By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
A veteran of nearly three decades within the professional game, William Sisler never saw his image emblazoned on the face of a baseball card.
Had the 1948 Harlan Smokies of the class-D Mountain States League issued a team set, club officials would have needed to run an entire series dedicated solely to their player-manger should they have been interested in fitting all of his career vitals on the back.
Arriving within the pro ranks with the New York-Penn League Elmira Red Jackets as a 22 year-old in 1923, Sisler, a native of Rochester, NY, played an astonishing 25 seasons of pro ball over a career that touched parts of three decades and nearly every state in America.
A stocky left-handed hurler by trade, his odyssey throughout the minors included nearly every level of affiliation, eight separate major league organizations and a professional record of 48 individual teams in which the 150-pound slinger played for across his lengthy career.
The Muskogee Chiefs, Bluefield Blue-Grays, Gadsden Pilots, Charleroi Babes, Sisler played for them all while carving out a resume that, come the late forties, read more like an obscure map of America rather than that of an illustrious career within the Grand Old Game.
In 1936, 1940 and 1942, Sisler’s tour included stops in three Canadian-American League clties, resulting in a stretch of 11 games, a few trips north of the border and a note in David Pietrusza’s 1990 McFarland and Co’s publishing: Baseball’s Canadian-American League, A History Of Its Inception, Franchises, Participants, Locales, Statistics, Demise and Legacy, 1936-1951.
“There was the strange case of William J. Sisler, no relative of George Sisler or any other Sisler you ever heard of.” wrote Pietrusza. “The 5’6” southpaw played with little effectiveness for Ogdensburg in 1936 (eight games), Oneonta in 1940 (one game) and Quebec in 1942 (two games). He was the most travelled player in baseball history. So here’s to you, Bill Sisler, wherever you are. What you lacked in talent you made up for in perseverance.”
Venturing from city to city, the grizzled southpaw would often talk his way into contracts with local clubs, selling his abilities to their owners and rarely appearing in more than a handful of games with each team he signed with.
Never one to fully exhaust his big league aspirations, Sisler would often write the Sporting News with intentions of informing the well-read publication of his status in an attempt to ensure that his name would never fall far from mind of the scouts persistently scouring minor-league baseball for the next Carl Hubbell, Eddie Plank of Rube Waddell.
Having made appearances for such a vast array of ball clubs over the years, Sisler touched countless lives during his longstanding career. Of all the executives, media personalities and teammates the hardworking hurler crossed paths with during his time in the minors, a handful went on to have record prominent careers in the Show.
In 1933, Sisler appeared in five games with the York White Roses, a Class-A affiliate of the Senior Circuit’s Brooklyn Dodgers, who, at the time, had nine future big leaguers on their NYPL roster. Of the nine, such standouts as John Burrows, Walter Singer and a knuckleball hurling right-hander named Dutch all shared pitching duties with Sisler at various points throughout the ’33 campaign.
Emil John (Dutch) Leonard graduated to the big leagues during that season and would remain in the Show until 1953. Over his 20 year showing, the Auburn born hurler would appear in 640 games, four All-Star contests and post a career earned run average of 3.25 across an astonishing 3218 and a third innings of work.
Reaching as high as double-A ball, Sisler also pitched for clubs that included Andy Seminick (PHI/CIN), Dick Adkins (PHA), Joe Coleman (PHA), Bill Cronin (BSN), Loren Babe (NYY, PHA), a Canadian All-Star outfielder in Goody Rosen (BRO, NYG) and Gene Bearden, who, in 1948, won 20 games with the Cleveland Indians en route to finishing second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Al Dark of the Boston Braves.
At the age of 40, the-18 year vet won a trio of games with the Newport News, a Class-C affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics. His manager during that brief stint in Virginia League was none other than Chief Bender, a former World Series hero and the pitcher credited with inventing the slider, or, as he called it, the Nickel Curve.
Although Bender wasn’t able to noticeably improve Sisler’s strikeout slide piece, perhaps he did teach the minor league journeyman a few things about managing a roster and overall in-game strategy. Skills that, during the waning years of his career, the aging southpaw would employ to help extend his run in professional ball, appearing as a player-manager for as many as four club come seasons end in 1948.
A cynical man would call him a con artist. But to those passionate about the game, his story is one of tenacity, endurance and sheer dedication to a game in which he held so dear to his heart.
Although his story is one not commonly told around baseball circles, the legend of Bill Sisler has left a lasting legacy amongst those who closely follow the history of minor league sports in North America.
It’s this legacy that has prompted some to believe that he should bare the namesake for a professional baseball perseverance award, one that would be bestowed annually amongst those players who gut it out in the minors year in and year out.
Players like Ollie Carnegie, MiLB home run king Mike Hessman or the fictional Crash Davis. All of which, who, like Billy Sisler, never fully relinquished their dreams of making it to the Show. Sisler was born Nov. 17, 1900.
If implemented, it would be a fitting tribute to an inspiring individual who gave everything he had to the game he loved.
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By Andrew Hendriks