In 1917, Baseball Magazine called the young and talented George Sisler “Ty Cobb’s probable successor,” a prediction that missed coming true by a nose. In 1920, the St. Louis Browns’ spray-hitting first baseman collected 257 base hits–a single-season record that stood 84 years until Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki broke it–as he won his first batting title with a .407 mark.
Two years later, the converted pitcher won his second batting title with a torrid .420 average, eclipsing Cobb’s record 40-game hitting streak in the process. Nicknamed “Gorgeous George,” Sisler also was an outstanding defensive player, a gifted runner (he won four stolen-base crowns), and a heady batter. For years he set up certain pitchers by purposely striking out on high inside pitches, gambling they would throw him the same pitch in a tight spot.
However, in 1923 a severe sinus infection affected Sisler’s optic nerve. Problems with double vision caused him to miss the entire season. He was never the same dominating hitter after that, though he still regularly posted .300 seasons. He batted a composite .367 in the eight seasons before his injury–ironically, the exact average Cobb retired with–but hit “just” .320 in the seven seasons afterwards. This gave the modest, gentlemanly Sisler an overall .340 average when he called it quits after the 1930 season. On June 12, 1939, he joined Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and a few other select titans of the game at the inaugural induction ceremonies at the newly opened Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sisler grew up near Akron, Ohio, the son of a farmer-turned-grocer, but he was a proud “Michigan man” his entire life. In 1912, he signed a minor-league contract with an Akron team but never played for it, opting to enter the University of Michigan to study mechanical engineering. As a collegiate pitcher he won 50 games without a loss. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh had acquired the rights to Sisler’s contract, but the brilliant southpaw ultimately was declared a free agent. He signed with the St. Louis Browns, managed by his former college coach, Branch Rickey. He beat his boyhood idol, Walter Johnson, in his first start and wound up splitting eight decisions before shifting full time to first base. In one of those games, a complete-game 6-5 loss to Detroit on September 5, 1915, he held Cobb hitless in five at-bats.
Sisler and Cobb formed a mutual admiration society of sorts. As a gimmick, the two greats pitched against each other in the final game of the 1918 season. Sisler hurled one scoreless inning, then smacked a double his only time at bat against Cobb. They repeated the gimmick on the final day of the 1925 season. During his career, Cobb went 0-for-6 against Sisler–just one more reason, perhaps, why the Peach picked him for his all-time all-star team. “The finest first baseman of them all,” Cobb declared.
“There never was a first baseman who could match him in speed, reflexes, deftness and gracefulness,” Rickey once said of Sisler, who died March 26, 1973, just two days after turning 80. “He was the picture player, the kind we used to call the Spalding Guide player because his picture was used to illustrate excellence.”