Thursday, January 24, 2008

George Sisler's 1920 Hit Parade

When Ichiro Suzuki broke the one-season hit record in 2004, it gave me a good excuse to take a closer look at the record and at the man who set it. For more than a half-century, from 1930-1977, nobody came within 20 hits of the record set when George Sisler amassed 257 hits in 1920. In 1977, Rod Carew, who hitting style most closely resembles Ichiro’s (being able to manufacture the exact swing needed to send each kind of pitch toward an open space in the field), had 239 hits, but never threatened Sisler’s mark. Since 1985, Wade Boggs and Darin Erstad both had 240-hit seasons, becoming only the eleventh and twelfth players to reach that plateau. Ichiro, as a rookie in the major leagues, topped them with 242 hits in 2001, and in 2004 mounted the first serious assault on Sisler’s mark since Bill Terry and Chuck Klein (254 and 250 hits respectively) in 1930.

George Sisler was arguably the best all-around first baseman ever, though his exploits at that position were overshadowed by Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Though Sisler lacked the slugging prowess of that duo, he was far superior as a baserunner (375 career stolen bases) and was a legendary dynamo as a fielder. His career batting average was .340, the same as Gehrig’s, and he is one of only three men (along with Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby) since 1900 to hit over .400 more than once.

One of those seasons was 1920, when Sisler hit .407. He had averaged .335 over his first five seasons with the St. Louis Browns, and that’s about what he hit over the first six weeks before getting hot. A change in the Browns batting order may have made the difference. Sisler batted cleanup the first 33 games and hit a modest .346. On May 29, he moved to the #3 spot, in front of slugging outfielder William “Baby Doll” Jacobson (who matched Sisler’s 122 RBI for the season). Sisler batted third the rest of the way and hit .423 in that spot. In June, he had an amazing 60 hits and batted .526 to raise his average over .425. He cooled off for most of July before launching his longest hitting streak of the year. Beginning on July 25, he put together a 25-game streak, hitting .447 over that stretch and giving himself a chance to reach .400.

September was Sisler’s most dramatic month, as he smacked 57 more hits in 30 games. During a 14-game homestand starting on September 9, he went 32-for-61, a .525 clip including seven games of at least three hits. He surged past .400 on September 18 and never looked back, piling up 17 hits in his final eight games to finish with 257, nine more than the previous record set by Ty Cobb in 1911.

Sisler was not just a singles hitter as Ichiro was for most of 2004. In 1920, he finished second in the American League with 49 doubles (Tris Speaker had 50), second with 18 triples (Joe Jackson had 20), and also second in home runs with 19 (Babe Ruth edged him out as well, with 54). His totals of 137 runs scored and 122 RBI were topped only by Ruth, and his 42 stolen bases made him a runner-up in that department, too (Sam Rice had 63). He struck out only 19 times in 631 at-bats.

Playing 154 games, Sisler had multiple-hit games an astonishing 74 times. He had a dozen four-hit games, 29 three-hit games, and 33 two-hit games. He was held hitless only 24 times all season. Between June 9-26, he went hitless three times but had at least two hits in the other 14 games he played and at least three hits in 10 of them, a .563 clip (40-for-71). He had at least 32 hits against each team in the American League and particularly feasted on Washington pitching, with 42 hits and a .477 average.

Sisler’s Browns played in one of the cozier ballparks of that era, Sportsman’s Park, which was also Rogers Hornsby’s home park when he hit over .400 three times in the early 1920s. In 1920, Sisler roughed up visiting pitchers to the tune of a .473 average, including 150 of his 257 hits. By comparison, he struggled on the road, hitting only .341. Twice he hit over .500 during extended homestands, notably a .533 average and 48 hits when six of the other seven teams visited St. Louis in June.

In 1921, Sisler’s numbers dropped to 216 hits and a .371 average, but he came back strong in 1922 with 246 hits and batted .420. Only Hornsby and Napoleon Lajoie had higher averages since 1900. By batting an aggregate .400 from 1920-22, Sisler raised his career average to .361. In 1923 he turned 30 years old and surely expected to keep up the pace for at least a few more years. However, a serious eye infection nearly blinded him and kept him sidelined for the entire 1923 season. He returned in 1924, still seeing double, but hit only .305. He was never quite the same after that. From 1924 until he retired following the 1930 season, he hit .320, dropping his career average to .340 and leaving him 188 hits shy of the 3,000 mark, a difference he would have made up easily had he played in 1923.

In 2004, Sisler’s son Dave was quoted as saying that his father would’ve been the first to congratulate Ichiro for breaking his long-overlooked hit record. Surely Sisler would have approved of Ichiro’s hitting style. “You have to be a three-field hitter to hit for a good average,” Sisler declared. His prescription for good hitting sounds like a perfect description of Ichiro: “You don’t stand in the same position in the batter’s box against every pitcher. . .You can’t step the same all the time and be a great hitter. . .You don’t swing at a ball, you hit at it. Hitting rather than swinging will let your wrists go into action much more readily. . .A batter needs intelligence first. . .Then comes body control, quick wrists, good eyes.” That’s easier said than done, however, and the measure of Sisler’s achievement is that it took so long for another hitter to come along and remind us of how great he was.