Chalmer “Bill” Cissell: The $123,000 Lemon
Twenty-four-year-old shortstop Chalmer “Bill” Cissell was so highly regarded by scout Danny Long in 1927 that he convinced White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to send what was estimated to be a record sum of $123,000 in cash and players (outfielder Ike Boone and pitcher Bert Cole) to the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers for Cissell. Long considered Cissell one of the finest prospects he’d ever seen, but after four disappointing seasons, it proved to be a terrible deal, one of many the White Sox made in the wake of the Black Sox scandal.
Chalmer William Cissell was born in Perryville, Missouri on January 3, 1904 and came from a long line of ballplayers. “Down where I came from there never was a Cissell who couldn’t and didn’t play baseball,” he once said. “There were nine Cissells on Perryville’s team in 1902.” Cissell followed in their footsteps and began playing third base for the Perryville team when he was 14, then played high school and semi-pro ball before quitting school and enlisting with the Second Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1922.
While at Fort Riley, Cissell showed off his horsemanship by winning 18 silver cups and 53 medals atop “Chance,” a horse he named after former Cubs first baseman and manager Frank Chance. He was also allowed to play ball with the Junction City semi-pro team every Sunday, making $25 a week, more than twice his salary as an army corporal.
Cissell reenlisted in 1925 with the Fourteenth Cavalry at Fort Des Moines in Iowa and was playing for the army team in an exhibition game when he was discovered by the Des Moines Demons of the Class A Western League. The Demons bought Cissell’s release from the army for $85, then signed the youngster to a contract.
“I made up my mind that I was going to be a major league ball player during the World Series of 1925 while I was on a cavalry hike from Des Moines to Omaha,” Cissell later recounted to sportswriter Edward Burns. “It rained all along the trip and if you’ve ever ridden a horse cross-country in the rain 30 miles a day for five days you’ll agree with me that it’s no such life as that of a major league ball player. As much as I loved horses I decided on that hike that the cavalry was not to offer me my career.”
But before Cissell could make it to the majors, he was going to have to perform at the minor league level, and he was finding it difficult to get on the field. In 1926, new Demons manager John “Shano” Collins was so impressed with the youngster’s abilities that he admitted to stashing Cissell on the bench whenever scouts were around for fear that he’d lose him to the draft. Instead, Collins was hoping to sell his new prodigy to the highest bidder. In fact, Collins insisted that Cissell was one of the greatest, if not the greatest young player he had ever seen.
Because of this strategy, Cissell appeared in only 78 games, but he made the most of it, batting .345 and slugging .469 in 226 at-bats. He was named second team all-league by the Western League’s skippers before being sold to Portland of the Class AA Pacific Coast League for a reported $13,000 and two unnamed players. It was alleged to have been the highest price ever paid by one minor league team to another.
He arrived in Portland in time to appear in 22 games and batted .259, slugged .318, and fielded at a .952 clip. Then he broke out in 1927 and became one of the two best hitting shortstops in the Pacific Coast League, batting .323 with 225 hits, 112 runs scored, and 18 steals. He ranked ninth in hits and was among the top 20 in total bases with 284. Few were surprised. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in mid-March that Beavers owner Tom Turner expected Cissell to “start many brush fires” in the P.C.L. that season, and manager Ernie Johnson, a former major league shortstop, told reporters that he was impressed with Cissell’s makeup.
“Cissell has had but four months of professional experience and Johnson believes the kid is doing well, considering all things,” wrote Eddie Murphy in the Oakland Tribune. “The Beaver boss likes him because he never gets excited. If he makes a boot he settles right down and may come up with a sensational play on the next hit ball. All that Johnson asks for is the fans to give his young shortstop a fair chance to make good.”
He made a lot of boots that year, committing 76 errors in 182 games for a .924 fielding percentage, but sportswriter John B. Foster chalked that up to effort. “His error column was big, but a wise manager will take a player who tries in preference to one who ambles after none but the easy ones.” In fact, his hustle, impressive range, and wiry 160-pound frame earned him the nickname “Spider.”
In mid-July, Cissell began to be touted as a big league prospect, along with Mission Bells shortstop Gordon Slade and second baseman Neal “Mickey” Finn, and Oakland Oaks shortstop Lyn Lary and second baseman Jimmie Reese. In early August, it was rumored that Cissell was to be sold to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in the fall, and the rumors continued into late August, when it was reported that Mack had told several scouts that he was going to acquire Cissell prior to the 1928 season. It was also speculated that Mack would acquire Cissell to use him as trade bait in a deal that would net the Athletics much-coveted St. Louis Browns first baseman George Sisler.
Meanwhile, Lary and Reese were being courted by the Yankees, White Sox, Cubs, and Tigers, and were being shopped as a package worth as much as $150,000, or either could be had individually for $100,000. In mid-August, the Cubs offered $75,000 and a handful of players for Lary and first baseman Jack Fenton, but Oakland balked. In early September, it was reported that Lary had been acquired by the White Sox for $100,000, Ike Boone and Elmer Jacobs. Then in mid-September, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Yankees had paid the $150,000 asking price for both Lary and Reese, but the Oaks’ owners refused to confirm or deny the reports.
Finally in early November, the White Sox tired of pursuing Lary and acquired Cissell from Portland for what was valued at $123,000. Portland received $75,000 in cash and two players—slugging outfielder Ike Boone and veteran southpaw Bert Cole—who were valued at $5,000 and $35,000, respectively. The remaining $8,000 was to come from two players to be named later, both to be valued at no less than $4,000 apiece.
The deal was a record at the time, surpassing the $100,000 the White Sox sent the San Francisco Seals for third baseman Willie Kamm in 1922. It wasn’t long before Foster dubbed Cissell, the “$100,000 Beauty” and speculated that if the shortstop lived up to his billing, the White Sox could offer up shortstops Roger Peckinpaugh and Bill Hunnefield and second baseman Aaron Ward in trades. He also wrote that Tom Turner believed that Cissell “would hit as hard in the American League as Paul Waner has batted in the National League.”
The pressure on Cissell was enormous. In fact, he would later admit, “The ballyhoo I got when Portland sold me for that sum was the greatest burden any player ever carried to the majors.” Cissell was also facing off-the-field pressures and burdens; only two days after the deal between Portland and Chicago was finalized, the new White Sox shortstop found himself on the wrong side of a woman scorned, 20-year-old Valley Junction, Iowa telephone operator Bernice Ryner, who filed charges of seduction against Cissell with Polk County Sheriff Park A. Findley. Cissell was indicted, but was nowhere to be found. A nationwide search failed to uncover his whereabouts until he was discovered and arrested in St. Louis on November 9.
According to Ryner, she and Cissell met on New Year’s Eve 1926 and dated steadily before he departed for Portland’s training camp two months later. Cissell had promised to marry her and she began making preparations to join him in Portland, but he failed to send her train fare. Then he promised to come to Des Moines in August, but failed to appear. The bride-to-be was understandably upset; not only did Cissell’s promise of marriage appear to be hollow, but she was also carrying his baby. It wasn’t until she gave birth to their son, Chalmer Jr., that she decided to file charges.
Cissell had two choices: face felony charges of seduction or marry Ryner and have the charges automatically dismissed. He chose the latter and tied the knot in Valley Junction on November 15. “We always wanted to get married,” Cissell told the clerk who issued his marriage license. Bill and Bernice were together for the rest of their lives and had two more children, Charlene and Gary.
Heading into the 1928 season, much was expected of the Pacific Coast League star. Foster predicted he’d hit .300 in the majors, while other sportswriters lauded his talents, calling him a “flashy shortstop with plenty of speed” who “performs equally as well with the bat,” and referring to him as “sparkling.”
Former White Sox infielder Frank Isbell was equally high on Cissell. “They will have a hard time preventing that boy becoming the best shortstop in the big leagues,” he said. “They will have a hard time stopping this boy because he knows something about taking care of himself in any kind of a contest, and if they will just let him go he’ll very quickly show them some new things about playing shortstop.”
But the highest praise came from Turner who insisted that Cissell was “as great at shortstop as Hans Wagner, as great on the bases as Ty Cobb, and as great at the bat as Rogers Hornsby.”
Apparently White Sox manager Ray Schalk bought the hyperbole and started singing Cissell’s praises even before the team’s train headed for Shreveport, Louisiana for spring training. “He’s my idea of just the right physical type for a shortstop and his mental attitude indicates he is not going to fade out on the brilliant record which caused the White Sox to pay a record price for him,” Schalk told reporters. According to Ed Burns, the team felt that Cissell’s time in the army gave him an advantage over other rookies because he was unlikely to become unnerved under pressure.
Shortly after the White Sox arrived in Shreveport, they made headlines again when it was reported that the team had insured Cissell for $100,000. The Baltimore Sun reported that terms of the policy were not disclosed, but Burns claimed with tongue in cheek that the policy covered “the rigors of death, fire, and theft, seven year locusts, pernicious fallen arches, and chronic hives.” Burns also reported that trainer William Buckner wanted to trim five pounds from Cissell’s frame, which he jokingly valued at $768.75 a pound, and that if Buckner succeeded “$3,843.75 of shortstop will disappear, which goes to show how careless some people are with money.”
Some were unimpressed, however. Alan J. Gould wrote only three weeks into spring training that Cissell “has not yet measured up to his $123,000 price tag”; Burns reported in late March that the infielder had been “beset with the jumps” and wasn’t earning his salt; Werner Laufer called Cissell a disappointment and wondered if he’d be able to handle big league pitching; and Norman E. Brown lauded Cissell’s great glove, but called him “just another out at bat.” It was even rumored that Sox management was considering sending him back to the Pacific Coast League.
It wasn’t until White Sox coach and future Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh noticed weaknesses in Cissell’s swing and worked with him that the youngster started to show everyone why he was so highly touted, going 5-for-9 with a triple, two doubles, and two singles late in camp.
“Spring training seems to be a complete zero with me,” Cissell later explained to Tigers manager George Moriarty. “I try everything, but I don’t seem able to do the right thing. I looked like an amateur and I knew it, but I also knew it wouldn’t last long. My first spring with Portland was just as bad. The harder I tried the worse I looked in fielding and at bat. This spring I figured that the smoother major league diamonds would be a big help when the season began, and this proved to be the case. I think a ballplayer who is in a slump should keep on thinking that his best days are ahead. This thought will pull him out.”
Despite Cissell’s early spring struggles, Moriarty remained high on him. “Chicago has seen such great shortfielders as George Davis, Buck Weaver and Swede Risberg perform at the White Sox park, and Cissell is sure to measure up to his brilliant predecessors.” And John Foster compared him to former Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, calling him a “replica” of Doyle, but with a better glove.
“He is loose, fast, throws without effort and with no lost motion,” Foster observed. “He knows where second base is, and why it is—a thing that’s fine for any shortstop to know. In practice he can get to second and shove the ball along for a double play as well as any infielder in action today. There is no reason in evidence why he should not be able to do the same thing in the regular season.”
But Foster didn’t stop there, also likening Cissell’s personality to Doyle’s. “At this writing Cissell is as sound as a dollar and bubbling over with a splendid disposition, which makes one think of Larry Doyle, one of the happiest and best natured players who graced the national game with his sunshine and goodwill to men.” It was this disposition that earned Doyle the nickname “Laughing Larry,” and the same disposition that earned Cissell his second sobriquet, “Smiling Bill.”
Umpire Hap O’Connor thought Lary would be the better player, but gave Cissell high marks as well. “He can hit into right field on the old hit-and-run play with the best of them,” O’Connor told writer Damon Runyan. “He has a true throwing arm, and is an expert at tagging runners coming into second base. He knows that ‘dipsy-do’ toss to the second-sacker, too. He looks as good as any shortstop I know going to his right.”
Sportswriter Stoney McLinn called Cissell a “worthy guardian of short field” and reported that “veteran observers insist he will be even better than [Swede] Risberg was at his best.”
Once the regular season began, Cissell wasted no time proving that he could hit big league pitching, going 3-for-4 with a double and a run against Cleveland’s George Uhle on Opening Day, but committing two errors in the 8-2 loss. He went 2-for-4 and scored the team’s only run in their second game, a 2-1 loss to the Indians, then went 1-for-3 with a double and a run in a six-inning, rain-shortened 1-1 tie. After only three games, Ray Schalk was convinced Cissell was the real deal. “The kid’s a comer and worth the money,” said the White Sox skipper.
Cissell went 0-for-5 in his next two games against the St. Louis Browns, then embarked on a 14-game hitting streak, during which he went 20-for-55 (.364), and found himself hitting .366 on May 1. His hitting streak was snapped on May 2, but he went 3-for-5 against the Yankees on May 4 and earned a promotion from seventh in the batting order to the leadoff spot. He was hitting .363 with a .378 OBA at the time and was getting a little cocky, telling reporters that the majors were easier than the minors. “I’ve faced tougher pitchers than these in the big leagues many a time.”
But he spoke too soon. He batted first or second for 12 games before moving back to seventh in the order and by the end of May, his average had plummeted exactly 100 points to .263. Opposing pitchers found his weakness and began feeding him a steady diet of high fastballs. His slump continued through June and his average dropped to .248 before he rebounded in July and boosted it to .272. That’s where it stood on August 16 when he broke his finger in two places while attempting to catch an errant throw from first baseman Bud Clancy. He was expected to miss the rest of the season, but returned in mid-September and batted only .167 the rest of the way to finish his first big league season at .260.
Despite being one of the weaker hitting shortstops in the American League and finishing in the middle of the pack defensively, Cissell earned MVP votes and finished 15th in the balloting, tied with four other players, including Detroit slugger Harry Heilmann. Among White Sox, only third baseman Willie Kamm, who finished fifth, and pitcher Tommy Thomas, who tied Cissell at 15th, were considered as valuable.
The White Sox wisely ignored the voters and encouraged manager Lena Blackburne to work with Cissell on both his fielding and hitting. Blackburne, who replaced Schalk 74 games into the 1928 season, wasn’t much of a hitter or fielder himself during his eight-year career, but he knew enough about both that he felt he could turn Cissell into one of the game’s best shortstops.
“The youngster’s greatest fielding drawback seems to be his tendency to fight the ball,” wrote Bert Demby. “He covers plenty of ground but pushes his hands into the ball instead of allowing the ball to hit his glove while his hands are on a backward motion, which would put him into position to throw immediately.” Blackburne insisted that Cissell had simply never been taught how to field properly. He also promised to change his hitting style. “The White Sox manager thinks Cissell can be made into a mighty tough ‘chop hitter’ to face,” wrote Demby. “Cissell can time them at the plate and he should develop into a good ‘puncher’ of short hits.”
Blackburne was confident that his pupil would improve in both areas. “Just watch and see the difference,” he said. “Cissell is going to be one of the greatest baseball players yet. He is a natural.”
Despite spending his time during the offseason playing basketball, Cissell had gained weight, something sportswriter Irving Vaughan thought might benefit the shortstop. “In his first season…Cissell didn’t exactly come to the expectations aroused by his $75,000 and four players purchase price, but the impression prevails that he is still on the upgrade,” wrote Vaughan. “He hasn’t had as much experience as the average youngster coming up to the majors and the hullabaloo about his purchase undoubtedly dazzled him a bit.”
Cissell agreed but was optimistic about the 1929 season. “I tried too hard last summer to make good,” he explained during spring training, “and I didn’t have as much confidence then as I have now. But I feel set now and, while I’m not bragging, I should be better than in 1928.” One of the reasons for Cissell’s confidence was the arrival of second baseman Johnny Kerr, who was stellar for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, batting .301 with 16 homers, and fielding at a .977 clip. “You know I played with five different second basemen last summer and that is one reason I didn’t go any better than I did,” Cissell alibied. “It looks like Johnny Kerr will be at second regularly this summer, and he’s good…with Kerr on second, we ought to make as many double plays this year as any keystone pair.”
But only two days after making the above statement, Cissell was benched for his poor play, losing playing time to Bill Hunnefield. “Either Cissell is severely handicapped by a minor leg injury or his baseball this spring is mediocre,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “Mr. Blackburne hopes Cissell is a good shortstop, but there has been nothing to encourage him thus far.” Soon after, the Hartford Courant reported that Cissell was still plagued by his stiff-armed fielding style and errant throws, especially on double plays; that his hitting was being affected by his fielding lapses; and that Hunnefield may be called on to spell Cissell at short.
The same day the Courant’s report came out, the White Sox were in Ennis, Texas, enjoying a post game barbecue thrown by the locals, when Blackburne spotted Cissell, who was clearly inebriated. “He didn’t look right,” Blackburne explained a few days later. “There was to be a dance for the gang that evening but when I saw our shortstop I decided the dance was off…I asked Cissell for an explanation and he told me he was a bit upset because things hadn’t been breaking right for him during the training trip.”
The next night, Blackburne had to deal with another of his players, first baseman and team captain Art Shires, who drunkenly wandered past the manager at 12:30 in the morning without recognizing him, made his way to the hotel courtyard and began howling at the moon. The next morning Blackburne stripped Shires of his captaincy. A few days later he called a team meeting. “I didn’t try to conceal from the others that both Shires and Cissell had taken something stronger than pink lemonade,” Blackburne told Irving Vaughan. “I finished by remarking that the next man caught coming in after midnight would be plastered with a fine and that goes whether the tardy arrival comes in wet or dry.”
Shires and Cissell charged that Blackburne was “incompetent and tyrannical” and reports out of Dallas, where the White Sox trained, had half the team on the verge of a rebellion. Charles Comiskey sent Shires back to his home in Italy, Texas, where he was ordered to get into playing shape at his own expense.
Cissell apologized and was reinstated to good standing, but his drinking would continue to be a problem for the rest of his career. “The White Sox paid a good chunk of gold for him as a rookie in 1928 and he should have been a great star, but he drank,” wrote legendary reporter Red Smith years later. “He looked like a guy who couldn’t miss. He could do anything on the infield and there never was a rougher clutch hitter and there wasn’t anything in the world that could frighten him a little bit…Cissell had it, all right. He had everything except the ability to take care of himself.”
A week before the regular season started, George Kirksey reported that Cissell might begin the 1929 campaign on the bench “as a result of his disregard for training rules” and that Hunnefield or George Redfern would take his place, but he was in his familiar position on Opening Day, playing shortstop and batting seventh against the Browns. In fact, Cissell would go on to lead the team in games played (152), at-bats (618), runs (83), hits (173), and stolen bases (25), falling only two swipes short of the league’s stolen base crown, and came within one three-bagger of pacing the team in triples.
He wasn’t spectacular at the plate—no other batter in baseball made more outs than Cissell’s 481 and he sported the sixth worst OPS among A.L. qualifiers—but he was fairly steady and consistent and the White Sox knew what they could expect from him. His average climbed to a season-high .311 on May 18 before settling into more familiar territory, and from June 1 until the end of the season, it never dropped lower than .261 nor climbed higher than .281. He finished the season at .280, a 20-point improvement over his previous mark, and boosted his slugging percentage 57 points, from .330 to .387.
In the field, he displayed even better range than in 1928, leading all A.L. shortstops in that category, but his glove remained merely average at .937. Still, Cissell led the league in putouts, tied Joe Cronin for the league lead in assists, and finished third in double plays. And his arm received high marks from New York Times senior sports columnist John Kieran, who rated Cissell’s wing number one among A.L. shortstops. “Chalmers [sic] Cissell of the White Sox can go behind third base and still throw out fast runners at the first station, which is the real test.”
The White Sox apparently remained unimpressed, however. Blackburne was fired after leading the team through a tumultuous season that included two fist fights with Shires and a seventh-place finish on the back of a then franchise-worst 59-93 record. With four games remaining in the 1929 season, Comiskey announced that he’d hired former Tiger shortstop Donie Bush to lead the team in 1930. Cissell had once been described as a larger version of the diminutive Bush, but the new White Sox skipper had his eye on two new shortstop recruits, Irv Jeffries and Ernie Smith, and was planning on moving Cissell to second base to replace Kerr, who fielded well and had the league’s best range, but boasted an anemic bat.
Jeffries batted .305 with 10 home runs for the Dallas Steers of the Class A Texas League while playing third base, but he began his professional career as a shortstop. Smith, a 30-year-old, eight-year minor league veteran, was named MVP of the Southern Association after batting .309 and slugging .462 for Birmingham, while finishing first in putouts, and second in assists, fielding percentage, and range.
It looked like Bush would have no choice but to decide between Jeffries and Smith when, on November 14, The Sporting News reported that Charles Comiskey had contacted his friend and Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith about a deal that would send Cissell to Washington for right-handed pitcher Bump Hadley. But the deal made no sense—Griffith thought highly of Hadley and already had Joe Cronin at shortstop and Buddy Myer at second base—so Cissell remained with Chicago.
In February 1930, Cissell opened up to Henry P. Edwards about a handful of issues, including his hitting. “It is not the pitching that bothers me,” Cissell explained to Edwards, “as much as it is the fielding of the opposition in the big league. I am meeting the ball just as well as in the minors but they play for a batter more, shifting around, sometimes on each pitched ball. Consequently, you do not find as many alleys through which you can drive the ball safely.” Later in the article, Edwards concluded that Cissell’s move to second base was all but guaranteed, considering the Sox had Hunnefield, Jeffries, and Smith battling for the shortstop position.
Less than two weeks later, Ed Burns reported that Bush had made Cissell’s switch to second base official and that it looked like Jeffries would be the team’s new shortstop. Burns was critical of Cissell, calling him “more or less of a bust,” that he had lost his aggressiveness during the previous season, and that the “naturally happy and spirited youngster” had become “something of a crab,” which affected his performance. “His game fell off accordingly and there were times when the money invested in him probably was all that staved off his banishment.”
According to reports, Bush was “tickled pink” to have Cissell at second base. “Cissell is a natural second baseman, and will be a star unless I miss my guess,” Bush told reporters in late March. And Jeffries was making a favorable impression on the new skipper and was reported to have the edge over Hunnefield and Smith, but when the season finally started for the White Sox after two straight rainouts, Smith was leading off and playing short.
Cissell came out of the gates like a man possessed, starting the season with a 12-game hitting streak, during which he batted a league-leading .431 and scored 13 times. His streak was snapped by the Yankees on May 4, but he fashioned another 10-game streak immediately after and was batting .388 after going 2-for-3 in the first game of a doubleheader against Cleveland. But that proved to be his high-water mark of the season, as he batted only .246 the rest of the way to finish at .270. And Bush’s proclamation that Cissell would be a star at second base was far from accurate. Cissell made more errors than any other A.L. second sacker, had the worst fielding percentage, and finished second-to-last in assists, double plays, and putouts.
After only one season at second base, speculation was that Bush would move Cissell to third in 1931. Willie Kamm had anchored the hot corner since 1923 and became the best fielding third baseman of the era, but he was disciplined in 1930 for a lack of hustle and rumors had Cissell moving to third base to take the former captain’s spot. “One thing Bush may attempt before considering the return of Kamm is placing Bill Cissell on third base,” suggested the Chicago Tribune in August 1930. “Spider Bill had faults at short that Bush figured could be eliminated by playing the peppery youth at second. But at second Cissell continues to flash in dazzling style one moment and blow the next. Third base might be the spot to which he is naturally adapted.”
Kamm was put on the trading block and was rumored to be heading to Cleveland for Indians infielder and former batting champion Lew Fonseca, but Comiskey denied a deal was in the works. That left Kamm at third and Cissell fighting Greg Mulleavy and Luke Appling for second and short. Mulleavy played shortstop in 1930 and was a disaster, but was still on the team heading into spring training. Appling batted .326 and slugged .508 for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association, then hit .308 in a cup of coffee with the White Sox and, though his fielding left much to be desired, he had the inside track on the shortstop position.
Cissell arrived at camp weighing 182 pounds, prompting Irving Vaughan to call him “Fat Man Cissell” and “Hack” in his Chicago Tribune column of February 27. Vaughan also reported that Cissell worked out at second base. Mulleavy was eventually shipped to Toledo, and Appling was all but assured the starting shortstop job when it was reported in late March that Bush predicted he’d “blossom into a real sensation.” As the season drew closer, Bush settled on an infield that featured Bennie Tate behind the dish, Cissell at second, Kamm at third, and Appling at shortstop. The only hole he had yet to fill was at first base, but that problem was soon solved when the Sox purchased Lu Blue from the Browns for $15,000.
Less than two weeks before Opening Day, Dixon Stewart wrote an article in which he attributed Cissell’s second and third chances to his huge purchase price. “Just how long would have been the major league career of Cissell had he come from the minors at a cost of, say, $10,000 is speculative,” wrote Stewart. “Better ball players than Cissell have come to the majors for less money. But baseball magnates are human and they find it difficult to face the necessity of sending a heavily priced ball player back to the minors. And so, Cissell’s ace in the hole would seem to be that price tag, whereas he was the object of pity when he first joined the Sox.”
The 1931 season proved to be a difficult one for Cissell. He began the season at second base and batted fifth, but unlike in his previous seasons, he didn’t get off to a red hot start. He drove in 14 runs in his first 12 games and earned a brief promotion to the cleanup spot, but he promptly went 1-for-22 with no RBIs in his next five games and was dropped to sixth in the order when he average fell from .286 to .207. When Appling’s average dropped to .188 on May 14, Cissell was moved over to shortstop and Johnny Kerr was given his old starting job back at second base.
Three days later, Kamm was dealt to the Indians for Fonseca who took over second base for three weeks before moving to the outfield, while Irv Jeffries was given Kamm’s old spot at third. During all of this calamity, Cissell’s average continued to drop and he was at .186 on May 20, prompting Claire Burcky to write, “Cissell has practically dropped out of sight.”
So it was a bit odd that on May 28 with Cissell batting .209 and slugging .275, another writer waxed poetic about the White Sox infielder, claiming he “has come back in big style,” was “winning game after game for the White Sox with long hits in the pinches and has turned in some of the choicest fielding to be seen around the American League.” At the time the article hit newsstands, Cissell had seven extra-base hits and 18 RBIs in 37 games, and only two of those long hits and four of those runs batted in had come since May 1.
Cissell’s batting average hovered around .200 for more than half the season before he boosted it to .220 on July 18. Then on July 27, during a road trip to New York, Cissell found himself in the news again when he lost a race to 56-year-old tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who ran 75 yards backwards and defeated two of his three opponents. The race occurred at Yankee Stadium between games of a doubleheader and pitted Robinson against Ben Chapman and Dusty Cooke of the Yankees and Cissell, all of whom had to run 100 yards, but facing forward. Chapman passed Robinson with only a few yards to spare and won the race, but the dancer beat Cooke and Cissell, and finished second.
Once August began, Cissell’s bat heated up, but only in comparison to his previous effort. He batted .258 and slugged .348, but was only able to nudge his average to a season-high .223 on August 17. It fell again to .220 after his next game, then his season almost ended prematurely when he tore ligaments in his knee while covering second base on August 20. But he was somehow able to return for the last three games of the season, going 3-for-14 to finish at .220. He wasn’t great in the field either, but he was above average in both fielding percentage and range for the first time in his career.
Bush resigned in October and Fonseca was named to manage the team, making him the fourth different major league manager Cissell had played for in five years. Fonseca was planning on keeping Cissell at shortstop, but announced he was going to overhaul the infielder’s batting. “Fonseca is going about the job from the ground up,” reported the New York Times, “altering his stance, stride, swing, and timing, and expects the young infielder to hit .300 or better.” Cissell also began taking the offseason a little more seriously and he reported to camp in the best shape of his life after spending the winter at Pat Caraway’s Gordon, Texas ranch.
Fonseca’s work and Cissell’s renewed commitment appeared to pay off when Cissell began the 1932 campaign with seven hits and four RBIs in his first five games, and was batting .350 on April 16, but he fell into a funk, went 2-for-19, and saw his average plummet to .231 on April 23. He went 2-for 4 with a double, a homer, a walk, an RBI, and three runs scored on April 24 against Detroit and bumped his average to .256, but little did he know that that would be his last game with the White Sox.
After his stellar performace against the Tigers, Cissell was traded (along with pitcher Jim Moore) to the Indians for second baseman Johnny Hodapp and outfielder Bob Seeds. White Sox secretary Harry Grabiner explained that the Sox needed more punch in their offense, which Hodapp, a career .319 hitter going into the 1932 season, was expected to deliver. But Hodapp was batting only .125 at the time of the trade, prompting the Indians to ship him to Chicago for Cissell, a player they’d coveted for a few years and one they hoped would strengthen their weakness at second base.
At least one writer thought Cleveland was taken to the cleaners by the White Sox. “For two years the Tribe has been hot after [Cissell] and now that they have him—well, what of it? Granted the Tribe needs a shortstop and needs one badly. But whether Cissell will help them any is something I doubt very much. Cissell has been a complete bust ever since he hit the big time.”
William Braucher somewhat agreed. “Cissell has failed to live up to his $123,000 reputation, though he has been a very good utility infielder,” he wrote. But he also thought the acquisitions of Kamm in 1931 and Cissell in 1932 made the left side of Cleveland’s infield one of the best in the league. But the Indians had other plans and moved Johnny Burnett over to shortstop and put Cissell at second.
The move paid off and Cissell became a different player with Cleveland. He batted .287 and slugged .457 in May, then batted .297 in June, and knocked in 31 runs in his first 47 games with the Indians. His momentum carried over into July and his numbers really took off from that point forward. He had a six-game hitting streak to close out June, then extended it another seven games before going hitless. He immediately embarked on an eight-game hitting streak, giving him hits in 21 of his previous 22 games, and raised his average to .320 on the season.
The Yankees were running away with the league, boasting a nine-and-a-half game lead in mid-July, but the Indians were hanging tough in second place and Cissell was earning praise for his performance. “In the Cleveland camp much credit is given to Chalmer Cissell for keeping the Indians going in their recent drive,” wrote John Kieran. “When the trade was made with the White Sox some of the Indians thought they were losing more in Hodapp and Bob Seeds than they were getting in return. But ask them now and the boys will vote for Cissell under the unit rule.”
Gayle Talbot wrote that Cissell was beginning to resemble the player he was supposed to be when he first entered the league and that he was getting hits “where they count” for the Indians. Another writer insisted Cissell was finally justifying his price tag and had become one of the most valuable players in the American League.
“Cissell took over the job at second base where the Indians had been weak for several years. Not only did his hitting average soar…but he inspired the whole team with his fighting qualities. Day by day, the realization became more apparent that Cissell, the player who had been hooted and booed in Chicago, was becoming the idol of the Cleveland fans. Always scrapping, always trying, never letting slip a chance to help his team.”
He batted .338 in July and .328 in August before finishing with a flourish and batting .340 in September, capped off by a modest season-ending seven-game hitting streak. He batted .320 for Cleveland and finished the season with a .315 average. The Indians fell to fourth place, but Cissell continued to receive plaudits. Braucher credited him with being “the life of the [Indians] club,” and named Cissell the starting second baseman on his all-star team, alongside future Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Lefty Grove, Chuck Klein, and Lloyd Waner.
Few writers were as impressed as Braucher, naming Cissell on only 10 of 191 ballots on a poll conducted by The Sporting News, and awarding Tony Lazzeri of the Yankees the second base berth on their 1932 All-Star team. Cissell finished fifth behind Lazzeri, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Herman and Tony Cucinello. He did slightly better in MVP voting, finishing 11th in the league, but was fourth among second basemen, behind Lazzeri and Gehringer in the American League and Herman in the National.
Cissell was rewarded for his efforts when his 1933 contract called for a raise. He signed it immediately and happily sent it back to Cleveland. “Ball players must realize that they are partners with the owners in a business which can pay dividends only in proportion to its drawing power,” Cissell explained later. “When times are bad, salaries must be low. I am playing ball for less money than I have received in the past, but I consider myself fortunate. I got an increase—and any player who even receives the same as he did last season should consider he got a raise.”
But he showed his gratitude by arriving at spring training overweight again, then was warned by the Hartford Courant of a second base jinx that had plagued Cleveland since 1926, when Fred Spurgeon had a solid year followed by a collapse in 1927, then Carl Lind pulled the same trick in 1928 and ’29. “Cleveland has had a succession of sensational keystoners who went sour,” the paper reminded readers. Indians manager Roger Peckinpaugh apparently didn’t believe in jinxes, however, and penciled Cissell into the cleanup spot on Opening Day.
Cissell got off to a slow start, hitting only .235 a little more than a week into the season, but he was doing his job as a cleanup hitter, slugging .412 and driving in five runs in his first eight games. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there, as he suffered through various injuries, a three-game suspension in mid-May for using profanity during an argument with home plate umpire Roy Van Graflan, and inconsistency at the plate.
Hitting .232 with a .241 on-base percentage and a .354 slugging average on May 16, Cissell was moved up to third in the order for three games before moving up to second on May 25, despite a still anemic .250 OBP. He responded well, boosting his OBP to .286 on June 8, but was still batting only .236 with only 14 RBIs.
Peckinpaugh was fired on June 9 after the Indians went 26-25 in their first 51 games and dropped from first place on May 11 to fifth place less than a month later. Bibb Falk managed the team for one game before Walter Johnson, the Indians’ new skipper, arrived from his Maryland farmhouse. Johnson left Cissell at second base and in the two hole for most of the rest of the month and, though he continued to struggle, Cissell finished fifth among A.L. second basemen in fan balloting for the league’s first official All-Star game to be played at Comiskey Park.
Finally on June 30, Johnson replaced Cissell with Odell “Bad News” Hale, a 24-year-old backup third baseman with only 10 games of experience at second. Although he was a below average glove man at second, Hale responded well, leading the league in range and finishing the season as Cleveland’s second best hitter.
Cissell, on the other hand, began to find it difficult to get on the field, serving as a pinch runner and hitter, splitting time with Bill Knickerbocker and Johnny Burnett at shortstop, and spelling Hale at second base on occasion. He hit .256 the rest of the way to finish at .230, and enjoyed a “power” surge in August when he smacked three of his six home runs, all coming in a six-game span in the middle of the month. But his season ended on September 15 when he underwent an appendectomy at New York Post Graduate Hospital a day after the Indians arrived in New York to play the Yankees.
Less than a month after his surgery, Cissell was dealt to the Boston Red Sox for southpaw hurler Lloyd “Gimpy” Brown, a soon-to-be 29-year-old seven-year veteran who had gone 9-17 with a 4.63 ERA for the Browns and Red Sox in 1933, and was 67-69 in his career, albeit with a respectable 4.08 ERA in 251 games. According to some reports, Cissell had impressed Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins and was slated to play second base, replacing player-manager Marty McManus who had been released on October 2. Ed Bang tried to justify the trade talk, writing in The Sporting News that “the need for southpaw pitching strength has become so acute that [the Indians] are willing to give up a valuable asset to obtain it.”
To erase any doubt that Cissell was Collins’ man, the Boston GM sold Johnny Hodapp to the St. Louis Cardinals less than three weeks after the deal. It was the second time in his career that Cissell replaced Hodapp in a team’s lineup. But things got murky when, on December 12, the Red Sox acquired second baseman Max Bishop and pitchers Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg from the Athletics. Cissell was seemingly out of the running for the second base job when Red Sox skipper Bucky Harris announced in February that Bishop was his keystone man and that Cissell would be battling Billy Werber and Bucky Walters for shortstop and third base.
Bishop, Werber and Walters were in the starting lineup on Opening Day, but Cissell eventually worked his way in and ended up getting a majority of the playing time at second. He showed good range, but his glovework left much to be desired and he was the Red Sox’s worst hitter, batting .267 and slugging only .346. Only three other A.L. hitters had an OPS lower than Cissell’s .661.
Cissell spent only one year with the Red Sox before he was shipped back to Portland on February 1, 1935 for pitcher Jack Wilson and an option on outfielder Nino Bongiovanni. The infielder had come full circle; after seven years in the big leagues, he was back with the team that had sold him for the record sum that scribes wouldn’t let him forget. He enjoyed a very good year with Portland, batting .316 and rapping out 204 hits, successfully piloting the team for most of the season after skipper Buddy Ryan resigned on May 31, and earning a spot on Bob Ray’s P.C.L. All-Star team. But his heart was still in the big leagues.
“Managing a minor league club is okay,” Cissell told Ray, “but there’s only one place to play ball and that’s in the majors. I still think there are four or five years of major league ball left in my system, and if I don’t land back in the big show next season I’ll be mighty disappointed.”
In fact, Cissell refused to play for Portland again in 1936 and was told to make a deal for himself. He ended up being shipped to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League for first baseman Bill Sweeney. Meanwhile the Beavers hired none other than Max Bishop to follow in Cissell’s managerial footsteps, but Bishop was fired early in the season and replaced by Sweeney.
The Orioles were happy to have the veteran infielder, especially Baltimore general manager Jack Ogden. “Ogden is sold on Cissell,” wrote Jesse A. Linthicum of the Baltimore Sun. “He believes that Bill will make a big hit in the International League. He is peppery, and eager to play here.” Few expected him to be there long, though. “The big leagues booted one when they let Cissell go back to the minors,” insisted catcher Bill Cronin, one of Cissell’s former teammates with the Beavers. “Look for him to go up again, for he’s the best infielder we had in our league.”
Before the 1936 regular season could get under way, yet another writer reminded his readers about the record price the White Sox paid for Cissell back in 1927. “There was Bill Cissell out there playing shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles this afternoon, and it was not difficult to recall him as the most expensive piece of baseball bric-a-brac who ever came into the big leagues,” wrote Shirley Povich in the Washington Post. “The late Charles A. Comiskey paid $126,000 [sic] for Cissell when he was a star in the Coast League seven years ago and the guy never did justify that kind of a price.”
Perhaps not, but once the season got under way he thrilled fans in Baltimore with his stellar play at second base, including Linthicum who named Cissell the team’s most valuable player in mid-June. Cissell fractured his index finger again in July, but kept playing and was batting .348 with 12 homers and a league-leading 118 hits after 83 games. The injury got worse, though, and he was forced to miss some time in late July and early August. His absence from the lineup appeared to solidify his status as the Orioles’s MVP when the team underperformed without him, and he was, in fact, awarded a trophy as the team’s most valuable player towards the end of the season. Cissell finished the year at .349 with career highs in homers (15) and slugging (.523), and was second in the league in range factor.
“No one will doubt the wisdom of the selection,” wrote Linthicum. “Cissell has been the spark plug of the infield. He has been a steadying influence to young Red Hoffner at shortstop. In fact, the deal bringing Cissell to this city probably was the best of many engineered by Jack Ogden. Cissell’s value to the club was emphasized when an injury forced him to the sidelines. The Birds did not look the same. Cissell is the ideal type of player. He fights himself out of slumps instead of sulking. There are not enough of that type of player in the game.”
Cissell’s performance was rewarded when Connie Mack acquired him in the Rule 5 draft on September 29 (When Mack was asked why he’d take a chance on a player known for his appetite for alcohol, Mack replied, “I understand he only drinks at night now.”) It had been 10 years since Mack first expressed a desire to add the then young up-and-coming Pacific Coast League star to his A’s squad. But Cissell was now in his early thirties and merely a middling journeyman infielder, hoping for a second chance to stick in the big leagues.
“Cissell turned in a first-rate job with the Birds this season and earned his chance under the big top again,” wrote C.M. Gibbs. “There is no question but that the former White Sox star can still measure up to major standards.”
Cissell capped off his 1936 season by placing second in International League MVP balloting behind Buffalo Bisons outfielder Frank “Beauty” McGowan.
He carried that momentum over into 1937 and got off to a fast start as the Athletics’ starting second baseman, going 3-for-5 with a double, a run, and an RBI in Philadelphia’s 4-3 Opening Day win over the Washington Senators. By May 15, he was batting .333 and just missed ranking among the top 10 hitters in the American League. But by the end of the month, his average had slipped to .278, and by June 6, it was down to .265. His glove had also been subpar, committing eight errors in 33 games, and though he had the best range in the league, Mack had seen enough and sent Cissell back to Baltimore on June 11.
Despite not living up to expectations in Philadelphia, Cissell made quite an impression. Mack called him “one of the smartest players in baseball,” and Red Smith wrote a touching farewell letter to Cissell in the Philadelphia Record.
Dear Bill—They just don’t ever come back, do they fella? It was just a month ago that we sat together with a couple of dishes of beer between us and you said quietly: “I’ll bat about .330 this year, and drive in maybe 120 runs.”
You weren’t bragging. You believed in yourself. So did I. So did all of us up here in the press coop watching and marveling at the comeback you were making.
We watched you swinging that stick in the clutch, batting in the runs that kept the Athletics’ May winning streak alive. We watched you on second base playing the hitters, making your head spare those 32-year-old legs…
Well, you made a grand try, Bill. For a while we all thought you had the Indian sign on that sunuvagun with the sickle, as Gabby Street used to call the gentleman who soon or late calls the third one on all of us.
Well, I’m getting maudlin, Bill, which is something you wouldn’t go for. I just want to thank you for the thrills you gave us a month ago. I’m going out now to lift one to your luck.
Not all of the A’s were upset to see Cissell go, however. When asked about the team’s nine-game losing streak to end the month of May, dropping the team from 15-9 to 15-18, an unnamed player said, “See that spot out there between first and second base? Well that’s where we lost 10 games in one month. Poor Bill Cissell, our second baseman, couldn’t go to his left and young Chubby Dean, our first baseman, couldn’t go to his right. Between the two of ‘em, they left a hole that you could move the dugout through. Anything hit toward right centerfield on the ground was a hit. It was pitiful.”
Cissell was a welcome sight back in Baltimore, but he struggled mightily in his first month with the team, batting only .222. He eventually recovered, though, and batted .319 for the rest of the season to finish at a respectable .296 on the year. At 33, Cissell appeared to be losing a step, and the Orioles had a hole to fill at third base after incumbent third sacker “Smokey Joe” Martin was drafted by the White Sox in the 1937 Rule 5 draft, so Cissell was moved to third in 1938.
Despite his admiration for Cissell, Linthicum called the move “a gamble.” But Gibbs insisted it was the right call, that too many hits that Bill would have swallowed up in 1935 and ’36 had gotten past him in 1937, and that Cissell was demonstrating in camp that he was a capable third baseman. Before he could prove it, however, an X-ray discovered a chipped bone in the index finger that he’d fractured twice before in his career. He played through the injury and got off to a slow start, batting .250 in his first 14 games.
He also found himself in some off-the-field trouble early in the season when his wife called the police and had him cited for disturbing the peace, resulting in a fine of $11.45. Orioles manager Buck Crouse insisted that he wouldn’t fine Cissell for the infraction because his trouble was “at his home and I haven’t anything to do with a player’s home life,” but C.M. Gibbs reported that Cissell was fined $50 and suspended indefinitely. The Orioles left for Rochester without Cissell and pitcher Bill Perrin, who had also been fined and suspended for getting into a fistfight in front of the city jail, but Jack Ogden wired Cissell the next day and ordered him on a plane to Rochester to rejoin the team.
Two weeks later, Cissell was in the news again when his son, Bill Jr., filed a lawsuit against John Pymer and the City Baking Company seeking damages of $25,000 for injuries he received when he was struck by Pymer’s automobile on March 9. Bill Sr. and his wife also filed suit for $2,500 for medical expenses and the loss of their son’s services.
But Cissell’s off-field issues didn’t end there. On May 28, it was reported that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ordered that Cissell be placed on the ineligible list after Cissell failed to respond to letters from Landis asking about a financial deal the player had with someone in Florida. When Cissell insisted Landis’ letters had never reached him, the commissioner relented and allowed Cissell to keep playing.
Once he was able to concentrate on playing baseball, he rebounded and posted a solid .293 average and a .401 slugging percentage in 382 at-bats before he was purchased by the New York Giants on August 1 for $20,000 and Blondy Ryan, who was optioned to Baltimore to fill the vacancy left by Cissell. Back in the big leagues, he struggled at the plate, batting .268 with an anemic .297 on-base percentage, but he enjoyed his best season in the field, posting a career-best .977 fielding percentage at second base and a 6.48 range factor that would have easily led the league had he qualified.
Unfortunately, his 38-game cup of coffee with the Giants would be his last taste of the majors. On December 6, New York sold the soon-to-be 35-year-old infielder to the Hollywood Stars of the P.C.L. where he’d spend the next two seasons playing second base.
Of course, before the 1939 season could get under way, Cissell had to be reminded once again of the $123,000 Charles Comiskey spent to acquire him from Portland. “Unhappily, the $123,000 was thrown to the wind mainly because Cissell was a care free youngster who didn’t make use of his natural ability,” wrote Irving Vaughan in the Chicago Tribune. Then Bob Considine piled on. “[Bill Cissell] cost the White Sox about $100,000 and started out well, but he cut years off his playing life and shaved his general effectiveness by taking abysmal care of himself,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
Almost a year to the day that Commissioner Landis threatened to place Cissell on the ineligible list, he found himself facing banishment again in June 1939 when P.C.L. president Wilbur C. “Two Gun” Tuttle got wind of derogatory comments Cissell made about him to an Oakland Tribune newspaper reporter named Art Cohn. While sitting in Jack Fenton’s Oakland tavern, no doubt enjoying a drink or two, Cissell told Cohn that “Tuttle doesn’t know anything about baseball,” and that former major league umpire George Hildebrand would make a better league president than Tuttle.
He also criticized the P.C.L. rule permitting the use of using “too many rookies,” and stated that the International League and American Association were stronger circuits than the Pacific Coast League. And he criticized Commissioner Landis for “gypping” him out of $5,000 when he attempted to procure a chunk of the $123,000 purchase price the White Sox doled out for him in 1927. Cissell’s contract showed that he was entitled to the money, but when Landis asked to see the original document and Cissell was able to provide only a copy, the commissioner told him he couldn’t help him. “The judge demanded to see the original or nothing,” Cissell complained.
After conferring with Judge W.G. Bramham, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor leagues’ governing body, Tuttle meted out swift justice and suspended Cissell indefinitely without giving the ballplayer a chance to defend himself. The speed and severity of the punishment should have surprised no one; Tuttle was the son of a frontier sheriff and writer of Wild West fiction that featured men like Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens “riding the fiction range…and shooting off the bad guys…” Apparently, Tuttle viewed Cissell as one of the bad guys. Bramham was even more adamant about punishing Cissell and threatened lifetime suspension “if the remarks attributed to him could not be proved erroneous.”
The adjudicators performed an immediate about face, however, and lifted the suspension only two hours into the penalty after receiving a phone call from Stars vice president Bob Cobb. Bramham ordered Tuttle to investigate the matter and determine if Cissell was quoted correctly before deciding on an appropriate penalty. Cissell didn’t deny the allegations, but insisted he didn’t realize he’d been talking to a reporter at the time. “I don’t know Cohn or any other newspaperman,” Cissell swore. “I discussed certain baseball rules last week in an Oakland tavern owned by Jack Fenton but did not talk to any sports writer. I wouldn’t know Cohn if I met him right now.”
Cohn stood firm, however. “I am sorry Cissell is in a jam, but he knew he was talking to a newspaperman. His remarks were correctly reported and there were two others present who could verify them.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Bob Ray came to Cissell’s aid, though he admitted that Cissell was wrong for “rapping the game that has given him his living,” and “popping off against his ‘meal ticket’” in public, and felt a verbal dressing down and an apology were in order. In Cissell’s defense, though, Ray reported that Cohn had a “reputation for having a vivid imagination,” that “he isn’t happy unless he’s embarrassing or irritating somebody,” and that he doubted Cissell had directed his remarks to Cohn, but that the reporter had overheard them. He also took Bramham to task and accused him of being a dictator who was threatening a punishment that was much too severe for the crime.
Whether or not Cissell had been talking directly to Cohn or not, the player had a habit of criticizing the P.C.L. in the newspapers, so perhaps Tuttle can be excused for finally taking action. In 1935, Cissell told Bob Ray that there were too many teams in California, especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that two of them should be moved to Vancouver and Tacoma, “but I don’t suppose any of the owners will pay any attention to it,” he said. “That’s the trouble with the owners out here, practically all of them lack the ability to look ahead and they’re afraid to attempt something new.”
In the end, Bramham and Tuttle agreed that a lifetime ban was too harsh a penalty. Instead of suspending Cissell, they fined him $200 and placed him on a season-long probation with a warning that future critical remarks by Cissell that found their way into newspapers would result in “severe suspension.” Tuttle explained that he refrained from suspending Cissell because he had no desire to penalize the Hollywood Stars for one man’s actions.
But six weeks later, the Stars suspended Cissell themselves for breaking training and though they wouldn’t specify why, rumor was that he’d fallen off the wagon on a trip from Seattle to Portland. Cissell returned to Hollywood’s lineup on July 25 and helped the Stars defeat Oakland with three hits in the 4-0 win. He was able to stay out of trouble the rest of the way, but finished with subpar numbers, batting .269 and slugging only .359 on the year. And though he was no longer one of the league’s better second baseman, his fielding was right in line with his career averages. Still, he was voted the team’s MVP by the Hollywood fans.
Cissell spent October playing for Joe Pirrone’s All-Stars in the California Winter League, competing with and against players like Bob Feller, Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff, Ernie Orsatti, Babe Herman, then 19-year-old minor league hot shot Jerry Priddy, and Negro league stars such as Mule Suttles, “Wild Bill” Wright, and Lloyd Bassett. He was also mentioned among a list of candidates to take over the managerial reins of the Hollywood Stars in 1940, but lost the job to Bill Sweeney who succeeded Red Killefer.
At 36 years old, Cissell entered spring training of 1940 as the second oldest member of the Stars, behind only fellow California Winter Leaguer and new teammate Babe Herman, who was 37. He had to compete early on with Joe Hoover and Don Johnson for his second base job, but beat them both out with Hoover moving back to shortstop and Johnson to Tulsa of the Texas League. Cissell also turned over a new leaf in his personal life, vowing to cut down on hard liquor in favor of the occasional beer or two.
Like clockwork the annual mention of the $123,000 purchase price hit newsstands on April 23 when the L.A. Times reported that no deal had included as much money before or since. But the article was a positive one. “Whatever Cissell’s faults may have been in the past,” it read, “one of them never was lack of hustling. Cissell has played the game hard at all times with only one object in view—winning. Bill may be no spring chicken any more, but he’s hustling as much as any player on the Hollywood club.”
Cissell got off to a fast start in 1940 and stayed fairly consistent throughout the season, at least at the plate. He batted .327 through his first 37 games and had one stretch where he rapped out 23 hits in 12 games, including two homers, three doubles, and a triple. He couldn’t maintain his torrid pace, but was hitting .305 at the end of July and might have finished the season over .300 had he not been badly spiked in late August. Despite a heavily bandaged foot, Cissell refused to come out of the lineup and his average dropped about 20 points, but he finished the year at a solid .289. His glovework began to slip, however, and he finished last among P.C.L. second basemen in fielding percentage and range.
Cissell spent another offseason playing in the California Winter League before preparing for his 17th and final season of professional baseball. Heading into the 1941 season, the writing was on the wall almost immediately for the aging keystone man when the Stars purchased 28-year-old second baseman Ham Schulte from the Philadelphia Phillies. Schulte was almost 10 years younger than Cissell and had paced the National League in fielding percentage (.980) in 1940, committing only 12 errors in 119 games. Prior to that, he led the International League in fielding in 1938 and finished second in 1939.
The move proved to be a good one for the Stars. Schulte was a much better player at that point in his career than Cissell was in his, posting a .970 fielding percentage and batting .280. In June, the Stars needed to make room for new pitching coach Johnny Bassler, so they released Cissell, who had been serving as a part-time coach and utility player.
“Releasing Cissell was one of the hardest jobs of my life,” said Stars manager Bill Sweeney. “He’s a ball player’s player, dead game to the core, and there’s only a few of his kind left.”
Cissell was picked up by the San Francisco Seals two days later but didn’t see much playing time and ended the 1941 season with a .247 average, only one extra-base hit in 40 games, and four errors in 61 chances. At 37 years old, “Spider Bill” Cissell’s professional career was over.
In 1942, Cissell played semi-pro ball in California, first with the North America Aviation club, then with the Calship Mariners. From that point on, Cissell popped in and out of the news on occasion. In April 1944, Arch Ward reported in the Chicago Tribune that Cissell was cutting beef for the Iowa Packing Company in Marshalltown, Iowa. Other reports had him working for the railroad. Less than two months later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cissell had signed with Minneapolis, but there’s no evidence that he ever played for them. It was also around that time that Cissell’s wife, Bernice, died.
In 1947, Cissell entertained the idea of playing in the Mexican League, but he was offered a job by Dave Leahy, Comiskey Park’s chief electrician, which he accepted. Besides working as an electrician at the stadium where he made his major league debut, Cissell also played semi-pro ball on Sundays for $25 a game. “He’s worth the dough they pay him, even though he’s getting on in years,” Leahy insisted.
Cissell’s last hurrah as a ballplayer came in 1948 when he participated in an Old-Timers’ game at Wrigley Field that also featured Rogers Hornsby, Freddy Lindstrom, Jim Thorpe, and 78-year-old John Hollison, who played for Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts in 1892. Cissell drove in the first run of the game, but the National League won, 5-4, when Bob O’Farrell’s single knocked in Ed Cronin with the winning run.
From there, Cissell’s life spiraled out of control. In December, he was stricken with what appeared to be Buerger’s disease (incorrectly reported by some as Berger’s disease), an inflammation and clotting of veins and arteries in the hands and feet, which made it impossible for him to walk without excruciating pain. He had also fallen on hard times and was living in a tiny one-room apartment in Chicago with his 13-year-old son Gary, who was supporting both of them with his $7-a-week grocery store job. In addition to the disease, he was malnourished, resulting in a 60 lb. weight loss, and had hardening of the arteries.
“When my wife died I went to hell for a while,” Cissell told Robert Cromie of the Chicago Tribune in January 1949. “In fact, I never did come all the way back. I used to drink too much, altho I haven’t had any since Thanksgiving. But if I can just get back on my feet again I’ll be all right. If a man can’t make a livin’ in this town he can’t make it anywhere. But I’m just skin and bones now, must be down to 100 pounds.”
When White Sox vice president Charles Comiskey II and general manager Frank Lane learned of Cissell’s plight, they rushed to his aid, called an ambulance and had him taken to Mercy Hospital, and also arranged for Gary to live with a neighboring family so he could continue going to school (Bill Jr. had reenlisted in the Navy and Charlene was living with friends in Des Moines). Win Clark, secretary of the Association of Professional Baseball Players, issued an emergency check to Cissell to help him get by. “Bill’s case is pathetic,” Clark said. “While he dropped out of the association when his playing days ended…Bill faithfully paid his dues for the 15 years he was active and we are going to help him all we can.” Soon contributions from fans began to be sent as well.
After his first day in the hospital, Cissell’s prognosis looked promising. Dr. John P. Waitkus leaned away from Buerger’s disease and towards polyneuritis-multiple inflammation along the nerves, with some hardening of the arteries. “We still have to get him in good enough shape so that we can run vascular tests, but I don’t think we’ll find anything too serious,” said Waitkus. Cissell’s condition improved in early February—thanks to treatment and a strict diet, the inflammation subsided and was affecting only one foot from the ankle down, and Cissell had already gained 15 pounds.
“I’m feeling a little better,” Bill told reporters from his hospital bed. “I’ve had some rough days but I’m sure the worst is over.” Lane reported that doctors expected Cissell to be up and around in a few days and when he was able to work, the White Sox had a job waiting for both him and Gary.
During Cissell’s recovery, Milton Richman took Organized Baseball to task for not doing more to help former ballplayers after their careers are over. “Baseball wasn’t responsible for the poor circumstances of all these ex-players but the game might have provided more help,” he wrote. “Some of these men, in fact, ruined themselves but baseball might have taken a more charitable view of their difficulties.” Richman cited the cases of Danny Gardella, former Giant and Cardinal, who was living in a dilapidated building in Yonkers, New York with his wife and 16-month-old son while trying to make ends meet as a hospital orderly, and former slugger Hack Wilson, who died penniless at age 48 only three months earlier.
Things were looking bright for Cissell as February turned to March. He had fully recovered from the nerve inflammation in his legs and feet and was almost ready to be discharged from the hospital. But he suffered a heart attack on March 5 and was listed in critical condition. Almost a week later Waitkus announced that Cissell was not responding to treatment and was getting weaker. He died the next day, March 15, at the age of 45.
Cissell was survived by his three children, his mother, Mrs. Ida French, and two sisters, Mrs. P.F. Sudbeck and Mrs. Alma Miller. He’s buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in his home town of Perryville, Missouri.