Michigan Made to Better Baseball
April 10, 2008
Prior to Michigan baseball entering Big Ten action in 1918, the Wolverines boasted a player and coach that would later become two of the most pivotal figures in Major League Baseball history. In 1911, native Ohioan George Sisler came to Ann Arbor with the hopes of playing for Branch Rickey. In just a few years time, the two would begin a relationship that would continue in the major leagues and on into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1910, then athletic director Phil Bartelme convinced law school dean to allow one of his students, Rickey, to take over as head coach of the Wolverine baseball team. After a lengthy meeting, Hutchins was convinced to allow Rickey to coach as long as he maintained his studies.
Over the next four seasons, Rickey would post a 68-32-4 (.673) record in Ann Arbor and would be remembered for his mentoring of Sisler.
Truth be told, Rickey did not have anything to do with Sisler attending Michigan. A native of Nimisila, Ohio, a small town just outside of Akron, Sisler was encouraged by his father to attend Michigan for both baseball and law school.
By the age of 18 and prior to his arrival in Ann Arbor, Sisler was technically a professional. He signed a contract with the Akron Champs of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League, but not once practiced, played or accepted money in the agreement.
When Sisler arrived on campus, he approached Rickey about the possibility of walking on the team. Encouraged by one of Sisler's former teammates who was also playing at Michigan, Rickey agreed to allow Sisler in a practice session that saw him pitch fastball after fastball by a host of Wolverines. Though freshmen did not have eligibility, Rickey believed that Sisler would be a major contribution to the team and invited him to walk on.
The invitation would be one of the first of several major decisions that Rickey would make in his baseball career, but more on that later.
Sisler attended Michigan from 1911 to 1915, majoring in mechanical engineering while also trying to engineer a path to the major leagues. During his career with the Wolverines, Rickey was 13-3 on the mound, accumulating more than 200 strikeouts, including one game when he fanned 20 players in seven innings of work. At the plate he averaged .404 with 129 hits in 297 plate appearances.
Rickey was a college standout as well, starring as a catcher at Ohio Wesleyan in 1903. Following his prep days, Rickey made his major league debut in 1905 with the St. Louis Browns. After a brief stint playing professionally, Rickey opted to attend Michigan in pursuit of his law degree. In 1913, Rickey left Ann Arbor for a front office position with St. Louis, leaving his star prodigy Sisler to finish out his career under the watch of Carl Lundgren.
But Rickey would keep tabs on Sisler in his final years as a Wolverine, as well as the nasty dispute he was involved in from the contract he signed with Akron before college. While in Ann Arbor, Sisler contacted the Akron ballclub, which had been sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates and owner Barney Dreyfuss. Sisler, who felt he was cajoled into signing the contract, never had intentions of playing with the team and declined to report to Pirates camp. In 1912, the National Commission, then baseball's governing body, realized that if it forced Sisler to abide by the contract it would ultimately end his college eligibility.
Rickey soon re-entered the situation serving as an advisor to Sisler. Rickey's belief was that since Sisler was a minor in age when he signed the contract, it should be voided. Dreyfuss always felt that he deserved compensation for acquiring Sisler's contract and ultimately the Commission felt that Sisler should be granted free agency by the Pirates. The catch was that every other team in the league agreed not to sign Sisler, now the nation's top player, so he could be re-acquired by Pittsburgh.
As a senior at Michigan, Sisler learned that he was now an unrestricted free agent and was soon thereafter offered a contract by Pittsburgh worth $700 a month, including a $1,000 signing bonus. All things pointed to a peaceful resolution when another team outbid the Pirates for the rights to Sisler. It was the St. Louis Browns, led by business manager Rickey. The offer to his former Wolverine pupil was for $400 a month, a $5,000 signing bonus, and a guaranteed raise the following season.
Sisler accepted Rickey's terms and the two were together again.
Dreyfuss was concerned about the perception of how the situation was handled and eventually lobbied the Commission for more oversight and control. Years later in 1920, several owners left the Commission and hired the first full-time league commissioner in Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
In his rookie season in 1915, Sisler went 4-4 on the mound with a 2.83 earned run average and hit .285 at the plate with 15 extra base hits and 10 stolen bases. Under Rickey's advisement, Sisler would soon become an everyday player, mostly in the outfield and at first base. Though his former college and professional coach was replaced in St. Louis by Fielder Jones in 1916, Sisler flourished in his second season with the Browns. He tallied a team-high 177 hits with an average of .305 and stole 34 bases as well. He also pitched three complete games and boasted a 1.00 ERA.
In 1917, Sisler hit .353 at the plate, second only in the league to Ty Cobb, and was among the leaders in hits, doubles, stolen bases, total bases and slugging. He batted .341 in 1918 and topped the .350 mark again in 1919. With 31 doubles, 15 triples and 10 homers and 28 steals, Sisler was the only man in the league to reach double-digits in all four categories.
In 1920, Sisler recorded a major-league record with 257 hits and after another successful season in 1921, Sisler completed the 1922 season with an American League record average of .420, which still stands today. He notched at least one hit in 41 consecutive games, which was also a record until Yankee Joe DiMaggio broke it with 56 games in 1941. During the 1922 season, Sisler also led the league with 51 steals, 134 runs, 246 hits and 18 triples.
He sat out in 1923 and was later traded to Boston toward the end of his career. He concluded his major league stint with a .340 lifetime average, 2,812 hits and 164 triples. He led the league in steals four times, which is unheard of for a first baseman. He later joined Rochester of the International League and remained with the team until 1932 when he opted out of baseball to focus on his wife and four children.
He wouldn't rejoin the ranks in baseball until Rickey would come calling again.
While Sisler was taking baseball by storm on the field, Rickey was doing the same off the field.
In 1919, Rickey returned to St. Louis to serve as president and manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. With a multitude of responsibilities, he is widely regarded as the first general manager in the history of the game and is tied to leading the development of the minor league farm system.
Rickey stayed with the Cardinals until he took over as president and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was responsible for building the first full-time spring training facility, which would intimately be called Dodgertown for years. Then he made not only the biggest decision in his life, but arguably in baseball history when on August 28, 1945, Rickey broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract.
Two years prior to that, Rickey brought on Sisler as an instructor for the Dodgers. When Rickey resigned to take the Pirates' general manager role in 1950, he took Sisler with him as a hitting instructor. Rickey held the position until 1955 and also made the significant drafting and signing of Roberto Clemente during that time.
Both Rickey and Sisler remained in baseball a short time after and both were honored with baseball's highest distinction. Sisler was inducted to the Hall of Fame along with Lou Gehrig in 1939, while Rickey was elected as a contributor in 1967, two years after his death. Sisler died at the age of 80 in 1973, while still serving as a scout for the Pirates.
While Rickey's legacy will long be remembered in baseball lore, Sisler found his way back into the national spotlight in 2004. Eighty-four years after he set the single-season hits record, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed Sisler's mark of 257 on Oct. 1, 2004, and later ended the season with 262.
What is remarkable about Rickey and Sisler is the mark they left on the game of baseball. A Michigan law student turned baseball coach and a professional turned walk-on Ohioan not only prepped the Wolverines for inclusion into Big Ten play, but they also paved the way on a national level, setting trends in the sport that are still recognized today.
Select information adapted from jockbio.com.