Akronisms | Akron’s Heisman

Writing and photos by Jeff Davis

Akronisms is a series highlighting things and places you didn’t know about in our fair city. 

Near the Summit County courthouse there are statues of a World War I doughboy and inventor Charles Goodyear. Harvey Firestone has a statue near the Bridgestone Tech Center at South Main and East Firestone Blvd.  One day soon, there will be a statue of a tire builder in the middle of the new Main and Mill roundabout. 

The University of Akron campus also has highly visible statues of several locally famous individuals, including John R. Buchtel, who founded Buchtel College, and Colonel Simon Perkins, whose father, General Simon Perkins, founded the city. The son was an early benefactor of the college, donating money and the frequently painted boulder in the middle of campus. That is Junior’s house at the corner of Copley Road and Portage Path.

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There are, however, a few other famous Akronites whose statues have yet to be created. For instance, you may have heard of Baseball Hall of Famer George Sisler. One of Akron’s all-time best athletes, Sisler was the son of immigrants, born in a place variously described as either Manchester, Nimisila or Nimisila Creek. Manchester High School and the Portage Lakes Career Center hadn’t been built yet, so Sisler moved in with his brother in Akron to attend Akron High School, variously described as Central High School, Central-Hower High School and now the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM School. 

Sisler was a fine student and a three-sport athlete. He turned down a minor league baseball contract to get an engineering degree at the University of Michigan and play for its coach, Branch Rickey, whom you may have heard of, too. Sisler pitched for the Wolverines, once striking out 20 batters in a seven-inning game. He made the college All-American team three times. Upon his graduation, Sisler and Rickey followed each other to the St. Louis Browns, Rickey as the new manager and Sisler, as a pitcher who quickly switched to first base. 

George Sisler went on to a career that included two .400 seasons at the plate and a 258-hit season in 1920, a record that stood for 84 years. He was the first player to be named the Most Valuable Player of the American League. And he was a Hall of Fame inductee in 1939, complete with a bust. 

Although the baseball fields at Summit Lake are named in his honor, George Sisler has no statue in Akron. But he does have a nice big one outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, a team he never played for. That’s because the Browns, which were the Milwaukee Brewers before they moved to St. Louis and are now known as the Baltimore Orioles… never mind. Let’s just say Sisler was highly regarded in St. Louis.

The only athlete we can think of who actually has a statue in Akron, perhaps better known for a statue that is not of himself, is John Heisman — the namesake of the Heisman Trophy.  Every year, it is given to the college football player with not only the best football skills and statistics, but with the best college PR department.

Heisman was born in Cleveland, but grew up in the Pennsylvania oil country town of Titusville.  He attended Brown University, then played football as an undersized lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a law degree in 1892. But Heisman had been noticed by Walter Camp, the man credited with turning the game of rugby into the game of football. Camp played a large part in Heisman getting the head coaching job at Oberlin, where he beat Ohio State twice and almost beat Michigan. (Oberlin is a Division III school now, but they still mention those games in their recruiting stuff, 130 years later.)

Interesting digression: Heisman’s trainer at Oberlin was Clarence Hemingway.  The father of that Hemingway. George Sisler was mentioned in Ernest’s The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe they all knew each other. Either way, back to our story.

After a short tenure at Oberlin, Heisman came east to Akron in 1893 to become the “gym director” and second coach of both the football and baseball teams at Buchtel College, which of course is now known as The University of Akron. At Buchtel, he beat Ohio State again. That fact is probably in UA’s recruiting literature, too, and definitely worthy of a great big, highly prominent statue near the southern gateway to the football stadium. 

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Heisman coached in Akron for only two years, winning six games and losing two. It’s not really a fair comparison, but his winning percentage of .750 ranks him in one way as the winningest coach in UA history.  For that, he was paid a whopping salary of $900 a year, according to the book Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy. But according to UA archivist vic Fleischer, it may have been as low as $449.40, most of which came via donations. The student athletes supposedly came up with $300, and the “Executive Committee”raised the rest, some of it by selling season tickets.

Whatever you think about all of that, Heisman’s records at Oberlin and Buchtel College launched him on quite the peripatetic football career. From Akron, he went on to Alabama Polytechnic (now known as Auburn), Clemson, Penn, Washington and Jefferson, Georgia Tech and Rice. At a few of those schools, he doubled as the baseball and/or basketball coach. At Georgia Tech and Rice, he landed a triple by coaching two sports a year and serving as the schools’ athletic director. In 1927, he left university athletics after compiling career records of 186-70-18 in football, 199-108-7 in baseball, and 9-14 in basketball. OK, not so good in basketball. But still, a very accomplished career. 

Heisman retired and came north to become the athletic director at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. In 1935, the club created the “Downtown Athletic Club Award” for the best football player east of the Mississippi. When Heisman died, the club renamed the award and opened it to players from across the country. The club went out of business after 9/11 and the Heisman Trust was created to continue the award program. 

The Heisman Trophy remains one of the most prestigious awards in athletics. The mini-statue weighs about 45 pounds and is 13 inches high. Two are cast each year, with one going to the player and the other to the school. One year they cast three and gave one to Ed Smith, a pretty good player at New York University, not because he actually won the Heisman, but because he was the guy who actually posed for the sculptor in the first place. So, no, that’s not Heisman on the Heisman — it’s Ed Smith.

But the 8-foot, 750-pound bronze Heisman statue next to the University of Akron football ticket house is a pretty good likeness, they say, because the sculptor had dozens of pictures of the real John Heisman to guide him. It’s a statue we should be proud of. And it’s in a pretty good spot: Right on East Exchange Street, good lighting, there for all the stadium visitors to see.

So the question for Akron is, where should we put a statue of George Sisler? 

Jeff Davis is a life resident of the Akron area and is a retired writer, editor, and teacher.