He could run like the wind, drive a baseball past a tormenting pitcher with purpose and power. And play left field like he owned it. His name was George Cisar, and he was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1910. He died last month in hospice not far from his North Riverside home, the second oldest living ex-Major League Baseball player. Man and boy, he loved to play the game.
Hard times nearly caused him to quit high school, and when Wall Street crashed times only got harder. During the Depression jobs all but disappeared, so he took to the road on the freights with a hundred thousand other uncertain men.
Money was a stranger, prospects dim and the odds were against. While looking for work, in Missouri, Montana, the Dakotas and the South he would sometimes “smell” a neighborhood or industrial league ballgame, leave off the work search and find his way into a lineup.
Early on in Nowhere, Nevada, a part-time Brooklyn Dodgers scout liked what he saw from the stands – George Cisar in the batter’s box, stealing bases and patrolling left field. And his attitude was right, noted the scout.
He offered the prospect a Dodger contract, and George said, “I’ve got nothing going for me now …” So he signed, stopped riding the rails and started pounding pavements and pot holes in minor league team buses.
After nearly four seasons, George rattled around the Brooklyn farm system looking and getting better. Finally, in late August 1937 he had just completed a superlative season with the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate at Clinton, Iowa, where he batted a graph-spiking .379. He finally got the call to report to the Dodgers!
The ’37 Brooklynites were an array of colorful ballplayers, as mediocre in performance as they were in the standings – sixth place. Still, a boy’s dream was unfolding in a young man’s heart. He was 24 and this was the Big Show. The prize so many seek and so few attain. Look, Ma, top o’ the world!
George Cisar’s total major league career was to be wrapped up in that one season. Twenty games. A short stint in the majors is often described as “a cup of coffee.” How did our man do during his 15 minutes? Only 29 at bats, 6 hits, a pale .207 batting average. Looked at from his overall pro baseball career (about 1,600 games) and with no excuse-making, numbers do not always the truth make.
In baseball as in life, the chance for success can be narrow. And one’s accomplishments can be narrower. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult challengers in sports. Ted Williams put it in a heartfelt way: “Don’t you know how hard all this is?” The game must have been designed by all pitchers’ fathers-in-law so that the man with the ball has the advantages.
Even the best batters are expected to fail in seven of 10 at bats. Put another way, if you succeed as a hitter only three times in 10 tries, you’re doing quite well. (Baseball seems a lot like life.) One more analogy concerning George Cisar and a lot of “cup of coffee” guys – it’s like running bath water for a while, then having the plug yanked just when things are just getting hot. Again, he was a proven hitter.
Like most of us, George Cisar was more than his occupation. As with us all, he was many things to many people. Son, husband to Irene, who passed in 2001, father to Gayle and George Jr. and grandfather to Nicole and Jacqueline. He survived most of his friends from the Dodger organization and those he served with in the Army in World War II.
Of the family he just recently left, he spent much time with grand daughter Nicole, 12. It was mostly agreeable, mutually enjoyable times – the kind that can bond the very old and the very young.
George and his granddaughter lived together with his daughter, Gayle. It seemed to brighten his last years and gave Nicole a bank of pleasant memories from which to draw. It was inevitable that grampa would treat granddaughter like the boy she wasn’t.
In his early nineties he would underhand endless fly balls for her to shag in a nearby school yard. She became adept at this and may yet nail down left field for the Cubs. (It is commonly believed in North Riverside sports circles that Nicole may be the best softball player – regardless of gender – in her school.) He’d also pitch quarters and half dollars into their big backyard pool. Her assignment: dive to the bottom, fetch the money and keep it.
In winter or indoors during bad weather, a lot of checker games got played.
George Cisar’s competitive spirit refused to “let her win.” But she still took a number of games – more than he’d like. Now and then they went out on “dates” to local restaurants, sometimes with Gayle acting as chaperone.
Reading aloud was something they both enjoyed. Though college was never in the cards for him, he had become an avid reader. Often, when books were put away, George would inflict his kind of pop music on his smaller captive audience. He was fond of Dean Martin.
The times were often wonderful, and the memories ought to last. This piece of poem seems appropriate:
“It was an old, old, old, old man
And a girl that was half-past three;
And the way they played together
Was beautiful to see.”
He was a nice man. He was a good man. He did his best. And if it hasn’t been made clear, he was a very good hitter.