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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Major League Baseball
Spotlight shines on Sisler

By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter

WIDE WORLD PHOTO, 1924
George Sisler, right, shaking hands with Babe Ruth, is widely acknowledged as the record holder for most hits in a season.
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As his father's legacy is being revisited just in time to see his signature achievement perhaps wiped out of the record book, Dave Sisler is sure of one thing.

"He would have been the first in line to congratulate Ichiro," said Sisler, 72, a former major-league pitcher now living in St. Louis. "He was a very humble man. He enjoyed good batting. He would have loved to have to met him, to talk over hitting with him."

Sadly, that historic union will never take place because George Sisler died in 1973. But his family is delighted that Ichiro's pursuit of Sisler's 84-year-old hits record has shined a new light on one of baseball's greatest, and most underappreciated, players.

Of course, it can't help but wonder why it took so long, considering the long list of achievements that bear Sisler's stamp. He was in the second class to be inducted into the Hall of Fame; hit better than .400 twice and finished with a lifetime average of .340; and held the hitting-streak record of 41 games, set in 1922, until Joe DiMaggio broke it in 1941 on the way to 56.

"We're very happy he's getting some attention," Dave Sisler said. "This record has sat in the background a long time. It's a crime."

Historians have several theories for Sisler's relative lack of acclaim. He played for a team, the St. Louis Browns, that is now defunct and rarely contended during his tenure. He was overshadowed in his own town by Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals, and in his time by Babe Ruth, who broke out in 1920 with 54 homers. And his run of excellence was relatively brief, his brilliance dimmed by a sinus condition that caused double vision and forced him to sit out the 1923 season.

He came back in 1924 and finished his 15-year career in 1930, but was never quite the same.

His family believes, however, that Sisler's humility and lack of self-promotion is the main culprit. Sisler biographer Rick Huhn said that a writer once aptly described Sisler as "a legendary player without a legend."

"I grew up a block away from my grandfather, and I'd always run over to eat my grandmother's cookies or go to a game with him," said Sisler's grandson, Peter Drochelman. "I could get him to tell me stories about other players, but I could never get him to talk about himself. To do so would be immodest."

Yet those who take the time to dig find a man of unquestioned integrity, with some fascinating elements to his story. With fortuitous timing, Huhn's biography of Sisler, entitled "The Sizzler," will be published in late October. Drochelman is working on a documentary about Sisler, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in engineering and was brought directly to the Browns by his college coach, the legendary Branch Rickey.
 
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In a telephone interview, Drochelman overflows with personal and professional anecdotes about his grandfather. He recalls the awe and reverence with which Sisler was greeted when he would attend Cardinals games after his retirement, and the acuity with which he once cured Drochelman's Little League slump.

"I literally didn't get a hit all season," he said. "My grandfather, this very humble man, looked at my swing and said, 'The only reason you're not getting hits is because you don't think you can.' He said, 'This may sound silly, but I want you to go to the plate and say over and over in your head, 'I can hit any pitcher in this league.' Just see what happens.' "

Drochelman said he hit better than .500 the next season, and credits his grandfather's advice. Dave Sisler said of his dad, "He was very, very positive minded. He thought he could hit any pitcher who ever went to the mound. That's the way he faced life."

Sisler became renowned as a hitting coach. He was credited with being a key instructor to two Hall of Famers in particular — Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Roberto Clemente with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When Rickey was determined to break the color line as owner of the Dodgers, he dispatched Sisler to scout Robinson. Sisler related the story in a memoir he wrote for his family.

"My grandfather met Jackie's family, had dinner with him, all those kinds of things, to see what kind of man he was," Drochelman said. "He came back and said to Branch, 'I think that's the guy.' "

Sisler once wrote his theories of hitting in a four-page letter he gave to his son, Dick. Dick Sisler, who died in 1998, was a major-league outfielder/first baseman from 1946-53 and managed the Seattle Rainiers in 1960.

George Sisler eventually published a book on hitting. He also pitched in 24 major-league games, was a player-manager with St. Louis for three seasons, and was regarded as a great defensive first baseman.

"(Browns pitcher) Urban Shocker said having Sisler play first base was like having an extra right fielder down the line," said Steve Steinberg, a Seattle-based baseball historian who is working on a Shocker biography and this year published "Baseball in St. Louis, 1900-1925."

For now, the surviving Sislers will continue to check the box score each morning to see how much closer Ichiro has gotten. Dave Sisler points out that if you prorate his dad's 257 hits, achieved in a 154-game season, over 162 games, it adds 13 to the total.

"Really, his record ought to be 270," he said. "I hope Ichiro breaks it in 154 games so there's no questions."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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