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Out Of Sight

Angels' Erstad Made a Run at It, but for 80 Years, Few Have Threatened George Sisler's Often-Ignored Record of 257 Hits in a Season.

September 15, 2000|JIM BARRERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's merely a coincidence that one of baseball's purest souls owns arguably one of the sport's most basic records.

But the fit couldn't be more perfect.

George Sisler's audacious record for hits in a season, one of the longest-held records in the sport, is safe for another year, continuing a theme that figures to be difficult to ever change.

The Angels' Darin Erstad has had a career year and was on pace to break the hits record for four months, but an August slump and injuries have put his quest out of reach.

So Sisler's name will continue to live at the top of a list that simply wouldn't seem right without his contributions.

In 1920, Sisler had one of baseball's most phenomenal seasons and 80 years later his accomplishments still leave even the most hardened of historians flabbergasted.

The crown jewel of Sisler's remarkable body of work that season is found in three digits--257.

That's the number of hits the 5-foot-11, Ohio-born first baseman totaled after playing every inning of a 154-game schedule for the St. Louis Browns.

Understated excellence. Consistency. Durability. All are admired qualities, but rarely do they bring the fanfare reserved for the super-stardom of home run hitters or strikeout pitchers.

The man they called "Gentleman George," "Gorgeous George" and even "The Sizzler," would go on to hit .407 that season, only to surpass that level two years later in 1922 when he batted a remarkable .420.

He still is one of only three players in major league history to bat better than .400 more than once. Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby are the others.

Why, then, doesn't 257 bring forth the same reverence as 54, 56, 61, 715 or many other of baseball's magical numbers?

Part of the answer lies with a player named Babe Ruth.

The same season the left-handed Sisler reached 257 hits, Ruth smashed a then-record 54 home runs. Sisler finished second in the league in homers that year . . . with 19.

Of course, Ruth's obliteration of the home run record drew all the attention from fans and newspapermen, while Sisler's mark was pushed to the side and perhaps left unappreciated during what was a golden age of pure hitters.

Time has been Sisler's ally in recognizing the achievement, but even today chasing a record for hits simply doesn't evoke the emotions that a home run chase can.

Since 1920, many have tried and failed to match Sisler's 257. Even with the benefit of eight extra regular-season games now, it rarely has brought anyone very close in the last 50 years.

Erstad is the latest to take his swings at Sisler, but even he wasn't able to endure the pace of what it takes. At least not yet.

In baseball, August is a month where record chases often go to die, and that once again has proved to be the case.

Even Erstad, ever the harsh self-critic, cautioned earlier this season when it was pointed out he was on pace to match Sisler's mark.

"The key words there are 'on pace' " Erstad said June 30. "There's a long way to go."

The Man

Baseball accomplishments aside, Sisler took more pride in his high moral character and clean family living than in any record he set.

His existence was unique during his playing days for more than just baseball reasons.

Just like his parents, Cassius and Mary, Sisler was an educated man, having attended the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1915 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

"He was a very unique person," said Sisler's oldest son, George Jr., who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "Back then, there weren't many college-educated ballplayers. He met Mom [Kathleen] at Michigan, and they never stopped emphasizing the importance of education and doing the right thing."

At Michigan, Sisler's coach was Branch Rickey, who was better known later for helping break baseball's color line in 1947 by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Sisler became Rickey's first real find. At that time, Sisler made his name as a pitcher, compiling a 50-0 college record. But his grace, speed, athletic ability and prowess as a hitter eventually were too much to merely contain him to a featured role every few days.

After Michigan, Sisler followed Rickey to the majors, signing with the St. Louis Browns, where Rickey became manager. He started his major league career as a pitcher and even defeated his boyhood idol Walter Johnson twice. But it wasn't long before Rickey put a first baseman's glove in Sisler's hands.

"Playing organized baseball wasn't a big thing to him," Sisler's youngest son, David, said, "but then he realized he was good."

Sisler meant more to his family as a father than as a ballplayer.

Frances Drochelman, Sisler's only daughter among his four children (he had another son, Dick, who died in 1998 after a major league career as a player, coach and manager), remembers her father's love of the game.

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