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Looking Back: Dick Sisler Remembered

May 23, 2010
Dick Sisler had quite a life as a baseball player with a modest career. He was the oldest son of a baseball Hall of Fame member (George Sisler); hit an historic home run; was mentioned in an Ernest Hemingway novel; coached and managed in the major leagues and lived in Nashville.

Sisler was born in St. Louis, but would in latter years make Nashville his home after managing the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association for three seasons.

The outfielder began his professional career in 1939 with Washington of the Penn State League. He batted .319 while playing in 95 games, clubbing 16 home runs (league leader) and driving in 86 runs. The following year, Sisler hit .322 for Lansing (Michigan State League) in 105 games. He collected eight home runs and 83 RBIs.

Sisler bounced around the minor leagues with Decatur (Ill.), Columbus (OH) and Asheville (Piedmont) in 1941. In 1942, Sisler was in New Orleans (Southern Association) and Asheville. Sisler would serve in the Navy (1943-45) during World War II.

Just out of the Navy, Sisler signed a contract with the Cardinals and was sent to Cuba to learn how to play first base. After a couple of weeks the Cubans were proclaiming Sisler as their Babe Ruth. In his first game, Sisler recorded two home runs and in another game slammed three dingers.

Sisler became the first player to hit a home run out of Havana's Tropical Park (over 500 feet). He once said about his Cuba experience, "You'd have thought I was President or something. Every morning when I came out of the rooming house, in which I lived, there were at least 100 Cubans waiting for me. I got suits; show tickets, just about anything I wanted free. All I had to do was pose with someone for a picture."

It was while playing baseball in Havana that Sisler became friends with Havana resident and novelist Ernest Hemmingway. They became such good friends that in Hemingway's novel "The Old Man and the Sea," Sisler in mentioned. In the book, that was written in 1951 (Sisler was playing with the Phillies in 1951) and published one year later, there is a conversation with the old man and a little boy.

The line reads, "In the other league, between Brooklyn and Philadelphia I must take Brooklyn. But then I think of Dick Sisler and those great drives in the old park. There was nothing ever like them. He hits the longest ball I have ever seen."

Sisler finished the 1946 season with the Cardinals playing in 83 games, batted .260 with three home runs and 42 RBIs. St. Louis won the National League pennant that year and defeated the Red Sox in the World Series, 4-3. Sisler failed to get a hit in two pinch-hitting attempts.

Sisler played for the Cardinals in 1947 and was dealt to Philadelphia the next season. He stayed with the Phillies through 1951. In 1952, Sisler split the season between Cincinnati and back with the Cardinals. Sisler split the 1953 season with St. Louis and Columbus (American Association). He was back in the minors for good starting in 1954 with San Diego of the Pacific Coast League.

Sisler is remembered for one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history. On the final day of the 1950 season, while playing for Philadelphia, Sisler clubbed a home run off Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe into the left field bleachers for three runs with one out. It was a tenth inning blast at Ebbets Field.

The home run gave the Phillies a pennant-clinching 4-1 victory. The left-handed batter hit .296 that season with 13 home runs and an All-Star selection. The New York Yankees would sweep the Phillies in the World Series, 4-0. Sisler recorded one hit in 17 plate appearances with one run batted in.

In eight major league seasons, Sisler played in 799 games, batted .276 (720-for-2, 606), 55 home runs and 360 RBIs. Sisler's younger brother, Dave, also had major league experience as a pitcher. He pitched in seven seasons (1956-62) for Boston, Detroit, Washington and Cincinnati. The younger Sisler was 38-44 with a 4.33 ERA and pitched primarily out of the bullpen in 247 games.

Dick Sisler would become the manager and part-time player with the Nashville Vols in 1957 and stayed three seasons. The Vols finished in third place of the Southern Association with an 83-69 record. Playing in 113 games, mostly at first base, Sisler batted .332 with 16 home runs and 79 RBIs. The 1958 Vols finished in fifth place while Sisler played in 83 games batting .283. Sisler guided the 1959 Vols to a third place finish (84-64) and retiring as a player.

Sisler would become a coach for Cincinnati in 1961 taking over as manager for an ailing Fred Hutchinson three years later. He piloted the Reds to an 89-73 mark in 1965, his final season as a manager. Sisler also coached for the Cardinals, Padres, Mets and Yankees.

In his autobiography "Bury Me in an Old Press Box" Fred Russell relates a story on Sisler: "Sometimes just a few words heard on the field can reveal instantly an athlete's personality. Nashville hired as its 1957 baseball manager Dick Sisler, oldest son of the all-time great, George Sisler, and like his father a first baseman. Dick has an impediment in his speech and I wondered if it would bother him, if he would be sensitive about it, when he started his players into spring training. Before the workout began the first day, Sisler told about stopping in a filling station for gasoline en route to Florida.

"The attendant came up to the car window," Dick said, "and he stammered, 'H-h-h-how m-m-many g-g-g-gallons?' This was an awful t-t-tough s-s-spot for me, cause I stammer too, and I thought he would f-f-feel I was mocking him. I started to d-d-drive off. But I said, 'F-f-feel 'er up,' and he just looked at me funny and w-went about his business." Thus Sisler gave early and definite notice that he wasn't at all sensitive about his stuttering.

Sisler died in Nashville in 1998 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Traughber's Tidbit: On the last day of the season in 1942, catcher Red O'Dell Barbary, 22, of the Charlotte Hornets in the Piedmont League became a pitcher. The Hornets manager let the players choose the position they wanted to play in the meaningless game. Barbary had previously bragged that being a catcher wasted his pitching ability. His teammates insisted Barbary take the mound. After nine innings the game was tied, 3-3. Inning after inning, Barbary remained in the game. Finally, the Hornets scored a run in the bottom of the 22nd inning for a 4-3 win while Barbary was still pitching. The Hornets organization fired the manager for putting Barbary's career in jeopardy. Barbary made it to the Washington Senators spring training camp the next season, but only recorded one pinch-hit appearance in the major leagues.

If you have comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email [email protected]. Pick up a Sounds 2010 Program for a feature story on Nashville's championships from the 1895 Seraphs to the 2005 Sounds.