Sebastian “Sibby” Sisti was one of the first four men inducted into the Boston Braves Hall of Fame after its formation by fans of the long-defunct National League club. In order, that’s one Hall of Famer (Warren Spahn), two All-Stars (Johnny Sain & Tommy Holmes), and one .244 hitter who lasted for 14-plus years in the majors by playing wherever and whenever he was asked. Nobody questioned the selection.
Sisti didn’t belong in the class of Spahn, Sain, and Holmes as a ballplayer, yet for the many Braves fans who both watched him perform and attended reunions of the team during the last two decades he was the Boston Braves. The sad-eyed, gravel-voiced athlete-turned-truck driver symbolized the team’s working-class demeanor better than perhaps any other individual.
A Buffalo native and an only child born on July 26, 1920, Sisti actually had his initial big-league tryout for Boston’s “other team” at the tender age of 15, in 1935. Driven three hours down to Cleveland by area bird dog scout Bill Meyers, he donned a Red Sox uniform and took hitting and fielding practice. They let Sibby take some 15 to 20 groundballs in the infield. They knew they couldn’t sign him at that age.
The Sox didn’t sign Sisti, but a few years later an opportunity opened up with Boston’s National League franchise. Sibby got a call from his dad informing him that he had been signed to a contract with the team’s Class A Eastern League club in Hartford, Connecticut. Like any 17-year-old kid, he was more concerned with what the news meant to his immediate situation than the exciting future possibilities.
After graduating in the spring of 1938, and before heading out to his first pro season with Hartford, Sisti was called to Boston in June so Bees officials could look over their new signee. Two days later, Sisti left for Hartford. The speedy right-handed batter hit .293 there, playing a sure-handed third base. That winter, Sibby got a letter requesting that he report to spring training in Bradenton with the big-league club in ’39. When the Bees broke camp, Sisti went back to Hartford, this time to play second.
Sisti earned a swift promotion because of another man’s injury. He was batting .312 at Hartford, and on July 21, 1939, 18-year-old Sibby suddenly found himself up with the Bees as the youngest player in the majors. In many circumstances a teenager would have been overwhelmed by such a rapid ascension to the top, but the circumstances here were perfect. The Bees were a seventh-place club that wasn’t drawing well, so there was little pressure on Sibby to excel right away. Nobody expected him to perform, least of all manager Casaey Stengel. What Casey had was patience and a genuine affinity for Sisti, and he got him into 63 games over the summer. Sibby’s first hit came two days after his debut, against the Pirates, and although he batted just .228 with one homer and 11 RBIs in 215 at-bats, the youngster showed his versatility by playing at second, short, and third. Quick and steady defensively, he clearly made an impression; when the 1940 season began, Sisti was Boston’s starting third baseman.
Sibby held down the job at third for the next two seasons, hitting a more respectable .251 and .259 although he still showed little power and made an alarming 44 errors in 1941 alone (41 of them at third). But despite a return to their old nickname in ’41, the Braves continued to plod along near the cellar.
After an eventful offseason that included the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th and more changes were in store. Sibby was moved to second in ’42, and even though his average plummeted to .211, he got into 129 games (all but five at the keystone sack).
It seemed nothing could keep Sisti down with Stengel around, but World War II did the trick — and Sibby lost the 1943-45 seasons while serving with the Coast Guard. Stengel was fired during this same period, making the task of winning back a spot on the Braves that much harder for Sibby after the war.
I lasted until Opening Day, when he was sent down to Indianapolis to learn how to play shortstop. If Sibby was miffed by his demotion, he took it out on American Association pitching. He was, in fact, The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year after leading the Triple A circuit in batting (with a .343 mark), hits (203), and triples (14), while scoring 99 runs and knocking in 86. He was back up to the majors in 1947, signing a Braves contract and then earning a role as starting shortstop on a quickly rising team.
He got off to a great start, but unfortunately a freak play soon derailed Sisti’s campaign. The setback was in keeping with Sisti’s career, which had more than its share of bad breaks, literally and figuratively.
When the 1948 season rolled around, a recovered Sibby was once again fighting for a spot in the regular lineup. The club had called up Alvin Dark from minor-league Milwaukee to play short, and Sisti battled hard with the much-heralded rookie before Billy Southworth declared Sibby the starter just a day before the April 20th opener at Philadelphia. This was just the beginning of a roller-coaster year. Dark went in, and he didn’t do too well. Then Sibby went in and didn’t do too well, so they put Dark back in. This time he clicked, and he stayed there the rest of the year.
Dark wound up batting .322 and being named Rookie of the Year, and Sisti was back on the bench. Sisti remained patient, and then came July 31st. The first-place Braves went into the bottom of the ninth at home trailing 6-3 against the Cardinals, one of three teams on their tail in the standings. Sibby rocked a pitch to deepest right-center at Braves Field. A United Press account described the scene and its ramifications: “The 31,841 fans stood and cheered at the top of their voices for more than a solid minute as three Tribal base runners flashed around the bases and Sisti, utility infielder, slid madly into third.… By winning, the Braves maintained a 5 1/2-game lead over the now second-place Giants, a 6 1/2-game bulge over the third-place Dodgers, and eight games over the fourth-rung Redbirds.”
The clutch hit won Southworth over. Sisti had his starting second base job back again after a six-year hiatus, and he kept it the rest of year with steady play in the field (six errors in 44 games) and at the plate (hitting near .300 down the stretch). Still, when Stanky returned in late September, Sibby was sent to the bench for the World Series against Cleveland.
While he made just two late-game appearances in the Series, Sisti was on the field for perhaps its two biggest plays. One out later, the Indians were champions. That winter, in fact, he was honored at a Boston baseball writers’ dinner with a plaque and a pair of cleats for “filling the shoes” of Stanky during the summer just past.
Although Sisti’s playing time waned after this (he appeared in 100 games just twice in his final eight seasons), he developed a sense of humor about his situation. Sisti was equally self-effacing when it came to his .244 lifetime batting average. With the exception of the 1939 season, the sacrifice fly rule was not in force between 1931 and 1954, a span that covered nearly Sisti’s entire career. He often joked that he would have had a much higher lifetime average if he had the sac fly on his side.
In 1949, with Stanky back at second and Dark entrenched at short, Sisti resumed his role as “Super Sub” — capable of filling in at any infield or outfield spot save for catcher (although, as the team’s “unofficial” third receiver, he often caught batting practice). Southworth liked to platoon, and that summer Sibby saw almost equal time in the outfield, second base, and shortstop as well as one game at third base. It was more of the same the next three years; no one position to call his own, but plenty of action at a variety of spots. All told, his career of 1,016 games included 359 at second base, 290 at third, 209 at short, 74 in the outfield, and two games at first. He was never again a full-time starter after 1948, but he did get into 114 contests in ’51 — and batted a very solid .279. Not surprisingly, given Southworth’s faith in him, Sisti was said to have supported the embattled manager during the dissension that reportedly rocked the ’49 team.
The Braves finished fourth each season from 1949 to 1951, and one by one the stalwarts of the ’48 champions disappeared from the box scores. Still in his early 30s, Sisti became the senior member of the club in terms of tenure, in 1951 and ’52.
Sisti and the team slumped. His average fell off to .212 in 1952, and the Braves finished seventh with a woeful 64-89 record. Just 281,278 fans showed up at Braves Field, a far cry from the 1,455,439 who had packed the stands to watch the NL champs just four years before. Still, Sisti was shocked like almost everybody else on the club by what transpired the next March. The team had spent spring training in Bradenton, Florida, as usual, and there was hope that Boston would be a much improved club with promising youngsters like Johnny Logan, third baseman Eddie Mathews, and catcher Del Crandall. On March 17, 1953, along with teammate and fellow Buffalo native Warren Spahn, Sisti got permission fto take a day off and make a quick $100 on an endorsement deal — big money for a guy whose biggest major league paycheck was $12,000.
“Warren and I were up in St. Petersburg making a commercial for Gillette,” Sisti recalled. “After I got through with my segment, I went into the other room and was looking at the ticker tape coming out of one of those old globes. I saw that the National League meeting had just concluded, and the Boston Braves were now going to be moved to Milwaukee. I went back into the director where he was shooting Spahn’s scene, and I told him that the ‘B’ on the cap was no good. He says, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and I said, ‘We just moved to Milwaukee.’ He just said, ‘When we make the announcement and show this commercial on TV, we’ll say ‘Warren Spahn and Sibby Sisti, formerly of the Boston Braves, now of the Milwaukee Braves.’ That’s how they did it, and the commercials ran that year.”
It was only two weeks before Opening Day, and Sisti said the concept of going to Milwaukee was “as green as apple pie to me.” In other words, he didn’t care for it. He had been in Boston nearly 13 years, and he may as well have stayed there. He had just 23 at-bats during the team’s triumphant maiden season in Wisconsin, and appeared in nine games as a defensive replacement (with no at-bats) in ’54 before being released and then re-signed as a coach. He was 35 years old.
Sisti was asked to manage in the minors for the Braves the next season, and later spent a decade at the helm of farm clubs in Quebec, Corpus Christi, Austin, and Sacramento. For several of these campaigns he was a player-manager, inserting himself in at various positions and batting as high as .297. Sibby became an infield-outfield instructor with Phillies minor leaguers for a couple of seasons, coached with the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969, then shortly thereafter quit the game and returned home to get a “real job” as a truck driver.
He returned to Boston for a 1988 reunion of the ’48 NL champs, and then continued coming back for all but one of the first 14 annual get-togethers of the Boston Braves Historical Association (BBHA) — staying away only after major surgery. Along with his 1994 induction into the Boston Braves Hall of Fame started by the Association, he drew recognition from the Canisius High Hall of Fame, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. His final BBHA appearance came in 2004 at the age of 84, less than two years before his death on April 24, 2006, in Amherst. As usual, he drew the day’s loudest cheers and laughs.
If they were paying close attention a decade later, however, they found him. In 1983, Sisti was asked to be a technical advisor for director Barry Levinson’s popular 1940-era baseball movie The Natural. Filmed in and around Buffalo’s War Memorial Field, the film told the fictitious story of the New York Knights, a National League team whose struggles on the field and in the stands would be quite familiar to old Braves fans. Sisti helped star Robert Redford (who signed his ball) and other actors with their baseball sequences, and also had a bit part as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the film’s climactic scene, Sisti comes to the mound and calls in a young
fireballing reliever to face Redford’s Roy Hobbs. A pennant-winning Hobbs home
run into the light towers results.