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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #58 Snuffy Stirnweiss

In the early 1940s, Stirnweiss put together two of the most underrated seasons in franchise history.

Spring Training - New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Name: George Henry “Snuffy” Stirnweiss
Primary Position: Second base
Born: October 26, 1918 (New York, NY)
Died: September 15, 1958 (Newark Bay, NJ)
Yankee Years: 1943-50
Primary Number: 1
Yankee Statistics: 884 G, 3281 PA, .274/.366/.382, 27 HR, 140 2B, 66 3B, 253 RBI, 130 SB, 109 OPS+, 28.7 rWAR, 29 fWAR

Biography

More than just a fun name, Snuffy Stirnweiss was an important part of three YankeesWorld Series champion teams in the 1940s. In addition to being a sterling defender at second base, Stirnweiss is one of nine Yankees to have ever won a batting title. Said batting title came in 1945. That year plus his 1944 are two of the most overlooked great individual seasons in franchise history.

Two Sport Star

George Stirnweiss was born to Andy and Sophie in 1918 in the city he would later play professionally in: New York. He showed an aptitude for athletics from a very early age, starring for Fordham Prep in baseball, football, and basketball. Back then, football was the sport he was arguably best at, and he parlayed that success into a college sports career at the University of North Carolina.

While at UNC, he would captain both the football and baseball teams, the gridiron was primarily where he generated headlines. He did a little bit of everything for the Tar Heels, playing a quarterback/running back hybrid position. (Football was way different in the 1930s.) Besides that, he also punted and returned punts, playing all over the field.

Stirnweiss at UNC
1938 Yackety-Yack via WikiCommons (public domain)

Stirnweiss was named an All-Conference player in 1938, while he was an All-American on the Gridiron in 1939. One 86-yard touchdown run he scored in a 1939 game against The Citadel is still the longest quarterback run in UNC history. Over the course of the three seasons he played football at North Carolina, the Tar Heels went a combined 21-4-3, finishing ranked No. 7 in the country in 1939.

During that time, he was also starring on the baseball field, hitting .390 as a senior. That caught the eye of legendary Yankees’ scout Paul Krichell. While Stirnweiss was selected by the then Chicago Cardinals in the second round of the 1940 NFL draft, Krichell and baseball won Stirnweiss over, as he thought the diamond provided him better professional future than the gridiron. Upon his graduation, he inked a deal with the Yankees, who had been his childhood favorite team.

Becoming “Snuffy”

After his signing, the Yankees sent Stirnweiss to the Norfolk Tars of the Piedmondt League to begin his minor league career. He impressed, putting up a .307 batting average and a .510 slugging percentage. Also in Norfolk, a teammate dubbed him “Snuffy” after seeing Stirnweiss use both chewing tobacco and a cigar, asking Stirnweiss where the snuff was as well. Before the end of the season, he has also earned a promotion, finishing 1940 with the Newark Bears of the International League.

Stirnweiss would then spend all of the 1941 and ‘42 seasons in Newark. There, his speed become renowned, as he stole 94 bases over the course of those two seasons, and was considered one of the best prospects in the minors. He was named to the International League All-Star Game in ‘42, recording three hits.

To start the 1943 season, Stirnweiss impressed at Yankees spring training. While his preferred second base was held down by future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon, the Yankees had an opening in the infield, as shortstop as Phil Rizzuto had been drafted into the military. Impressed by his speed and potential, Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy took a liking to him and named him to the team’s roster.

Spring Training - New York Yankees
Stirnweiss and Rizzuto
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Stirnweiss made his MLB debut on Opening Day of 1943, playing shortstop and hitting leadoff. He recorded his first hit with an RBI single off Early Wynn of the Washington Senators in the fifth inning in a 5-4 win. While he did get the start in some prominent spots in his first big league game, Stirnweiss ended up more in a utility role in the 1943 season. He appeared in 83 games, hitting .219/.333/.288 (82 OPS+), playing mostly at shortstop with Rizzuto away.

That year, Stirnweiss also helped the Yankees to the AL Pennant and a World Series matchup against the Cardinals. He played in just one game and got one plate appearance in the Fall Classic, but it ended up being a bit of an important one. With a runner on first, He laid down a sacrifice bunt attempt with the Yankees down 2-1 in the eighth inning of Game 3. Cardinals’ third baseman Whitey Kurowski made an error on the play, allowing all runners to be safe.

The Yankees ended up scoring five runs in the frame, as they took a 2-1 lead in the series, which they eventually won in five games.

An Incredible Peak

Ahead of the 1944 season, Gordon was drafted into military service, which led to Stirnweiss getting the nod as the everyday second baseman, which was his more natural position. He responded to his new role by putting in a fantastic season. Stirnwess led the league in hits (205), triples (16), and stolen bases (55). In stolen bases, he surpassed George Case, who had led the way in the previous five seasons, and he nearly doubled the person who finished in third. He finished just a couple points off the batting title and put up, in retrospect, a 139 OPS+ and an AL position player-leading 8.6 rWAR and a 9.0 fWAR. With the Yankees missing several important players at other positions, the second-year second baseman stepped up in their absence to become the team’s best player.

Unfortunately for him and the team, without the players that were away serving, the Yankees fell to third in the AL. Despite all that, Stirnweiss finished fourth in MVP voting, and arguably could’ve won.

So, how do you follow up a historic breakout season? If you’re Stirnweiss, you put up an even better one. In 1945, Stirnweiss led the league in hits, runs, triples, stolen bases, batting average, slugging percentage, total bases, rWAR, and fWAR. The most eventful of those leaderboards was the batting title race, which went right down to the last game of the season.

On the final day of 1945, Tony Cuccinello of the White Sox went into the day at .308, leading Stirnweiss, .306, by just a couple points. On that day, Chicago saw their game rained out and wasn’t required to be finished. Meanwhile, over in New York, the Yankees played their game. Stirnweiss made the most of things, going 3-for-5. His batting average rounded up just enough to finish at .309, giving him the batting title by just a single point. Historically, that wasn’t a particularly high BA to win the title, but Stirnweiss is forever one of a handful of Yankees to have accomplished that feat.

New York Yankees v Washington Senators Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Stirnweiss again finished high in MVP voting, but again came up just short. He got four first place votes but finished in third place, with Tigers’ pitcher Hal Newhouser winning. Despite that, Stirnweiss’ 1945 is still an all-time great Yankee season. According to Baseball Reference WAR, only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Aaron Judge, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Joe DiMaggio have had better single seasons. All of those guys are either Hall of Famers, on the road to be (Judge), or have the stats to be and aren’t in because of...reasons (A-Rod).

However, once again, the Yankees’ losses from military service proved to be just a bit too much to overcome. Despite Stirnweiss’ heroics, as a team, they slipped back to fourth place in the AL, going 81-71.

After his stellar season in 1945, Stirnweiss briefly held out ahead of 1946 after feeling he was being lowballed by the Yankees. When he eventually signed his contract, he had some competition in the infield with the likes of Rizzuto and Gordon returning from the military. In the end, Stirnweiss played all over the infield in 1946, spending the most of his time at third base, which he hasn’t played in the majors prior to that season.

While defensively that mostly worked out, Stirnweiss’ hitting took a dip in ‘46. On the back of his batting title, his batting average dipped to .251, as he put up an 84 OPS+. On the other hand, he was named to the All-Star Game, as he had not gotten a chance to participate in the previous year’s, which had been cancelled thanks to World War II. He singled and scored a run in the AL’s blowout win.

Fall Off

Stirnweiss would never again reach the peaks of his 1944 and ‘45 seasons. However, he still proved to be a solid and useful player for the Yankees over the next couple seasons. Ahead of 1947, the Yankees traded Gordon for fellow top 100 Yankee Allie Reynolds, allowing Stirnweiss to keep the second base job to himself again. While his hitting prowess from earlier in his career would get a bit written off by some as a product of wartime dilution, in the field, Stirnweiss would team up with Rizzuto to become a dynamic double play combination.

In 1947, Stirnweiss helped a reloaded and rejuvenated Yankees’ roster return to the World Series, as he put up a solid 96 OPS+ to go with his defense. In the Fall Classic, he would record seven hits and eight walks in the series as the DiMaggio-led Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games.

Joe DiMaggio with Teammates
Stirnweiss, DiMaggio, and Reynolds

The next year, Stirnweiss was again below average at the plate, putting up an 84 OPS+. While the Yankees won 96 games, they fell to third in the AL. Thanks to unforeseen circumstances at the time, that would be Stirnweiss’ final season as the Yankees regular second baseman.

On Opening Day 1949, Stirnweiss was spiked in the hand on a play at second base. As he dealt with that, rookie Jerry Coleman would get the nod and play well enough to overtake Stirnweiss for the regular job at second. That year, he would appear in just 70 games as he was relegated to a utility role. The Yankees would retake the AL pennant and return to the World Series. Stirnweiss appeared in just one game in the series, recording just one plate appearance as the Yankees eventually won the series in five games.

Post-Yankee Career and a Tragic End

After losing his regular spot, Stirnweiss was seen by some as expendable, but the trigger wasn’t pulled until a couple months into the 1950 season. On June 15th, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns as part of a seven-player deal. He played 93 games for them that season, and again still couldn’t find his feet offensively. After that season, the Browns sent him to Cleveland, where he played 51 games over the next two seasons. He was released by the club early in the 1952 season.

After spending part of 1952 playing in the minors, he soon got into managing. He spent 1954 and ‘55 leading several minor league teams, but failed to advance far in those pursuits, and Stirnweiss left to get more steady jobs so he could provide for his family. In 1958, he was working as a foreign freight agent when on September 15th, while on his way to work, he died when the train he was on derailed and slid into Newark Bay. Stirnweiss was sadly one of 48 people who lost their lives in the accident, passing away a month short of his 40th birthday.

In addition to tragically leaving behind a wife and six children, Stirnweiss’ death also left his former teammates devastated — especially Rizzuto. The Scooter credited Stirnweiss with helping him eventually land the Yankee broadcaster job, which made him a beloved figure for generations. After the Yankees released Rizzuto as a player, he was irate. Stirnweiss told him to go home and cool down before he said anything he regretted. Rizzuto did so, avoiding harsh public critique of team management or ownership, which might have ended the broadcasting gig before it ever even came about.

While he couldn’t sustain his wartime success — hence why he’s not higher up on this list, for two years, Snuffy Stirnweiss looked like an all-time great Yankee.

Staff Rank: 58
Community Rank: 79
Stats Rank: 43
2013 Rank: 49

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Edelman, Rob. SABR bio

UNC Football Media Guide

Sports Reference

1945 Award Voting

NJ1015.com

“Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever” by Kevin Cook

National Pastime Museum: The tragic death of Snuffy Stirnweiss by Marty Appel

Previously on the Top 100

59. Spud Chandler
Full list to date