You’re a young Turk from Chicago. You’re 24 years old. You’re a pretty fair outfielder for the Clinton, Iowa Triple-A farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. You can hit, having batted .317 and .289 for a couple of seasons in Class C and Class B ball. And you can run like the devil. But it looks like you’re still 1,000 miles away from the majors.
Then, in August, comes the call: Report to Brooklyn.
Your name is George Cisar, and this is what it’s all about. (Young Turk Realizes American Dream!)
It’s 1937, nearly eight years into the Depression. Button-cute Shirley Temple and Bojangles Bill Robinson were tap dancing their way into the heart of America. Film actor Adolph Menjou was the Brad Pitt of his day. Adolph Hitler was the dictator of the decade, and he was eye-balling a chunk of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. The Hindenburg met its fiery fate at Lakehurst, New Jersey. And Amelia Earhart planned a long plane trip-one way, as it turned out.
Now it’s 2007, you’re an old man living in North Riverside, and it’s a whole different ball game. You still make it to occasional baseball autograph sessions at Rosemont’s O’Hare Expo Center where you renew baseball acquaintances both active and retired.
Now and then, you still watch major league ball for love of the game. And they want you to give a talk next Thursday, June 21, 7 p.m. at the North Riverside Public Library-about what it was like back then, from a ballplayer’s point of view.
George Cisar joined a woeful ’37 Dodgers ball team that finished sixth in an eight-team league. They had a team total of 37 home runs. (Baseball is pocked with such numerical curiosities.) Their winningest pitcher won 11 games, so we’re talking a middling quality ball club.
To George it was excitement itself just being in uniform at Brooklyn’s Ebbett’s Field, yet his somewhat jaded teammates failed to share his wonderment. Still he was treated decently by happy-go-lucky first baseman Buddy Hassett, who greeted him with a smile and a handshake, then walked off whistling. Hassett had a sunny disposition, and during dull stretches of a game, he was known to lead the lower deck crowd in song.
Beefy Babe Phelps-that rare commodity, a catcher with a career .300 betting average-gave the kid a warm hello, as did Manager Burleigh Grimes, who said he planned to use him in the next series. Most nodded a smile to the rookie while, for whatever reason, others kept their distance.
George claimed no specific memory of his first at bat except that he made an out. But he did recall when he stung the ball for his first hit. A time-honored tradition was marked when they rolled the ball into his dugout for safekeeping and remembrance.
“That was a fine feeling. I felt like I belonged,” Cisar said, reminiscing.
The afternoon of this interview was beginning to mellow, along with its subject. George Cisar is a most affable fellow. Like the quick bat and the great speed, his fast recall of specific detail may have dropped a notch. (You try dredging up 95 years worth of memories.)
Because his humor and outlook are intact, he can ramble with the rest of the old guys-those still left. And he’s an attentive listener.
When asked about some of the characters who played the game then, a far-away look came to his eye. He fondly remembered playing an exhibition game with Babe Ruth in Elmira, N.Y.
“The Babe” was a coach for Brooklyn then, and because he was always a big draw, his presence filled the park. Cisar said Babe failed to put one out in four trips-sometimes that’s baseball, and sometimes that’s life. However, young George did get to chat briefly with old George before respectfully leaving The Babe to others. He said he wished he had thought to get Ruth’s autograph.
We exchanged stories about some of the more colorful players of the era, and this is what came out:
Rabbit Maranville was a jokester-shortstop for the Boston Braves when the heavens opened and the rain poured down. What do you do when play is suspended? Ballplayer or spectator, you sit and wait it out.
Remember, there was no P.A. music or animated scoreboards then. Noting the dreary prospect, Rabbit dashed out of the third base dugout, lifted a corner of the tarpaulin covering the infield, and under he went. The fans, bored senseless, now had something going for them.
Every eye followed the lump navigating uncertainly across the diamond, slightly off course, then back on. Closer and closer toward first base. Then, Lo! He emerges to a wild ovation. Try tuning that in on ESPN.
Then there was the stunt involving outfielder Frenchy Bordagaray, the year before Cisar’s arrival. He tried to steal second but knowing he was dead meat, saw no reason to slide and was ingloriously tagged out.
Returning to the dugout he ran into a buzz saw in the form of young manager Casey Stengel, who reamed him up one side and down the other for not hustling. The mantra consisted mainly of one word: “Slide!”-repeated several times-“Slide! Slide! Slide! Don’t ever let me catch you not sliding!”
Two innings later Frenchy hit a home run. And he slides into first base. Puzzled, the onlookers-fans, players, umpires, vendors-wonder about second base. Sure enough, our man performs his ballet again, with a fade-away hook to the right. Wild with anticipation, the crowd watches him light out for third. Another fade-away hook, this one to the left. He rises, and heads for home where he puts on his biggest and best slide of all. The place goes up! The fans are entertained! For once Stengel is speechless and America is at its finest!
Later, Frenchy confided that lack of hustle had nothing to do with it. He just didn’t want bust up the cigars in his back pocket.
Cisar told of another Stengelism when Casey was an active player. The Ol’ Perfessor was having a cordial chat with the plate umpire. As ever, the man in black was destined to win. Wily arbiter that he was, Stengel made one sarcastic remark too many, and got the thumb. He bowed with reverence to the gesture and doffed his cap, setting free a sparrow he had tucked under. “You could look it up!”
Baseball fans know the other meaning of a “cup of coffee.” It’s the baseball equivalent of Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame.” It’s a trip from “Million Dollar Baby” to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” It’s the dead end of “Easy Street.” In short, it’s Life with all its sweet joys and galling disappointments.
George Cisar played in 20 major league games. He batted 29 times, officially, got six hits and batted a pale .207. He reported to the Dodger’s Clearwater, Fla. training camp the next spring and was reassigned to Clinton. Time passed, trades were made-and a living had to be made, too. It was still Depression time.
George worked what jobs he could, got married in 1941, got drafted in 1943, served with the army in England. When discharged at 32, any hope of a baseball career was effectively over. He badly wanted to play more. He knew how good he was. And he knew how unfair it seemed when his one opportunity was so short-lived.
Like all of us, George certainly knows it’s bad form to complain. But even so, regret resides in our chromosomes. And he knows one shouldn’t make a characteristic out of it. Maybe that’s one way to look at it. Another way is mathematics or probabilities. The source for this information was lost years ago, but I have a good hold of the numbers. The subject: how very hard it is just to reach the major leagues. These numbers show how slim the chances are of ever playing this game at its highest level.
Ninety-two of 100 who sign a contract to play major league ball don’t make it. They don’t even taste of that cup of coffee. Of the eight left, six or seven might reach the journeyman level, leaving only one or two to flirt with greatness. The elite fraction left may be considered for enshrinement at Cooperstown. So which way is it-baseball or hardball?
Inevitably, George’s opinion of today’s game was solicited. Not surprisingly, he-like most of us-thinks the high salaries are just not earned. He feels the game has become a business.
When Barry Bonds and others were brought up in the conversation, George said he never liked him. And for added emphasis he claimed, “I never liked his father, [Bobby] either!”
And Cisar is not a mean-spirited man. Because baseball is so much a game of numbers, he feels it’s a shame that so many of the honestly earned records are invalidated.
The game still retains its pace and symmetry, and the pure geometry of it still allows the ball and ballplayer time and space to turn a double play. The fielded bunt and the batter can still arrive at first in bang-bang fashion. Ballpark dimensions still allow for the most exciting of hits-not the home run-but the triple. And still, some will always think of the game as boring.
George Cisar didn’t last long. He set no records. But he got there! One gets the impression that his kind of ballplayer will always be the 24-year-old rookie who rapped out a single, stood on first, then watched the ball being rolled back to the dugout. And feeling pretty good about it all.
George Cisar will give a talk on his baseball career at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21 at the North Riverside Public Library, 2400 Desplaines Ave.