw a complete game victory, it was not the first time he did so against Walter Johnson. Almost a year earlier to the day, on August 29, 1915, Sisler went the distance in a 2-1 victory over Johnson and the Senators, in a contest that was also at Sportsman’s Park and made famous by a brilliant eighth-inning execution of the hidden ball trick.
The St. Louis Browns would finish 79-75 in 1916, good enough for fifth place in the eight-team American League. The Washington Senators ended up 7th, with a mark of 76-77.
Sisler made just six more pitching appearances in his career after the Johnson shutout. He would go on to be the greatest player in Browns history and one of the best first basemen of his era. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .340, hit over .300 in 13 of his 15 MLB seasons, was the 1922 MVP and won batting titles in 1920 and 1922, hitting over .400 each time.
An excellent hitter, baserunner and defensive player, Sisler was not surprisingly part of the inaugural class at Cooperstown. But notching two of five career pitching wins against Walter Johnson, hurling the full nine each time, deserves a doff of the cap too.
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