Sisler bests Johnson in epic pitchers' duel

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Chris Docter

Considered one of the elite hitters throughout the teens and early 1920s, Hall of Famer George Sisler also achieved moderate success as a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns.

But on Sept. 17, 1916, Sisler the pitcher was good enough to defeat one of the greatest hurlers the game has ever known.

Signed out of the University of Michigan, Sisler considered himself primarily as a pitcher in his early major league career. In his rookie year of 1915, Sisler pitched in 15 games, including eight starts with six complete games and a 2.83 ERA. Browns manager Branch Rickey thought Sisler would make an adequate pitcher, but preferred using his bat in the lineup and put him at first base.

Throughout his short-lived pitching career, Sisler relished pitching matchups against the star pitchers of the deadball era. In his interview featured in John Carmichael’s "My Greatest Day in Baseball," Sisler related his feelings the night prior to facing his childhood idol Walter Johnson on Aug. 29, 1915:

“I went back to my hotel that night but I couldn’t eat,” Sisler said. “I was really nervous. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. At 4:00 a.m. I was tossing and rolling around and finally got up and just sat there, waiting for daylight and the big game. …. “

Despite the lack of sleep, Sisler beat Johnson, going all nine innings and giving up no unearned runs. After defeating Johnson, Sisler remained modest, still sounding like the star struck boy from Manchester, Ohio. He commented that “I don’t know what I expected to do if I had seen him (Johnson). For a minute I thought maybe I’d go over and shake his hand and tell him that I was sorry I beat him but I guess that was just the silly idea of a young kid who had just come face to face with his idol and beaten him.”

The two met again on Sept. 17, 1916, where Sisler again beat the Big Train 1-0, even though he scattered six hits to Johnson’s four. Armando Marsans, one of the early Cuban players in major league baseball, contributed on both sides for the win, scoring the only run of the game and making a spectacular barehanded catch of a potential double line drive to preserve the lead. Sisler escaped trouble in the third with the bases loaded, striking out one and inducing a double play.

The following day, newspaper columnists across the nation expressed amazement at his achievement: The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader wrote, “This is a feat that stands out as the highlight of the season. It is beyond the batting of Speaker, the pitching of Plank and the rejuvenation of Chase. Without having done any pitching for months and having played first base steadily to step on the mound, (to) shut out a ball club like the Senators and beat Walter Johnson is a miracle feat if ever there was one.”

In his short span as pitcher, George Sisler defeated Johnson twice among his five career victories. These wins over arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history cemented George Sisler’s status as a rising superstar at the end of the deadball era, revealing his tremendous potential as a pitcher and position player, and drawing comparisons to his contemporary Babe Ruth.

George Sisler was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.

Chris Docter was a 2014 library-research intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series