By Glen Sparks
The American League created an MVP award in 1922. George Sisler was ready.
Sisler, a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, put together the finest season of his Hall of Fame career in ’22. The timing worked out great.
Baseball had stopped giving out something called the Chalmers Award in 1914. Hugh Chalmers, the head of Detroit-based Chalmers Automobile, created that honor in 1910 as a way to gain publicity for his company. The Chalmers Award would go to the Major League player who finished with the highest batting average, then considered the game’s most important stat. Sounds simple, right? Well, nothing involving Ty Cobb is ever simple.
Cobb, the great outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, couldn’t shake Napoleon Lajoie, a second baseman for the Cleveland Indians, in 1910. On the final day of the season, Lajoie put down seven bunt hits and added a triple in a doubleheader against the Browns. He went 8-for-8 with a sacrifice.
The story goes that Jack O’Connor didn’t like the ill-tempered Cobb. That was why he stationed his third baseman, Red Corriden, several feet behind the bag in that game. Corriden had no chance to field a bunt and throw out the runner. Even so, A.L. President Ban Johnson declared Cobb the winner in the batting race by a margin of .000860. (Later research indicated that Cobb had incorrectly been awarded two extra hits during that season. Baseball-reference.com lists Lajoie with a .384 batting average in 1910 and Cobb with a .383 mark.)
Chalmers decided to award a car to both players anyway. Over the next four seasons, a Chalmers Award was given to one player in each league who by a vote of baseball writers was determined to be the “most important and useful player to the club and to the league.” The publicity did not match the cost of giving away a free car, however, and the award was dropped after the 1914 campaign.
That brings us to 1922. Hoping to increase fan interest, A.L. executives announced they would hand out an MVP award at season’s end. It would go to “the baseball player who is of the greatest all-around service to his club.”
The smart money had to be on Babe Ruth. The Bambino was coming off an epic year. He crushed 59 home runs in 1921 and drove in 168 with a .378 batting average. Cobb also was a good candidate. He hit .389 in 1921 with 101 RBI. (Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were still to come.)
But, Sisler had to be on everyone’s short list. He batted .371 in ’21 and led the league in triples in (18) and stolen bases (35). In 1920, Sisler batted .407, tops in the A.L. He recorded a league-high 257 hits, drove in 122 runs and stole 42 bases. A writer from the day once informed readers that Sisler possessed “dazzling ability of the Cobbesque type.”
Sisler, he wrote, “is just as fast, showy, and sensational, very nearly if not quite as good as a natural hitter, as fast in speed of foot, an even better fielder, and gifted with a versatility Cobb himself might envy.”
The Ohio-born product played football, basketball and baseball as a kid. A good student, he left Akron High School and went to the University of Michigan to study engineering. And, as it turns out, to mash fastballs (He batted .445 as a sophomore with the Wolverines and .451 as a junior.)
Sisler signed with the Browns as a pitcher. He joined the big club in 1915 and compiled a 2.83 ERA in 70 innings. He even beat Walter Johnson 2-1 in a pitching duel Aug. 29.
The lefty only pitched 41 more innings in his career. The Browns decided he could menace the opposition more as a hitter. He hit .285 in at-bats in 1915 and .305 the following year, his first full season. Then, his career he really took off. He hit .353, .341 and .342 in each of the next three years. He stole a total of 154 bases in his first five seasons.
Those years led up to his huge seasons in 1920 and ’21. But, he saved his best year for 1922. Sisler led the league in batting average (.420), hits (246), runs (134), triples (18) and stolen bases (51). He also added eight homers, 42 doubles and 105 RBI.
On this date in 1922, baseball writers voted Sisler as the league’s first MVP. Ruth had muddled through an offseason (31 HR, 96 RBI, .315), made worse by a suspension for playing in illegal offseason exhibition games, and Cobb didn’t beat Sisler in any of the major batting categories (Once a great base stealer, the 35-year-old Georgia Peach finished with just nine thefts.)
Really, Sisler’s toughest competition for MVP probably came from a fellow St. Louis Brown, Ken Williams. The left-fielder led the A.L. in homers (39) and RBI (155) and finished sixth in batting average (.332) in what was by far the best year of his career. He also led the league in total bases (367, 19 more than Sisler) and was second in steals (37). Using more modern stats, Sisler beat Williams in WAR (8.7 to 7.9) and runs created (163 to 146), in large part because of Sisler’s .88 point lead in batting average. The writers made the correct choice.
Sisler missed the 1923 season due to a sinus infection that damaged an optic nerve. He was never the same ballplayer again. He wouldn’t have been eligible for the MVP again, anyway. According to the rules, a player could not win the award twice. Babe Ruth, back in full swing, was the A.L. MVP of 1923.
The National League did not institute an MVP until 1924. Dazzy Vance, ace of the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers), was the first winner. The modern MVP did not get going until 1931.
Sisler retired following the 1930 season. He left the game with a .340 lifetime batting average. Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, Sisler remains the greatest Brown of all.