Snuffy Stirnweiss

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Snuffy Stirnweiss
Snuffy Stirnweiss 1948.jpg
Stirnweiss in 1948.
Second baseman
Born: (1918-10-26)October 26, 1918
New York City, New York
Died: September 15, 1958(1958-09-15) (aged 39)
Newark Bay, New Jersey
Batted: Right Threw: Right
MLB debut
April 22, 1943 for the New York Yankees
Last MLB appearance
May 3, 1952 for the Cleveland Indians
MLB statistics
Batting average .268
Hits 989
Runs scored 604
Career highlights and awards

George Henry "Snuffy" Stirnweiss (October 26, 1918 – September 15, 1958) was an American professional baseball player. He was a right-handed-batting second baseman who played in Major League Baseball between 1943 and 1952, playing most of his big league career with the New York Yankees, and spending his last couple of seasons playing with the St. Louis Browns and the Cleveland Indians. A batting champion in 1945, he played a role with three different World Series championship squads during his time in New York.

Early life and college[edit]

Before turning professional, Stirnweiss was a multi-sport star in high school at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx. In his junior year the school, 1935, he led his school to championships in both baseball and basketball, and was the star of both teams in the process, while being a leader for the football team as well. These accolades helped to earn him a spot in the school’s Hall of Honor upon his graduation from Fordham Prep in 1936. Furthermore, he was able to parlay his sporting accomplishments into attending the University of North Carolina, where he played significant roles with the football and baseball programs. As a football player, he was used in a quarterback and halfback hybrid role, while also being capable of booming punts further down field than most other punters were capable of doing during this time period. His football prowess earned him many accolades, including the highest honor an athlete can achieve at North Carolina, being awarded the Patterson Medal, an athletics program-wide award for being the most outstanding athlete at the university.

Stirnweiss also played baseball whilst at North Carolina, and though he was not as renowned in Chapel Hill for his baseball exploits, these were what would get him a step further in his career, as it turned out. Stirnweiss felt the same, and, despite being a high draft pick by the then-Chicago Cardinals of the NFL in 1940, Stirnweiss, an offer in hand from his hometown New York Yankees, opted to pursue a baseball career and signed with the New York organization upon his graduation from North Carolina in 1940.

Professional baseball[edit]

Unbeknownst to Stirnweiss, he was joining the Yankees’ organization at a very interesting time during their history and during the history of Major League Baseball. He would spend the first three seasons of his professional baseball career in the minor leagues, playing the majority of his first season for the Norfolk Tars of the Piedmont League before being promoted and spending two full seasons in 1941 and 1942 in Double-A with the Newark Bears, a member of the International League. A second baseman, Stirnweiss posted moderate statistics in the minors, but with Joe Gordon as the incumbent second baseman at the top flight in the organization, Stirnweiss was not knocking down any doors to claim a starting position in New York. For his part, Gordon was named the MVP of the American League in 1942 after posting a .322 batting average and 103 runs batted in, numbers that were not common from an up-the-middle position player during this time period.

However, the break that Stirnweiss was about to receive was the influx of professionals, including several notable historical Yankees’ players, who were about to enlist in the United States military to help fight in World War II. The United States joined the cause after the 1941 MLB season had come to a close, and in the next couple of years, many prominent MLB superstars were about to join the cause; among others, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio served multiple years in the military as well as Charlie Keller spending 1944 on military duty. The Yankees’ were not the only team whose on-field product was affected by the war; Hank Greenberg left Detroit to serve in the war, along with Ted Williams from Boston, Stan Musial from the St. Louis Cardinals, Ralph Kiner from Pittsburgh, and many, many more.

For Stirnweiss, this was the break he needed to get his foot in the door at the Major League level. At the age of 24, he received his call-up in time for the 1943 season, and posted meager numbers for a utility player dividing his time between shortstop and second base. In 83 games, he was only able to hit .219 while providing uneven results as a base stealer and only thirteen extra base hits in over 300 plate appearances. He hit his first career home run, and his only home run of 1943, in a late-August double header at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in a 5-1 New York win. The 1943 Yankees would win the American League pennant with 98 wins that season, though Stirnweiss was held limited duty in the World Series that year. Stirnweiss only managed to earn one plate appearance, serving as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher Hank Borowy late in Game 3 with the Yankees trailing, but on a subsequent sacrifice bunt, the third baseman committed an error, paving the way for a five-run rally in a game New York would win 6-2. The Yankees, having lost in the previous year’s World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in upset fashion, returned the favor in 1943 and won the championship in five games.

Peak years: 1944-1945[edit]

It would be in 1944 when Stirnweiss would get his big chance to be regular in the Yankees’ lineup, when Gordon joined the military and temporarily vacated his ironclad second base position. For his part, Stirnweiss did everything he could to prove that he was capable of manning the fort and being a capable Gordon replacement over the course of the next two seasons. On a team stripped of its core pieces and in a league bereft in quality due to the exodus to war, Snuffy Stirnweiss would be a rare bright light. As a regular in 1944, he was the Yankee lead-off hitter and would subsequently lead the league in plate appearances, runs, triples, and stolen bases, socking 59 extra base hits in total while hitting .319. Providing sturdy and almost error-less defense from second base as well, Stirnweiss was arguably the most vital player on a Yankee team that won 83 games and finished in third place in the American League in 1944. His contributions were so outstanding that he was awarded with a fourth-place finish in the AL MVP voting at the close of the 1944 season. Yet once is a fluke, it would be a matter of whether he could post such numbers again in 1945 that would determine whether he was legitimate, even in a lower quality MLB.

Stirnweiss would do exactly that in 1945, posting a triple slash line that was almost identical to the one he posted the year prior, while socking 64 extra base hits in another league-leading season in plate appearances. Despite a ten-point drop in his batting average from the previous season, his .309 clip in 1945 was enough to edge Tony Cuccinello for the batting crown in the American League for 1945. His base stealing was a bit more uneven in 1945, only posting a 66% success rate that was a far cry from the 83% figure he had accomplished the previous year. With another batting average in excess of .300 and on-base percentage in excess of .380, he would receive another top-4 finish in the American League’s MVP balloting, this time finishing in third behind only Detroit ace Hal Newhouser and Detroit second baseman Eddie Mayo, an undeserved second-place finish with respect to Stirnweiss’s accomplishments compared to Mayo’s. Part of that may well have been due to the fact that Stirnweiss’s Yankees’ finished in fourth place in the AL in 1945 while the Detroit Tigers would win the pennant, and then the World Series against the Chicago Cubs.

What had been most impressive about Stirnweiss over the past two seasons had been the consistency that he exhibited at the plate. While he did experience a platoon split that showed he fared better against left-handed pitching, he was able to hold his own against same-sided pitching as well. He hit .336 and .340 against left-handed pitching during these two seasons, and .315 and .299 against right-handed pitching. He rarely hit into double plays, using his excellent speed to be able to beat out many groundballs that were kept in the infield, as well as using his speed to leg out many triples as well, leading the league in triples in both seasons, posting 38 in total. He also exhibited a disciplined eye at the plate as well; he drew 151 walks as a regular over the course of these two seasons and posted a comparatively moderate total of 149 strikeouts during this same time period. Surely, with Joe Gordon’s imminent return to New York for 1946 looming, the most important question was whether Stirnweiss was legitimately burgeoning into a superstar at the Major League level, or whether his peak years had coincided with a war-torn league.

Decline: 1946-1952[edit]

Alas, for Stirnwiess, the answer would ultimately tilt more in favor of the latter than the former. Gordon would spend one more season in New York before joining Cleveland in time for the 1947 season, meaning that Stirnweiss would spent the 1946 campaign as a utility player and then ultimately returned to every day duty at second base in the seasons that followed. Over these three seasons, his last three as an everyday player, Stirnweiss never came close to posting a .300 average again; in fact, Stirnweiss was held in the .250’s in all three seasons. His results, on the whole relative to his position, were not horrible, but they were not up to the lofty standards that Stirnweiss had established during his monster war years, and they were not up to the standard that Joe Gordon prior to that had established during what was ultimately a Hall of Fame career for Gordon.

Unable to re-capture his former glory, Stirnweiss spent 1949 as a partially used utility player, often coming in as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement late in games with the occasional start, and would only appear in seven games for New York before being shipped off to St. Louis to play for the Browns. He would post a pair of .216 batting averages in his final two full seasons in the Major Leagues, doing so again in 1951 after joining the Cleveland Indians. He appeared in one game in 1952 as a defensive replacement at third base and subsequently retired. His Major League career had lasted for the better part of nine seasons, and there were some high notes to be sure; if the All-Star Game had existed during the war years, he would surely have been named on two of them. As it was, he was a 1946 All-Star for the American League, perhaps as a reward for his prior two seasons rather than his actual production in 1946 on its own merits. He did participate in all three World Series’ that the Yankees played in during his time with the club, and for his part, he delivered in the 1947 World Series against the cross-town Brooklyn Dodgers, a knock-out seven game fight with the Yankees emerging victorious. Stirnweiss had seven hits and eight walks in that series, posting a .429 on-base percentage in helping New York to the crown. He was used as a defensive replacement in the one game he featured in for the Yankees in their 1949 World Series participation, a shorter victory once again over Brooklyn.

Post-playing career[edit]

Upon his retirement from Major League Baseball in 1952, Stirnwess ventured into the field of managing in the minor league ranks. He served as the manager in Schenectady, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Eastern League affiliate, in 1954, and then moved back into the Yankees’ organization and served as the manager for their affiliate in the same league, Binghamton, in 1955. However, this was not a long-term goal of Stirnweiss’s, and he left baseball entirely after the 1955 season in favor of a career in finance.

It was after he left the game of baseball that Stirnweiss began to deal with some difficulties. Moving into the banking industry, he worked as a solicitor for Federation Bank and Trust Company, but only for a short while. A father with six children, Stirnweiss fell ill and suffered a heart attack in June 1957, and he needed some time to recuperate from his health problems. He never returned to Federation Bank after he suffered his heart attack.

Not long after his recovery, he was back in business working for Caldwell & Company in Manhattan, but for a different reason, this job would also be short-term for Stirnweiss, this time under tragic circumstances. That is because, on September 15, 1958, Stirnweiss was on Train #3314 of the Central Railroad of New Jersey heading into Manhattan when, for unknown reasons that have never been unearthed, the train drove straight through a restricted zone and flew off the Newark Bay lift bridge and into the bay itself. Stirnweiss was on board one of the passenger cars that fell into Newark Bay, killing him and 47 other passengers. Stirnweiss was 39.

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