The Battle For George Sisler’s Soul
In 1910, 17-year-old phenom George Sisler signed a contract with Akron of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League between his junior and senior years of high school. Because he was a minor and had failed to garner his parents’ consent, Sisler and his father Cassius requested that the contract be declared invalid. Sisler then enrolled at the University of Michigan and began playing ball for the Wolverines. In September 1911, Akron sold Sisler’s contract to Columbus of the American Association, assuming they still held his rights. In March 1912, Columbus demanded that Sisler report to spring training, but he refused on the grounds that he was still a minor, that he was attending college, and that his parents still wouldn’t consent.
Just as Akron had before it, Columbus placed Sisler on its ineligible list and allowed him to continue his college career. Sisler, who would eventually make his mark in the majors as a hard-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman, was a pitcher in high school and in college and he began dominating collegiate batters from the day he set foot on Michigan’s baseball diamond.
As fate would have it, Michigan’s baseball coach at the time was Branch Rickey, who would go on to fame as one of baseball’s top executives, but would first begin a managerial career with the St. Louis Browns in 1913. While Columbus held Sisler’s contract, the talented hurler held Rickey’s attention. Columbus sold Sisler’s contract to Pittsburgh in August 1912 for $5,000 and on September 1, the National Commission approved the deal. As far as Barney Dreyfuss was concerned Sisler was a Pirate and demanded that George report to the team or else be placed on its ineligible list as well.
Afraid that he would lose the remaining three years of his collegiate eligibility, Sisler conferred with Rickey, who convinced Detroit judge George B. Codd to serve as the young pitcher’s legal adviser. Codd, Sisler, and his father all appealed to the National Commission, asking the committee to grant Sisler his free agency on the basis that the boy was a minor when he signed the original contract, therefore it should be declared illegal.
In December the National Commission wrote back to Codd and assured him that Sisler hadn’t been associated with professional baseball; that his collegiate eligibility hadn’t been compromised, and that Pittsburgh’s claim to the player would be “dormant” until Sisler graduated from college, at which time the Commission would make a decision on the matter.
Sisler continued to shine at the collegiate level for the next two years while the issue sat on the National Commission’s back burner. Other major league teams began to take notice of the young hurler and with graduation only a year away a new sense of urgency cropped up. Codd contacted the Commission in the spring of 1914 and requested that Sisler be declared a free agent so he could negotiate a contract with whomever he chose.
The National Commission knew its hands were tied. Akron had signed Sisler illegally and had no rights to him, which meant that neither Columbus nor Pittsburgh, both of whom had subsequently purchased the illegal contract, had any rights either. But the Commission also understood that Dreyfuss had incurred expenses to acquire Sisler, most notably the $5,000 he sent to Columbus to procure the player.
National Commision chairman Garry Herrmann, on the advice of then National League president Tom Lynch, suggested a compromise that would allow Sisler to become a free agent, but would give Dreyfuss the exclusive right to sign the Michigan star to a contract if he decided to play professionally. Codd rejected the idea and threatened to sue the Commission if it didn’t grant his client free agency with “no strings attached.”
“The time is at hand when this young man should be allowed to make a profit out of his own ability and every day’s delay is adding to the damage which he is sustaining by your deprivation of his legal rights,” Codd wrote. One of the owners suggested that they act in collusion and refuse to negotiate with Sisler, freezing him out of every city but Pittsburgh, so that Dreyfuss could retain Sisler’s services without competition. When it was learned through legal channels that the idea constituted a conspiracy and could open major league baseball up to a massive lawsuit, the Commission thought better of it and wisely decided to grant Sisler’s request for free agency.
Sisler thanked the Commission and assured them that he would give Dreyfuss every opportunity to sign him to a contract. The Pirates owner offered the collegiate $700 a month for the 1915 season plus a $1,000 bonus, which came to a total salary of $5,200. Under normal conditions, that probably would have been sufficient to get the young star’s name on the dotted line. But a new man had taken over the St. Louis Browns’ front office and he was making Sisler a better offer.
Rickey left Michigan in 1913 to manage the Browns and serve as second vice president and secretary of the club. It was his responsibility to line up the country’s best talent and Sisler was his primary target. It didn’t hurt that the two had already forged a relationship while at Michigan, and when Rickey offered Sisler a salary of $2,400 for the season and a $5,000 bonus, making the total deal worth $7,400, Sisler couldn’t refuse. Dreyfuss was incensed and filed a complaint with the Commission, accusing Rickey of tampering with Sisler and using his personal relationship with the young man to procure information regarding Pittsburgh’s offer, allowing the Browns to trump it with a more substantial one.
Immediately upon receiving Dreyfuss’ formal complaint, American League president Ban Johnson suspended Sisler, but incurred the wrath of the Browns and Codd, who threatened another lawsuit. “I am not courting damage suits,” Johnson wrote to Herrmann. “If you, as chairman of the Commission, want to assume the responsibility, I will suspend the player on a direct order from you, and the Pittsburgh charge of bad faith can go to a hearing.”
But the suspension was lifted and Sisler was allowed to make his major league debut with the Browns on June 28. Because the dispute involved both leagues, Herrmann was responsible for the Commission’s final decision. It took him a year before he finally decided to dismiss Dreyfuss’ complaint due to a lack of evidence.
About the decision, Harold Seymour wrote, “Dreyfuss was outraged, and his wrath was fed constantly by the sight of Sisler developing into a great first baseman and one of the best players ever. The Pittsburgh owner became the implacable foe of Garry Herrmann and thenceforward bent every effort to unseat him as chairman of the National Commission.”
Dreyfuss’ opposition to Herrmann and the National Commission continued until it was disbanded in favor of a single commissioner in 1920. Meanwhile Sisler went on to have a Hall of Fame career, most of it with the Browns, before retiring after the 1930 season with a career batting average of .340.
But lest you feel sorry for the Pirates, consider this: two months before Kenesaw Mountain Landis agreed to become baseball’s first commissioner, the Pirates “stole” a player out from underneath the Boston Red Sox by purchasing him from a minor league team that had an unofficial working relationship with the Sox. The player was to be returned to Boston when Red Sox manager Ed Barrow felt he was ready for the majors, but instead Portsmouth sold him to Pittsburgh for $10,000.
The player’s name? Pie Traynor.