After last year’s run to the College World Series finals, baseball is poised to join the ranks of Michigan fandom’s favored sports. Interest in Wolverine baseball is at its highest level in my lifetime, which makes this a perfect time to look into the sport’s history.
While I certainly knew of its more recent greats such as Barry Larkin and Jim Abbott, I had never really looked into its early history. My picks this week look at an all-time great from before the modern era, a crucial piece of Michigan’s first trip to Omaha, and a ‘90s bright spot that may be more memorable to some of you.
As a reminder, this is not an attempt to pick a top three and there are no specific criteria. I certainly missed many players who may have had interesting stories, and welcome you to point out those players in the comments.
George Sisler (1913-15)
The first Wolverine to be elected to their sport’s Hall of Fame wasn’t Tom Harmon or Cazzie Russell. It wasn’t Vic Heyliger or Elroy Hirsch. No, before any of them had even graduated from Michigan, George Sisler was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of the 1939 class.
George Sisler put major league dreams on hold to attend Michigan, and had even signed a minor league contract with the Pirates. Early mentions of Sisler in the Michigan Daily pre-date his varsity career. As a freshman, he tore up the inter-class league, impressing writers with a 20 strikeout no hit performance while leading the freshman engineering students over their junior counterparts. They saw his potential, saying, “If ever a varsity future was open before a man, it is easy to this freshman who sets the interclass league on fire.”
In 1913 those varsity dreams were fulfilled during Sisler’s sophomore season when he went to play for Branch Rickey’s nine. There was a brief dispute in the fall of 1912 over his eligibility; some claimed his time in the minors disqualified him from collegiate baseball, with the department and Sisler claiming he maintained his amateur status by not taking pay. Amateurism won the day, and “the best college pitching prospect in the country” joined the varsity.
Sisler opened the season splitting time between pitching and right field, as his bat was too important in the lineup to hold him out during his off days. At the midway point in the season he led the team in strikeouts pitched, fanning 63 in 38 innings, and in runs scored with 22. He lost just one game, edged 1-0 on the last day of the season.
While there were rumors he had signed with the Pirates during the offseason, Sisler returned for his junior season. He suffered an injury scare after straining his arm in an off-season workout. Fortunately he was set right by Youngstown’s Dr. “Bonesetter” Reese (the 1910s ruled), and started the season on time. In Ann Arbor he found Branch Rickey replaced with new coach Carl Lundgren. Sisler was named captain, and the Wolverines opened with a 7-1 southern swing where Sisler hit a homer every day. Sisler’s arm strength did suffer from his off-season strain, and he was shifted to right field for the bulk of the season.
The Wolverines would go on to lose just six games compared to 22 wins, and the Daily called them the “best Michigan Nine in the history of the school.” Sisler himself batted .351, leading the team. While the 1914 season happened prior to the existence of the NCAA Tournament, and the Athletic Department currently does not claim a national championship, the Michigan Daily proclaimed the 1914 team as “the first Michigan baseball team to win the championship of the east as well as the west.”
Sisler opened the 1915 season still taking it easy with pitching, and was the everyday starter in right field. By May he was back to his old self, striking out 20 in a 12-inning 2-2 marathon against Syracuse. In June, the Daily declared him “Michigan’s greatest player of all time.” Sisler closed his Michigan career in style, dominating a two game series with Penn. In Game 1, Sisler struck out 8 and held the Quakers to 4 hits in a 10-0 win. Not content to let his pitching do the talking, he went 4-4 with a home run. The next day, in his final game in Maize and Blue, Sisler went 3-4. His two RBIs and two runs accounted for all of the Wolverine scoring in a 4-2 win, and Sisler was ready for the majors. He was named an All-American by Vanity Fair, his third such distinction.
Sisler’s contract was owned by the Pirates still, a holdover from his minor league days. He called up his old coach (and Michigan Law graduate) Branch Rickey. Rickey helped him to craft a legal argument that his contract was invalid due to being a minor when it was signed, and the league ruled in his favor. Now a free agent he was free to sign anywhere he wanted, and again Sisler turned to Rickey, joining his mentor with the St. Louis Browns. Sisler pitched very little after his opening season, and was a full-time first baseman by 1918. Sisler rode his hot bat to a 15 year career, with a career .340 average topping out at .420 in his MVP 1922 season. His single-season record 257 hits in 1920 stood until 2004 when Ichiro Suzuki hit 262. It remains second all-time.
Sisler spent much of his post-playing career working as a coach and scout with whatever team Branch Rickey happened to be at at the time. Like Rickey Sisler eventually made his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers. One of Sisler’s assignments was to scout Jackie Robinson, and one the Dodgers signed Robinson, Sisler gave Robinson a “crash course in the fundamentals” of playing first base.
George Sisler died in 1973 at 80 years old. He was the first truly great Michigan ballplayer, establishing a legacy that lives today with every Wolverine drafted.
Bruce Haynam 1951-1953
If the Michigan Daily is taken as gospel, George Sisler was the first person to win a National Championship and be named an All-American in the same year. But the Athletic Department’s record books don’t see it that way, not recognizing pre-NCAA Tournament Championships or early media All-Americans. By official reckoning, that honor belongs to a different man: Bruce Haynam.
When Haynam joined the Wolverine baseball team as a sophomore in 1951, it was Ray Fisher’s 31st year behind the bench as Michigan’s head coach. The Wolverines were on a run of three straight Big Ten Championship shares. With many of the key pieces from those teams graduating, Fisher had holes all over the infield. Haynam was able to immediately fill the hole at shortstop. The young Wolverines hadn’t had time to gel, and the season plugged along in mediocre fashion, with the Wolverines eventually finishing eighth. Haynam was a bright spot. A 4-for-6 in a game against Notre Dame caused the Daily to sing his praises saying he had “handled himself like an old pro all season in the field,” with the writer admitting that Haynam had exceeded his expectations.
At the conclusion of his sophomore season, Bruce Haynam was elected captain for the 1952 season. Haynam was building his reputation on his skill in the field, with Fisher calling him “the finest ‘glove man’ he’s had in the short field in 20 years.” But he impressed with his bat in the early season, hitting .294 during their season opening trip to the south, and following that up with a .409 in the undefeated homestand that followed. He would end the season with a .306 mark. His fielding continued to shine, with Haynam and his partner at second base, Gil Sabuco, only making one error in conference play. The Wolverines and the Illini each split doubleheaders on the final day of conference play, and would share the title.
Haynam would be succeeded at captain by first baseman Bill Mogk. The entire infield of Haynam, Mogk, Sabuco and third-baseman Don Eaddy returned, and were dubbed the “million dollar infield”. The Wolverines pushed their way back into a first place tie, with Haynam batting .304 in his final regular season. A three-game showdown with MAC Champions Ohio was set up, with the winner headed to the College World Series in Omaha. Michigan swept the series, winning 6-5 and then 7-0.
Just after the Wolverines clinch the title, the Michigan Daily goes on its break between spring and summer semesters, and by the time it re-emerges the Wolverines are already College World Series Champions, beating Texas 7-5 in the final. Box scores give us an idea of Haynam’s exploits in Omaha, and we find he went a solid 7-for-17 with 3 RBIs.
Bruce Haynam would be named an All-American, Michigan’s first in the modern era, as well as Michigan’s most outstanding player for the tournament. It would be Haynam’s last game of high-level baseball. Due to his smaller frame, scouts were skeptical. Rather than risk languishing in the minors, Haynam took his engineering degree and settled in Ohio. He was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Honor in 1988, and passed away in 2015.
Mike Cervenak (1996-1999)
The 1980’s Wolverine baseball program was a powerhouse, winning at least a share of 10 consecutive Big Ten Championships and going to four College World Series. For my third player, it was tempting to dig into that well. But a four year period in the late ‘90s caught my eye, one where Michigan won its first Big Ten Championship in eight years, followed shortly by its first NCAA Tournament in a decade. During that time one player etched his name at the top of the Wolverine career hit list: Mike Cervenak.
In 1996 Geoff Zahn took over as coach for Bill Freehan. Freehan was a Wolverine legend as a player, but had finished dead last in his final season and finished his career exactly one game below .500 as a manager. After redshirting his freshman year in 1995, Cervenak made his mark early as a sophomore. His first ever mention in the Michigan Daily is about a four-hit ball game. Cervenak led the team with a .355 average at the home opener, though he hadn’t quite found a permanent position. They needed his bat in the lineup, but he had played first, third and DH. Cervenak ended his season with a team-high 36 RBI and was named to the All-Big Ten third team once after settling in at third base. The Wolverines finished with a losing record overall, but a 17-11 Big Ten mark was good for fourth.
The Wolverines broke through in 1997. After breaking his nose and missing about a week early in the season, Cervenak kept up his hitting, and was at .362 by April. He was elevated to the leadoff spot, and went 9-for-14 in his first three games in that role. Meanwhile, Michigan was rolling. They only lost one series all season, and won their first Big Ten regular season title since 1989. Unfortunately, they lost the Big Ten Tournament final to Ohio State, and were left out of the NCAA Tournament. Cervenak was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team, and he was named to the first of his three straight all-tournament teams.
Cervanek broke out in 1998. He hit for average and power, reaching his high point in batting average at .385. After hitting just four home runs in each of his first two seasons, he exploded for 13. Both marks led the Wolverines. Unfortunately, the Wolverines slipped to 6th in the Big Ten. Cervanak was drafted in the 43rd round by the Oakland Athletics, but chose to return to school. He also played some summer ball that season, in Alaska.
Cervenak’s senior season would be the one for the record books. On May 2 against Michigan State, Cervenak recorded three hits to put himself into a tie with Ken Heyward for Michigan’s all time lead in career hits, at 267. He promptly went on a three-game hitless streak. Then, on May 9, 1999, with the score tied 3-3 in the fourth against Indiana, Mike Cervenak smacked a ball to deep left and out of Ray Fisher Stadium, scoring the game winning home run while taking Michigan’s career hits crown.
Cervenak would finish the season and his career with 293, a record that stands today. The 87 hits he recorded that season have him tied for eighth all-time in the single season standings, a record made more amazing by the fact that No. 1 and No. 2 on that list also played for the 1999 team; Brian Bush with 94 and Bobby Scales with 92. His 9 home runs that season got him to 30 in his career, a mark that now has him tied for seventh in school history. Cervenak was an All-American Honorable Mention, and first team All-Big Ten.
Michigan also accomplished something it hadn’t since 1989: made the NCAA Tournament. Though they finished in fourth in the standings, the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament, upsetting 1-seed Ohio State on the first day and taking down Minnesota in the final. The Wolverines got sent to the South Bend regional, and acquitted themselves fairly well, eliminating Creighton and host Notre Dame on their way to a regional finals loss against national No. 3 Cal State Fullerton. In the last weekend of his college career, Mike Cervenak had a great time, going 9-for-18 over the four games.
Cervenak went to the independent leagues after college, having gone undrafted as a fifth-year senior. A career minor league journeyman, his contract was owned by eight different major league teams over the course of 14 career minor league seasons. He played parts of two seasons in Independent ball, played briefly in Korea, played in the Mexican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues.
Finally, in July 2008, he got his cup of coffee in the bigs when the Philadelphia Phillies called him up to replace an injured J.A. Happ. He got his first at bat on July 11, and his first major league hit on Aug. 6. He got his first and only major league start on the final day of the season, and while he was left off the playoff roster, he was in uniform and in the dugout when the Phillies won the World Series. (If you’ve made it this far I highly recommend the piece on his minor league career I just linked to.)
In 2013 Cervenak went 5-for-7 in two games of World Baseball Classic qualifying for the Czech Republic. Cervenak played the early part of 2013 with the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions in Taiwan, before joining the Toledo Mudhens. In his final season in the minors, he batted .291. Among qualified hitters, it was the best average on the team.
Next week we’ll be looking at women’s basketball. Who’d I miss today? Who can’t I miss in the future. Let me know!