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Story behind Dick Sisler’s cards shows he made a name for himself

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Philadelphia's Dick Sisler hits the game-winning, three-run home run in the top of the 10th inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 1, 1950 to clinch the pennant for the Phillies on the last day of the regular season. Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

Philadelphia's Dick Sisler hits the game-winning, three-run home run in the top of the 10th inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 1, 1950 to clinch the pennant for the Phillies on the last day of the regular season. Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

We know how the backs of baseball cards provide a good education with facts and history, and some even tell a little story. Take 1950 Bowman card No. 119, for example, a common card that can be found mid-grade for less than $10. It is the card of Dick Sisler. On the front of the card is Sisler in a batting stance wearing a Phillies uniform. On the reverse side, here is how his career is summed up until that point:

Son of the great George Sisler, Dick took over first base for the Phillies last season when Eddie Waitkus was unable to play. Did a grand job, hitting .289 in 121 games, and driving in 50 runs. Spent 4 years in minors, and 3 in service. Joined Cardinals, 1946, played at first and in outfield.

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Much more could be said about Dick Sisler, but there is only so much space available on the back of a 2-1/16 by 2-1/2-inch 1950 Bowman card. Below, we break down, rearrange and expand upon the above 62-word mini-biography of Sisler. Let us also add the 1950 season to the story, the year of a young Phillies team called the “Whiz Kids.” It was then, after all, that Sisler hit the greatest home run in Philadelphia Phillies history.

We can start with the first line on the back of Sisler’s 1950 Bowman card, which gives a very important detail about his background:

Son of the great George Sisler.

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Dick was born in St. Louis on Nov. 2, 1920, following a season in which his father batted .407 and totaled a then-record 257 hits (the record was broken in 2004 by Ichiro Suzuki). Dick was the second of four children. Dick’s two brothers had careers in baseball as well: older brother George Jr. was a minor league executive, and younger brother Dave pitched for the Red Sox, Tigers, Senators, and Reds over a seven-year span.

George Sr., a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns who was also known for his glove, had shoes that were impossible to fill. Ty Cobb even said that George was “the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer.” As Dick made his way through the minors in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, some players reminded him that he was not going to get a free ride just because he was the “son of the great George Sisler.” Others made sure to inform Dick that rules did not allow his dad to field the ball for him.

Even a friend and teammate on the Phillies, Hall of Fame pitcher and gentleman Robin Roberts, got a jab in once. Roberts told the story in a book written with C. Paul Rogers III, “The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant.” Following one particularly tough loss in which Roberts gave up a homer to lose the game, Roberts and Sisler were the last to leave the clubhouse. Breaking the silence, Sisler blurted out, “My old man says anytime you let a home run hitter beat you late in the game you are a bad pitcher.” Sisler had not had a great game himself, and Roberts, who did not take well to losing and was already in a bad mood, fired back, “If you hit like your old man, I wouldn’t be in so many close ballgames.” The matter was peacefully resolved after Dick walked away and returned with a couple of cold beverages.

By the way, the write-up for Dick on the back of his 1949 Bowman card starts out like his 1950 issue, “Son of great George Sisler.” Going back one more year, the first sentence on the back of Dick’s 1948 Leaf card is, “Highly publicized as son of George Sisler, famous first baseman of St. Louis Browns in early ‘20s and ‘Baseball Immortal.’”

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Spent 4 years in minors, and 3 in service.

Dick served in the Navy and was stationed at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland during World War II. He was a physical instructor and had the opportunity to get a good amount of baseball in during that time as well. After his discharge, the Cardinals requested that the 25-year-old play for a few months for Havana in the Cuban Winter League.

Sisler launched two homers in his first game with Havana and continued to hit so well that he was soon being called “the Babe Ruth of Cuba.” His legend included a Ruthian blast over a 450-foot fence at La Tropical Stadium. In another game he hit three big flies, all at the expense of pitcher Sal Maglie.

Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway was impressed enough to mention Sisler next to Joe DiMaggio in his short novel “The Old Man and the Sea.” As the old fisherman and his young helper talk baseball, the fisherman informs the boy that “the great DiMaggio” is sure to carry the Yankees in the American League, and then says, “In the other league, between Brooklyn and Philadelphia I must take Brooklyn. But then I think of Dick Sisler and those great drives in the old park.”

The boy responds, “There was nothing ever like them. He hits the longest ball I have ever seen.”

Joined Cardinals, 1946, played at first and in outfield.

Sisler began the 1946 season at first base for St. Louis, but after sitting out with an injury for a few days in June, he lost the job to Stan Musial, who was moved in from left field. Sisler became a platoon player used to fill the vacancy in the outfield. The Cardinals won the World Series that year, in which Sisler pinch-hit twice, grounding out both times. The following season he appeared in 46 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and batted .203.

Was traded to Phillies for 1948 season.

Sisler was sorry to leave his hometown of St. Louis, but it was soon evident that the trade to Philadelphia was a good break for his career. In 1948 Sisler covered first base for the Phillies. He started to do better at the plate.

Sisler also helped keep the Phillies loose with his cheerful personality. According to Robin Roberts, the 6-foot-2-1/2, 205-pound Sisler liked to call himself the “Big Cat” in reference to his defensive “prowess.” Roberts also said that Sisler stuttered a bit, but Sisler did not let that bother him. In Robin’s book about the Whiz Kids is a story from former teammate Putsy Caballero about a pop fly that was hit between Caballero at second base and Sisler at first. Caballero said, “We both close on it and Dick is saying, ‘I ga, ga, ga’ and when the ball hits the ground he says, ‘You take it,’ with a big grin on his face.”

Dick took over first base for the Phillies last season when Eddie Waitkus was unable to play.

After only one year with the Phillies, Sisler lost the job at first base. It happened when, in order to solidify the position defensively, Philadelphia made a trade with the Cubs for sure-gloved Eddie Waitkus prior to the 1949 season. Eddie’s first season in Philly abruptly came to an end in June, however, after he was shot in the chest with a .22 rifle. The trigger was pulled by an obsessed fan in Chicago, a 19-year-old woman Waitkus had never met before. Waitkus went to the hospital. Sisler came off the bench and went back to first base.

Did a grand job, hitting .289 in 121 games, and driving in 50 runs.

Sisler did an even grander job the following season. It was a season, of course, that the 1950 Bowman card could not yet tell about. It was the year of the Whiz Kids, and for more reading about that 1950 team, the previously mentioned book by Rogers and Roberts is a great source of information.

Despite Sisler’s success in 1949, it appeared as though 1950 might be a frustrating year for him. Before the start of the season, Sisler learned that Waitkus was considered ready to play, so Sisler would once again be jettisoned as first baseman. Sisler worked hard to remain in the lineup, however, and won a spot in the outfield. He hit .296, drove in 83 runs, and even made the All-Star team. But his most memorable moment came in extra innings in the last game of the 1950 season.

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After losing to Brooklyn on Sept. 30, Philadelphia clung to a one-game lead over the Dodgers. The final regular-season game on Oct. 1 would be another contest against the surging Dodgers at Ebbets Field. About a week and a half earlier, the Whiz Kids had been leading the National League by seven games. Now the fizzling Phillies were on the verge of one of the most epic collapses in baseball history and becoming better known as the “Fizz Kids.”

With a win, the once lowly Phillies would clinch the National League pennant for the first time in 35 years and go to the World Series. A loss would result in an undesired three-game playoff with a depleted pitching staff against a loaded Dodgers lineup that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and Carl Furillo.

After nine innings it was a tie with one run apiece. Don Newcombe had started the game for Brooklyn and was still on the mound. Robin Roberts had also gone the whole way for the Phillies and had allowed only Pee Wee Reese to cross home plate. Despite a sprained wrist, Sisler already had three hits in the game and had scored the only run for the Whiz Kids. But Roberts needed just a little more from the Phillies offense.

What Roberts needed came in the 10th inning when Sisler stepped up to the plate against Newcombe and with two men on (Waitkus and Richie Ashburn) hit a circuit clout to give the Phillies a 4-1 lead. It was more than enough for Robin. Reinvigorated, the star pitcher forcefully shut down the Dodgers in the bottom half of the inning, and Philadelphia had won the National League pennant.

George Sisler was in attendance to see it all happen. He was working as a scout for the Dodgers at the time, so the proud father had to keep a straight face as his son rounded the bases.

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In the World Series, the Whiz Kids faced “the great DiMaggio” and the Yankees. The Phillies would hit no home runs at all this time as they were swept by New York. Sisler managed just a single in 17 at-bats, knocking in Del Ennis for a run in a 3-2 loss.

In any case, although the front of Dick Sisler’s 1951 Bowman card features the same image as his 1950 Bowman card, the story on the back of the 1951 issue does not mention that he is the son of George Sisler. Rather, the first line reads, “Dick’s home run in the 10th inning of a game against the Dodgers on the last day of the 1950 season put the Phillies in the World Series.”