clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

George Sisler: The White Cool Papa Bell

The two non-Cardinals graced with statues outside Busch Stadium were very similar players.

‘Gorgeous’ George Sisler Of The St. Louis Browns Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

There are 10 players honored with a statue outside of Busch Stadium: Eight Cardinals, plus Cool Papa Bell of the St. Louis Stars and George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns.

I wrote last week about what we know about Cool Papa Bell as a player, which goes well beyond the kind of Tall Tales that players in the Negro Leagues are often reduced to. And when you look at the kind of player Bell was in real life, you’ll find it mirrors very closely the other non-Cardinal statuary honoree: George Sisler.

Triple slash lines give a quick snapshot of a hitter: How well they make contact, draw walks and hit for power. And for Sisler and Bell, their career marks are strikingly similar:

Over a 15-year-career, Sisler’s OPS+ was 125. Over a 21-year-career, Bell’s was 127. Each player struck out only 3% of the time, less than half the league average - even in the 1920s.

While the variation and generally fewer number of games played in the Negro Leagues makes comparing their counting stats more difficult, there are still similarities there. Both players led their respective leagues in batting and stolen bases. Sisler swiped a career-high 51 bases in 1922. Bell’s highest total was 52 in 1929 (though in 40 fewer games).

Even anecdotally, the way the two players are described as hitters sounds almost identical. One historian and friend of Bell likened his style of play to that of the deadball era, citing Wee Willie Keeler specifically as a comp.

Sisler, whose career began seven years before Bell, actually started out in the deadball era and rode the transition into the live ball of the 1920s. He was dubbed the successor to Ty Cobb - a contact-oriented player who prided himself on the ability to hit to all fields.

“Except when I cut loose at the ball, I always try to place my hits,” he once said.

While we historically know Bell as a Center Fielder and Sisler as a First Baseman, the truth is that their defensive stories are also quite similar.

Both began their careers as pitchers. Bell pitched exclusively in his first season, split-time between the mound and outfield in his 2nd, and by his 3rd season was almost exclusively a center fielder.

Sisler was signed to the Browns by Branch Rickey, who had coached him at the University of Michigan a few years prior. Already known for his skill on the mound and at the plate, Sisler would pitch in 15 games his rookie season, posting a 2.83 ERA - good for about league average at the time. He even beat Walter Johnson head-to-head. On days he wasn’t pitching, he featured at first base and all three outfield positions - appearing in a total of 81 games.

But Sisler had arm trouble which dated back to his days at Michigan, and that coupled with his superior talents as a hitter soon saw him transition to a full-time position player, just like Bell. Sisler would start just 3 games in his 2nd Big League season, and essentially be done with pitching after that.

With his great speed, the outfield might seem like a more likely position for Sisler to land. He did spend time in the outfield during his first two seasons, but it is likely his arm trouble, coupled with his skill as a first baseman in an era when first base was considered more of a defensive position, led to him spending most of his career on the infield.

From 1922 until 1927, Bell and Sisler’s careers in St. Louis overlapped, with Bell playing Hall of Fame caliber ball at St. Louis Stars Park while Sisler played like a Hall of Famer at Sportsman’s Park. And if the Cardinals were playing instead of the Brown’s at Sportsman’s Park, you’d have to settle for Rogers Hornsby.

After 12 years in St. Louis, Sisler ended his major league career with three middling seasons between Washington and Boston. He played his final big league game at the age of 37 in 1930. But Sisler would play two more seasons in the International League before officially retiring as a player.

Cool Papa Bell would play in St. Louis until 1931, then bounce around the US, Mexico and Caribbean leagues until playing his final season in 1946, at the age of 43.

That was the season before Jackie Robinson was poised to break the color barrier, and helping him along was one George Sisler. After retiring, Sisler followed his lifelong mentor Branch Rickey and began working for the Dodgers as a scout and coach. It was in this capacity that he helped scout Robinson while he played in the Negro League. Then, once it was determined that Robinson should move from 2nd to 1st base, it was the great defensive First Baseman George Sisler who coached him through the transition.

Even here, after their careers on the field were over, the parallels between Sisler and Bell continue. When Bell’s playing days were over, he worked for a time as a coach and scout for the Kansas City Monarchs. Among the players he worked with was a teenaged Ernie Banks.

As Bell told the story, he tried to get Banks tryouts with white big league clubs, starting with the Cardinals. Unfortunately, Owner Fred Saigh reportedly refused to sign any African-American players. The Cardinals would not have an African-American on their major league team until 1954, the year Gussie Busch took over ownership. By that time, Ernie Banks was already a Cub.

Sisler would be voted into the Hall of Fame in just its 4th class, in 1939 (along with Willie Keeler). Cool Papa Bell would not be so recognized until 1974. While racism forced them to play in different leagues during their lifetime, their statues stand together outside Busch Stadium.

St. Louis Cityscapes And City Views