Classic Yankees: Snuffy Stirnweiss

New York Yankees Snuffy StirnweissWW II took most of the great players into the service, be it for three years (Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams) or one (Stan Musial). In their place, some players had great years because of the lack of talent that was left. Nick Etten (led AL in HR 1944, RBI 1945) and George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss were two of the Yankees stars in that time of the mid-1940s when Yankees like DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller and Red Ruffing spent all or most of the season in military service.

Snuffy Stirnweiss was a 2B, SS and 3B who was born in New York and attended high school at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. He was a true homegrown player. The righty-hitting Stirnweiss went to the University of North Carolina, where he was an All-American halfback who was drafted by the Chicago (later St. Louis, now Arizona) Cardinals. Stirnweiss chose baseball, however.

Stirnweiss made it to the majors in 1943, as WWII was raging. He wore #2 in 1943 and 1944 before switching to #1 in 1945. He only hit .219, with 1 HR and 25 RBI for the 1943 World Champion Yankees, playing in 83 games. He stole 11 bases while posting an OPS+ of 82. He went 0 for 1 in the WS.

1944 and 1945 saw a great depletion of talent from the majors as the war raged on. In 1945, the St. Louis Browns had an outfielder named Pete Gray (born Peter Wyshner in the coal mining area of Nanticoke, PA). Gray had only one arm and had to play much like Jim Abbott would years later. 1944 NL MVP Marty Marion, who passed away recently, won that MVP despite hitting just .267. Meanwhile, Stirnweiss flourished in these two war years. Gastric ulcers and hay fever exempted Stirnweiss from military service, along with the fact he supported his mom and sister.

In 1944, Stirnweiss became the Yankees second baseman because Joe Gordon was in the service. Stirnweiss finished 4th in the MVP voting that year. He hit .319, with 8 HR and 43 RBI. He led the majors in plate appearances, runs scored (125), hits (205) and SB (55). His 16 triples led the AL, and he had an excellent OPS+ of 138.

In 1945, Stirnweiss won the batting title, hitting .309. It would be the lowest average for a batting champion until Carl Yastrzemski hit .301 in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” Stirnweiss finished 3rd in the MVP voting. He led the AL in plate appearances, at bats, runs scored (107), hits (195), Slugging Average, OPS, OPS+ (144) and total bases. He led the majors in triples (22), SB (33) and CS (17). He had 10 HR and 64 RBI.

Stirnweiss was an All-Star for the only time in his career in 1946 (there was no All-Star game in 1945 due to wartime travel restrictions). The return of Gordon from military service forced Stirnweiss into a utility role, and Stirnweiss’ numbers declined now that the competition was better. He hit .251 with no homers and 37 RBI. He stole 18 bases. His OPS+ dropped to an 84.

Stirnweiss got his 2nd WS Championship ring in 1947, as he hit .256-5-41 for the Yankees. Gordon was gone, traded for Allie Reynolds, so “Snuffy” got his second base job back. He stole just 5 bases, and the OPS+ was 96. He was 7 for 27 with a triple and 3 RBI in the Series.

Stirnweiss hit .252-3-32 in 1948. 5 SB and an OPS+ of 86. In 1949, he lost his second base job to Jerry Coleman. As a backup, Stirnweiss won his 3rd and last ring with the Yankees, hitting .261-0-11 with 3 SB. OPS+ 90. He got into one game in the Series but had no at bats.

Stirnweiss went 7 for 28 in three WS, with 3 RBI. He played on three pennant winners and all three won the World Series.

In 1950, Stirnweiss started with the Yanks, but only played in seven games for them. Coleman was still there, and Billy Martin had arrived. This made Stirnweiss expendable. He was traded to the St. Louis Browns. Overall, Stirnweiss hit just .216 with 1 HR and 24 RBI. OPS+ 54, 3 SB.

He finished his career with the Indians. In 1951, Stirnweiss hit .216-1-4, OPS+ 77. He got into just one game in 1952.

Stirnweiss ended his career with a .268 batting average, helped by the two war years. He hit 29 HR and had an OPS+ of 102. He stole 134 bases.

In 1956, Phil Rizzuto was released by the Yankees on Old-Timer’s day in a heartless fashion. It was Stirnweiss who advised the shaken “Scooter” to stay quiet and who took him home. Stirnweiss’ compassion and consolation enabled the “Scooter” not to say anything rash and burn any bridges. Therefore Rizzuto could return to the organization later as a broadcaster for four decades. Rizzuto later said that following Stirnweiss’ advice was the best move he ever made.

Stirnweiss managed in Schenectady and Binghamton after his career ended. He later went into banking and later the foreign freight business.

The Snuffy Stirnweiss story ended tragically, however. In June of 1957, he suffered a heart attack. He was just 38 at the time. On September 15, 1958, Stirnweiss, just 39, was a passenger upon a train that plunged off the CRRNJ Newark Bay Bridge between Elizabethport and Bayonne, NJ.

From Hardball Times:

For reasons never entirely understood—the prevailing theory was that the engineer passed out, probably due to a coronary of his own—the train failed to heed three separate warning signals that the bridge span was raised.

The train then hit a derailing device, designed to knock it off the tracks and stop it, to prevent it from proceeding into the chasm. But this train was traveling at such velocity that despite having been derailed, both of the train’s diesel locomotives and its first two coaches plunged headlong into the bay, and immediately sank. A third coach snagged at the edge and hung precariously at an 80-degree angle as emergency crews desperately tried to rescue its passengers. After two hours, when it was apparent that every surviving occupant had either jumped out or climbed out and no one left inside was still alive, the coach was cut loose with blow torches and fell into the murky water 40 feet below.

48 were killed, one of them being Stirnweiss, who was in one of the first two coaches. He left behind his wife and six children, their ages ranging from 17 months to 15 years old. Among those present at his funeral were Rizzuto, Coleman, Joe Collins, and Frank “Specs” Shea.

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