Sunday, September 26, 2004

Record-breakers resurrect the greatest names in baseball

The Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News

One of the sweetest things in seeing today's generation chase history is the chance to revisit the past.

The debate of comparing players from different eras, while never settled, is always invigorating because each period has circumstances unique to that time.

The absolute is that greatness will prevail, but to what degree?

Perhaps Babe Ruth had the advantage of playing in a segregated era, but also the disadvantage of not having the conditioning, nutritional and medical advantages enjoyed by Barry Bonds.

Not to mention diluted pitching caused by expansion.

Of course, knowing the legend of Ruth, the conditioning argument might not apply, but feel free to substitute Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays.

The allure of baseball that no other sport can claim is its link to the past.

During the Summer of '98, Mark McGwire reintroduced us to Roger Maris, and in two years Bonds will enable us to get to know Aaron as we never have.

This season, with Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki in pursuit of the single-season hit record, say hello to George Sisler, a member of the Hall of Fame's second induction class.

With Sisler's 84-year-old record of 257 hits being threatened, we're learning just how good of a player he was, although with his roots in the dead ball era, he never had the power numbers associated with greatness.

But this guy could hit.

"We're very happy he's getting some attention," son Dave Sisler - a former pitcher now living in St. Louis - told The Seattle Times.

"This record has sat in the background a long time. It's a crime."

As Maris' children cheered McGwire, Dave Sisler is doing the same for Suzuki, saying his father would be pulling for the Seattle outfielder in much the same manner Aaron has been supportive of Bonds.

"He would have been the first in line to congratulate Ichiro," Sisler said. "He was a very humble man. He enjoyed good batting. He would have loved to have met him, to talk over hitting with him."

Sisler died in 1973 with a long list of achievements, including a lifetime .340 average made possible by two .400 seasons, and he held the hitting-streak record of 41 games until Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 games in 1941.

Sisler is one of those players, such as Hank Greenberg, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker, who had tremendous careers but were overshadowed because they didn't play in New York and they possessed modesty along with their immense talents.

They did not label themselves as "the greatest living player," as DiMaggio did, despite numbers as good or, in some cases, better than those of the Yankees legend.

Quite simply, the perception of any player, in any era, is looked upon differently if that career is spent in pinstripes, because there's nothing like the microscope of New York.

Six times during a 15-year career Sisler had 200 hits - he averaged 222 a season - and struck out only 327 times with 472 walks.

Sisler finished with 2,812 hits, and would have reached the 3,000 milestone if not for a sinus condition that blurred his vision and forced him to miss the 1923 season.

That's just one of many examples of past generations not having the medical advantages of the present.

Sisler played for the St. Louis Browns, a perennial loser, and was dwarfed by Ruth nationally, and Rogers Hornsby in St. Louis.

In 1920, the year Sisler set the hit record, Ruth slugged 54 homers, more than some teams saw that year.

Sisler's biographer, Rick Huhn, said Sisler was described as "a legendary player without a legend."

Perhaps the best part of Suzuki's chase is giving Sisler the gift of legend.

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