George Cisar, in his brief stint with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. (Clippings from the Berwyn, Ind., Life, and the Chicago Tribune.)
George Cisar, a Chicagoan whose Bohemian father emigrated from the present-day Czech Republic, didn’t advance to the Major Leagues because he could hit. In his twilight, he didn’t land a gig patrolling center field at Anniston’s Johnston Field because of his glove. His game was about speed. And everyone knew it.
“This kid Cisar,” the Brooklyn Citizen wrote in 1937, “is a speed demon.”
The Citizen’s borough competitor, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, disguised praise with blunt truth. “This Cisar is the fastest gent you ever saw, but you’ve got to hit the ball to run bases.”
He ran track in high school, picking up a baseball in the slowness of summer with other kids in his Chicago neighborhood. Athletic enough to draw scouts’ attention, Cisar broke in with a Class D team in Draper, North Carolina, in 1935. The following summer he joined the roster of Brooklyn’s Class A team in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Shipped in 1937 to Class B Clinton, Iowa, a Midwestern pinprick light years from Ebbets Field, Cisar nonetheless headed there in September, an unlikely and unknown late-season call-up by one of the National League’s worst teams.
Cisar, who’d stolen 63 bases in Clinton, wasn’t oblivious. “I didn’t have the hitting,” he told a suburban Chicago newspaper years after he retired. “It was my speed that did it.”
He fanned twice in his MLB debut. Ten days after Cisar’s promotion, with the Dodgers mired deep within the NL standings, Brooklyn manager Burleigh Grimes gave the 26-year-old speedster the green light for the rarest of plays.
In the ninth inning of a two-run game in Chicago, Grimes sent Cisar to pinch-run for catcher Babe Phelps. The Dodgers clawed within a single run of the Cubs. Cisar reached third. Brooklyn was down to its final out.
Grimes gambled on the rookie’s speed, flashing the Dodgers’ steal sign — a clenched fist.
“Being a rookie and all, I didn’t want to screw up, so I didn’t go on the first pitch,” Cisar told the newspaper in Berwyn, Illinois, in 1991. “After the play, Grimes said to me, ‘What the heck are you waiting for?'”
He hesitated no more. On the next pitch he ran, coming within an inch of tying the game with two outs in top of the ninth. Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett‘s tag ended the game, a 2-1 Chicago victory. A photograph of Cisar’s daring slide into Hartnett’s mitt led the sports page of the next day’s New York Daily News.
Two weeks later, the season’s end also terminated Cisar’s MLB career. He hit .207 and stole three bases in 20 games with the Dodgers, who didn’t recall him the following year. Relegated to the lower levels of the minor leagues and unwanted by new Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher, Cisar bounced for two summers between Brooklyn’s farm teams in Elmira, Nashville and Dayton until he was shipped to another Dodger club, Macon, in January 1940. First, though, he joined a U.S. barnstorming team that spring that played games throughout Central America.
His Macon stay proved brief. In early June, the Dodgers transferred Cisar to Anniston — then a Brooklyn farm team — and gave Model City fans a glimpse of the speed that fueled his career. In his Rams debut, a 3-0 win over visiting Gadsden, Cisar beat out two infield hits and scored each time from first base on doubles. The Anniston Star couldn’t contain its giddiness. “Annistonians had been properly warned that Cisar was fast a-foot, but they watched with open-mouth amazement when he cut lose with his fancy base-stepping,” the newspaper wrote.
In mid-July, Cisar’s status as the Southeastern League’s must-see attraction led to a distinctly minor-league sideshow — a race between Cisar and a player from the Montgomery Rebels, Tom Cafego. (A few asides: Cafego played four games with the American League’s St. Louis Browns and later lost his arm during World War II action in Italy, and his brother, George, is in the College Football Hall of Fame.)
Cisar and Cafego lined up on the right-field foul line at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl.
Cisar reached home plate first.
“Anniston baseball fans knew all along that George Cisar, Ram center fielder, is about the fastest thing on two legs, but it took a little convincing to prove it to folks in Montgomery, and George had what it takes to do the convincing,” The Star wrote.
The 1940 Rams resembled the 1937 Dodgers — abysmal. Cisar’s presence on their rosters didn’t matter. After six seasons of professional baseball, the immigrant’s son got on with his life, scratching his baseball itch with semi-pro teams before being drafted into the Army and serving in Germany, France and South America.
After the war, Cisar worked as an automatic screw-machine operator in Chicago and in retirement appeared at numerous baseball card-signing shows. He admitted in his 1991 interview with the Berwyn newspaper the oddity of getting ample attention for playing in a few MLB games in 1937. “I’m not one of the big shot, known players,” he said. “But I did get to know all of those players, like (Joe) DiMaggio and (Jackie) Robinson. They were my friends.”
When Cisar passed away in 2010, he was the second-oldest Major League player at the time of his death. He was 99. He is buried in Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.