SABR

Dave Sisler

This article was written by Rick Huhn.

When Dave Sisler initially toed the rubber at Fenway Park as a Red Sox pitcher in the spring of 1955, the occasion was far from ordinary. The date was May 23. The game -- an exhibition featuring the reigning world champion New York Giants played for the benefit of local hospitalized army vets -- featured the return of Ted Williams from a short, but much ballyhooed retirement from baseball. On the mound opposing Sisler was Paul Giel, the former All-American tailback for the University of Minnesota football team, whose pitching potential was deemed unlimited. But then Sisler was no ordinary rookie, either. The youngest son of baseball Hall of Famer George Sisler, he was an untried hurler who cost the Sox a bundle of money almost three years earlier after a stellar college basketball and baseball career. Sisler, on leave from the army, outpitched Giel in the 6½-inning game by allowing only four hits in a 4-3 Boston victory. Furthermore, he went on to a more productive career than the more acclaimed Giel.

By the time Dave made his official debut with the Red Sox, in 1956, he was 24 and his path to the big leagues had taken a number of twists and turns. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 16, 1931, David Michael was the fourth child and third son of George and Kathleen Sisler. At the time, his father had completed a sparkling 15-year major-league career (1915-1930, with one season missed because of eye trouble) and was in the midst of a season-and-a-half stint in the minors. Dave’s oldest brother, George Jr., played briefly in the minors and then became a minor-league executive. He was a general manager for upper-level franchises at Rochester and Columbus. He also served as president of the International League. Brother Dick played for eight seasons in the majors as an outfielder and first baseman with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Reds. Given his family’s baseball background, Dave came naturally and early to the game. “I played baseball my whole life,” he said. By the time he started playing in earnest, his father was in the sporting goods business in St. Louis. “I always had the gloves around and the bats, and I lived in a very advantageous neighborhood where I had a lot of kids that were just slightly older than I was, and we played stickball and corkball and all kinds of Indian ball.”1 Like most youngsters in the beginning, Dave played a number of positions. He threw and batted right-handed.

It did not take him long, however, to concentrate on pitching. The first time was with a team in the local Catholic league when he was 12 or 13. “When I was a freshman in high school is probably the first time that I competitively pitched in a high-school game, a varsity game as a freshman.”2 That was at John Burroughs, a preparatory school in west St. Louis, where his older brothers preceded him and starred in multiple sports. Dave followed suit. By the time he graduated he had been named all-state in football and basketball. He was well-suited for the latter at 6-feet-4 in height. He also was on the track team and, of course, he played baseball, pitching primarily and playing some first base. Interestingly, there were no all-state honors in baseball at that time, but Dave recalled that he “had pretty good success. I didn’t lose too many games.”3

By then Dave was also pitching semipro ball. He was picked to play on a Missouri team that went to Wichita for the World Series of the National Baseball Congress. At the time the commissioner of this bastion of semipro ball just happened to be Dave’s father. “[W]hen I pitched out there that was the first time my dad had ever seen me pitch.”4 George never pressured his offspring when it came to his chosen field. It just wasn’t his style. To the contrary he once said, “Frankly, I have never encouraged my sons to go in for the game. If they’ve got it in them, I’ll find out in time.”5

One thing George Sisler was a stickler about when it came to his sons was their academics. In this regard Dave did not disappoint. When he graduated from John Burroughs in 1949 he was near the top of his class, headed to Princeton University on an academic scholarship. By that time, his father had followed his mentor Branch Rickey to Brooklyn to scout and coach the Dodgers hitters. Dave stayed behind in St. Louis to finish high school, but he spent summers in Brooklyn. “A couple times I worked out with the Dodgers and threw batting practice one time, and then one time I threw special hitting to Jackie Robinson.”6

At Princeton, Dave quickly became a fixture with the school’s basketball and baseball teams. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports in 1950, but that did little to stop Dave, who struck out 14 Lafayette batters on April 22 in pitching his first complete game for the freshman team. All in all, he started six games that year and won them all. His pitching philosophy was simple. “I was always a hard thrower, just a slight bit off with control.”7

Over time, Dave added a curve and a change of pace to his arsenal, but from the start he had what he terms “another weakness . . . I was near-sighted.” It was a condition that required him to eventually wear glasses, but not until he was a professional. When he did don his specs for pitching, “[T]hey were a real pain.”8

Still, his eye problems did little to hold Dave Sisler back from a superior collegiate career. In his sophomore season, in 1951, his Tigers represented their district in the College World Series in Omaha. It was Dave’s three-hitter -- his first complete varsity game -- that sent them on their way. In the opening game, a 4-1 loss to Southern California, Dave relieved early and allowed one hit over the last 5⅔ innings. He ended the season by hurling his Tigers to the Eastern Intercollegiate League championship with a win over Harvard. In addition to his collegiate experience, Dave pitched semipro ball during each summer break.

In basketball, Dave was a starting forward. By his junior season, the 1951-2 school year, he pushed 6-feet-5 and weighed 180 pounds; enough size and bulk at that time to earn second-team All-Eastern honors on a squad that qualified for the NCAA tournament. His scoring average for those two varsity seasons hovered near double figures. During that junior year, his baseball career kept pace. In May 1952 he stopped Columbia on a three-hit shutout. Shortly thereafter, a magazine article about Dave and his baseball family listed his varsity baseball pitching record as 13 wins against 4 losses and an ERA of 1.23.9

By now Dave was attracting the attention of big-league scouts. However, given his interest in his studies and love for college life – he was vice president of both his sophomore and junior classes – any thought of professional baseball was on hold. That all changed a few months later, when Dave learned from his father and older brother George of potential changes in baseball’s governing rules that could severely limit bonuses paid to new signees. As a result, Dave quickly changed course. He worked out with the Yankees. The Red Sox had already scouted him when he played semipro ball in Massachusetts one summer. The Cardinals and Pirates, the team his dad now worked for, also showed interest. “The Red Sox at that point were signing people … a little more readily than other people, so I didn’t think twice about it. They came in and offered me $40,000 and I signed.”10 On October 15, 1952, Dave Sisler became a member of the Boston Red Sox organization when he signed with scout Neil Mahoney.

Despite what was then a sizeable amount of cash, the early signing came with a big downside. It cost Dave his senior year of eligibility and required him to relinquish his baseball captaincy. Still, the Sislers bargained for and received a year’s stay to permit Dave to finish college. In the spring of 1953, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in basic engineering, and, in keeping with his contract, prepared to report to Louisville, Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox. There was another big kicker: At the time, local draft boards permitted draft-eligible males to pursue their college education as long they fulfilled their commitment upon graduation. Nonetheless, there was a brief time between the end of classes and graduation when Dave could play some minor-league ball. But when he got to Louisville, he found a veteran staff and little hope of significant time on their mound. He stayed a week and pitched some batting practice. Before returning east to graduate he contacted Louisville manager Pinky Higgins to ask for a more meaningful assignment until his official call-up. This was how Dave found himself pitching in Albany of the Class A Eastern League, where he amassed an impressive 12-7 record and 2.60 ERA in 20 starts.11

Once he entered the U.S. Army, in February 1954, Dave spent the bulk of his military days stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, assigned to an anti-aircraft battery. Naturally, he played basketball and pitched for the post teams. In May 1955, he was on leave when he appeared successfully against the Giants in the exhibition game at Fenway. By February 1956, Dave was ready for discharge and a participant at the Red Sox rookie camp, where he showed enough stuff for Pinky Higgins, now the Red Sox manager, to invite him to spring training. An incentive for the parent team was a rule that permitted a club to keep a recent veteran without counting him toward the 25-man roster limit. This, plus a strong spring showing, landed the youngest Sisler a major-league job.

The 1956 Red Sox were a mix of veterans and youngsters coming off a fourth-place finish the previous year. The pitching coach was David “Boo” Ferriss, a former star hurler for the club. On April 21, Sisler made his major-league debut in one inning of relief against the Yankees in New York. He gave up one hit and an unearned run in a Red Sox loss. A more meaningful appearance came a week later in Boston when Dave pitched three innings of one-run ball in relief and secured his first victory. Manager Higgins waxed poetic about his new find: “I saw during our early school at Sarasota that Sisler had the stuff to pitch in the majors.”12 The “stuff,” as well as early success against archenemy New York and a 13⅔-inning stretch allowing no earned runs, won Dave his first start, on June 24 against the Kansas City Athletics. When he was removed after seven innings, he had allowed eight hits and five earned runs, including a tape-measure home run by Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. The Red Sox and Sisler took the loss, 5-2. Dave’s record stood at 3-3. The effort was enough, however, to earn Dave 13 more starts as he finished his rookie season at 9-8, with a 4.62 ERA, 93 strikeouts and 72 walks. Highlights included eight innings of two-hit ball against Cleveland on July 15 for his first win as a starter, and a complete-game two-hit victory over the same club on September 14 that included 7⅓ innings of no-hit ball. The latter represented Dave’s biggest thrill in baseball.13

There were some major characters on that 1956 team, which again finished fourth, with an 84-70 record. Two who stand out are Jimmy Piersall and Ted Williams. “My locker was right next to Jimmy Piersall’s on ‘ship-out row,, ” Sisler said. “He had the main locker, then there were two lockers right to the right of his which were right outside the manager’s office, and so the manager didn’t have to walk very far to tell them they were going to go back to the minors. . . . ” In Dave’s opinion, Piersall was “crazy smart” and “the best I ever saw in a confined center field … where you had to go close to the walls.” As for Williams, he “was a big vociferous person. …..Occasionally he’d come on the bus, but not very often. He stuck to himself. Very few guys on the team that I saw could say that they were close to him.”14

As the Red Sox entered 1957, Dave Sisler’s position as a starter was rock-solid. At the end of 1956, he was named to The Sporting News major-league all-rookie team. The Boston writers named him the team’s rookie of the year. In the offseason, Dave married Janet Beck and took graduate engineering courses at Washington University in St. Louis. All signs pointed to a banner season. In the beginning, that was the case. On April 26, a win over the Yankees brought his career record against the Bronx Bombers to 4-0. Then midseason he developed a sore right shoulder. “I got a sore arm and ruined it.”15 Although yet another win over the Yankees on July 4 brought his season mark to 7-4, by season’s end he was 7-8 with an ERA of 4.71 in 19 starts for the third-place (82-72) Red Sox. One highlight of an otherwise disappointing year was the birth of their only child, David Jr. The condition of Dave’s shoulder improved, but the 1958 season saw similar results on the diamond for Sisler (8-9, 4.94, 25 starts) and for his Red Sox (79-75, third place). “I was just a 50-50 pitcher. I had some good games and some bad games.”16

Entering the 1959 season, Dave’s spot on the staff was in jeopardy. He was on the trading block. On May 2 he and utility infielder Ted Lepcio were traded to the Detroit Tigers for left-hander Billy Hoeft. At the same time, Detroit fired manager Bill Norman and replaced him with Jimmy Dykes. The trade took Sisler, now a little-used reliever (0-0, 3 games, no starts), by surprise. Yet it “turned out great for me.”17 Used by the Tigers strictly as a reliever, he was 1-3 in 32 appearances (4.01 ERA, 7 saves) in 1959 and 7-5 in 41 stints in 1960, as his 2.48 ERA and six saves boosted him into the upper echelon of American League relievers.

Given his most recent success, one would think Sisler was destined for a long stay in Detroit, now managed by Joe Gordon. Such was not the case. In late 1960, he fell victim to the expansion draft when the Tigers mishandled their protected roster. On December 14, he became a plum selection of the expansion Washington Senators, managed by former Red Sox teammate Mickey Vernon. Expected to be a holdout, Dave signed quickly, amusing reporters by commenting that he and management could not be far apart as “I wasn’t making much money to begin with.”18 That was pretty much the last laugh enjoyed by anyone connected with Senators baseball that year. In 45 appearances, Sisler went 2-8 (4.18 ERA, 11 saves) for the ninth-place club (61-100). A “highlight” occurred on July 1 when Roger Maris parked a Sisler delivery into the right-field seats at Yankee stadium for home run No. 28 on his way to his record-breaking 61. The repercussions from that blast continued as some autograph seekers asked Dave to sign his name, “Dave Sisler, #28.”19

Sisler’s stay in Washington was short-lived. Former Tigers general manager Bill DeWitt -- a Dave Sisler fan -- was now running the Cincinnati Reds. Dave’s brother Dick was a coach under Reds manager Fred Hutchinson. On November 28, 1961, Dave became the player to be named later in a deal in which the Reds traded Claude Osteen and cash to the Senators. The Reds, coming off a pennant-winning season, “were a good group. … [M]uch more of a college kind of team than those guys over at Boston. … The high-class people that just came and did their thing by themselves.”20 Under these circumstances, Dave prospered with a 4-3 record in 35 appearances (3.92 ERA, 1 save) for a team with a 98-64 (third place) record. Thus, when he was called into the team’s front office in the spring of 1963 and told he didn’t figure in the team’s season plans, he thought briefly about retirement. Reluctantly he headed for the Reds’ Triple-A farm club, San Diego. His major-league pitching totals stood at 38-44 in 247 games. He had 29 saves and a career ERA of 4.33.

At the end of 1963, a 6-9 season (3.40, 35 games) in San Diego behind him and no major-league baseball on the immediate horizon, Dave Sisler retired at the age of 32. Unlike many professional baseball pitchers, he enjoyed much success off the field. He joined the investment firm A.G. Edwards, where he had enjoyed working in the offseasons, rising to the position of vice chairman. In retirement he and wife Janet divide their days between St. Louis and Florida. Not all bad for one who was more a “thrower than a pitcher.”21

In his final years Sisler battled prostate cancer. He died in St. Louis on January 9, 2011, from complications of that disease. He was survived by his wife, son, and three grandchildren. He was the last of George Sisler’s four children.

 

Notes

1 David Sisler, telephone interview, March 5, 2008.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 The Sporting News, March 15, 1934: 8.

6 Sisler.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Arthur Mann, “Baseball’s Amazing Sislers,” Saturday Evening Post, February 14, 1953, 36-37, 84, 86.

10 Sisler.

11 SABR Minor League Database.

12 Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1956: 11.

13 Sisler.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Washington Post, February 22, 1961: C11.

19 Sisler.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

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