Tuesday, February 16, 2016
214. Bill Sisler: Have Glove, Will Travel (Part 1)
Ever been to Moline, Muskogee or Martinsburg? How about Clarksburg, Charleroi or Cumberland? Pitcher Bill Sisler not only hung his hat in all of those places but also over 40 more towns across America and Canada in a career that spanned from 1923 through 1953!
This is the first of what should be close to forty posts I will periodically do covering the minor league odyssey of Bill Sisler. This series will be fun for a few different reasons, the foremost being that I love researching and illustrating old uniforms, and Sisler's appearing for over 40 different teams lets me really show a wide variety. To make this whole series a bit easier is that Sisler kept himself in top physical condition throughout his playing days in order to be ready to play at a moment's notice. This means he didn't gain weight or otherwise change his body shape with age. For all my Sisler illustrations I am going to use the same pose, but each uniform graphic will change to represent a new team. Likewise the backgrounds will vary to reflect each town he played in. In addition, as the years tick by, the glove, cap and uniform style will change to reflect the modernization of the equipment. For instance, today's post shows Bill on his first pro team, the Elmira Red Jackets. Since this is 1923, Sisler is using a Spalding split-finger style glove as was common at the time. The webbing between the thumb and index is a solid piece of leather, not leather lacing as was common later in the decade. His jersey has the "sun collar" which was the standard for baseball uniforms up until the mid-1930's, and the cap has a shorter brim as was common in 1923.
So, who was Bill Sisler?
He was born in Rochester, New York in the first year of the 20th century, 1900. By all newspaper stories I've read about him, Sisler is described as a sturdy and stocky fellow who stood a compact 5'-6" - just below average for a ball player at the time and considerably shorter than what was the accepted height for a pitcher. None-the-less, Sisler must have had something on his fastball, and his being a lefty probably didn't hurt either.
The first mention I can find of Sisler is in 1923 when he appeared in 3 games for the Elmira Red Jackets. Elmira played in the old New York-Penn League which was classified by organized baseball as a "Class B" circuit. Baseball classifications through the decades gets a bit confusing so bear with me as I try to explain. Back in 1923, organized baseball - that is, the white ball clubs who were dues paying members recognized and regulated by the National Commission - had 33 clubs in 6 "Classes". The top was of course the National and American Leagues - the "Big Leagues" if you will. Right below them were the 3 AA leagues. These included the Pacific Coast League, the midwestern American Association and the eastern International League. These would be the equivalent of today's Triple A (AAA) classification. Next came four Class A leagues. These included the Texas League, Southern Association, Eastern League and the Western League and would be on the level with today's Double A (AA) leagues. Below this came the 6 Class B leagues. These were loops such as the Virginia League and the New York-Penn League - where Bill Sisler got his start. Today we would call this Advanced A (AdvA). One rung below this were 4 Class C leagues such as the Piedmont League and the Florida State League, and these were today's Single A (A) level. And at the very bottom of the organized baseball food chain were 14 Class D leagues. These are now called the Rookie League level and back in Bill Sisler's time they were the most common level of pro baseball found around the country.
As you know from my site, I like diving into the weird world of the Semi-Pros because there are so many great stories found there. While today the concept of semi-pro means a level far below even the Rookie League, yet back in Bill Sisler's day there were many semi-pro teams that could have and did whip Major League teams on a good day. Take a team like the Brooklyn Bushwicks - research by baseball archaeologist Scott Simkus (if you don't have his book "Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe", you NEED to get it right now!) shows that the Bushwicks operated on a level hovering between today's AA and AAA leagues. So what I'm trying to get at is that besides vertical scale of organized ball there was a horizontal scale of semi-pro teams that a ball player could catch on with at various time in his career. A journeyman like Bill Sisler did just that to keep a paycheck coming and his spikes in the game in-between minor league assignments.
I'm gonna stop here and leave you with a 22 year-old Bill Sisler, pitcher for the Elmira Red Jackets. It's the spring of 1923 and he's at the very dawn of a journey that will take him to almost every state in the nation with stops in leagues of every classification organized baseball had to offer - all except the highest one.
One more thing - I'm not too big to know when I need help with something. While I'm a pretty good researcher with a vast archive of uniform reference, some of Bill Sisler's teams remain elusive for me. If anyone can help with photographs of some of his teams, I'd be most grateful. You can see a list of his stops HERE.