When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, baseball forged on; President Roosevelt gave the sport the “Green Light” to continue in 1942 as a source of entertainment to boost morale on the homefront. At the same time, players remained eligible to be plucked for military service — all in all, over 500 major leaguers and thousands of minor leaguers joined the war effort. The remaining players were a ragtag bunch consisting of those too old, too young, or otherwise physically unable to fight in the war. It stood to reason that, while they may not have been stars under ordinary circumstances, a few new faces would stand out against the weaker competition. As it happened, the Yankees’ Snuffy Stirnweiss would be one of them.
1944 Statistics: 154 games, 723 plate appearances, 205 hits, 8 home runs, 43 RBIs, 125 runs, 55 stolen bases out of 66 attempts, 35 doubles, 16 triples, .319/.389/.460 triple slash, 141 wRC+, 9.0 fWAR, 8.6 bWAR
Stirnweiss, born in New York City in 1918, attended Fordham Prep in the Bronx for high school. He went on to captain both the football and baseball teams at the University of North Carolina and was actually a second-round draft pick of the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals. A jack of all trades on the football field, Stirnweiss received accolades for his quarterbacking, rushing, and punting. But he couldn’t resist an offer from his hometown Yankees, signing with them upon his 1940 graduation.
The rather diminutive Stirnweiss, standing at 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 175 pounds, wasn’t the most touted prospect. He spent the rest of 1940 with the B-level (on par with today’s A or low-A ball) Norfolk Tars, only earning a promotion to AA after notching a .307 batting average and .510 slugging across 86 games. It was there that he earned his nickname, due to his fondness for tobacco.
The next two years, Stirnweiss’ bat languished in AA, then the highest level of the minors. In 1941, he slashed a meager .265/.341/.347. In 1942, he posted an improved but still modest .270/.340/.397 line. However, he caught the Yankees’ attention in the latter season by swiping 73 bags — an International League record at the time — in 82 tries. And after the Yankees lost incumbent shortstop Phil Rizzuto to the military, Stirnweiss got his major league chance.
In the majors in 1943, Stirnweiss split time at short with Frankie Crosetti, putting up just a .219/.333/.288 line in 325 plate appearances. However, he proved more than capable at short despite spending the majority of his time at second in his career prior; in just 68 games, he ranked fifth among shortstops that year in total zone rating. Everyone he trailed in the cumulative stat either played in double or nearly double the amount of games — in other words, given more opportunities, he could have been the best in the league.
While Stirnweiss’s 1943 debut might have foreshadowed his continued defensive excellence, and his minor league stolen-base acumen might have foreshadowed his speed, his proficiency with the bat in 1944 came as a surprise. Granted, the league saw many military defections that year: the Yankees alone lost all-stars Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, Billy Johnson, and Spud Chandler, to say nothing of the departures of Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, and Red Ruffing the year before.
But even among the weaker competition, there’s something to be said about the spell Stirnweiss cast over the rest of the league. Mind you, he dealt with his own reasons for failing his military physical (a severe ulcer and a rumored case of hay fever), making his feats all the more impressive.
Since the dead ball era (a time during which one baseball was expected to last an entire game) ended in 1919, here is where Stirnweiss’s 1944 season ranks in terms of advanced statistics among the 1,632 individual qualifying seasons at second base (where he was able to return after Joe Gordon’s egress):
Stirnweiss’s 1944 ranks, second basemen all time
He fares even better among some more traditional categories:
Stirnweiss’s 1944 ranks, second basemen all time
Most impressive, perhaps, was his excellence on both sides of the ball. Of those aforementioned 1,632 seasons, his was one of just 15 that saw at least 20 defensive (Def) and offensive runs (Off) above average. Factoring in his excellent speed, if we add a criterion for at least five baserunning runs above average, Stirnweiss’s 1944 was one of just four seasons to check every box. His well-roundedness that year has been nearly unmatched in the history of the game.
In the second war-torn season, 1945, Stirnweiss followed up with an 8.9 fWAR year. His 22 triples that season are the most in a single year for a second baseman since the dead ball era ended. His stolen base game suffered, as he posted a 33-to-17 success-to-failure ratio, but he still managed over 20 Def and Off for the second straight year; yes, Snuffy Stirnweiss accounts for two of the 15 second basemen who have done that.
While he still posted excellent defensive numbers for a few more seasons, Stirnweiss failed to crack a 100 wRC+ in six tries once the soldiers returned. He would go on to win his second and third championships with the Yankees in 1947 and ‘49, but his numbers were a far cry from the cartoonish figures he put up while many of his teammates were overseas. Yet, it’s fair to wonder what kind of a ballplayer Stirnweiss would have been had more of his teammates chosen not to return to the game following their military service. Perhaps he would be remembered as Snuffy Stirnweiss, Hall of Famer, instead of Snuffy Stirnweiss, purveyor of one of the Yankees’ most surprising seasons. Until we inhabit that reality, however, Stirnweiss will continue to live on through pages such as these.