Snuffy Stirnweiss

The stat lines just leap out at you, aggressively commanding attention and respect:

  G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   SB   CS   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+   WS
154  643  125  205   35   16    8   43   55   11   73   87 .319 .389 .460   139   35
152  632  107  195   32   22   10   64   33   17   78   62 .309 .385 .476   144   34

This isn’t anything resembling the modest offensive production one expects from a second baseman. This is electrifying stuff: high-average line-drive hitting with slashing power, dazzling speed and sharp-eyed plate discipline.

Indeed, second basemen in history who’ve produced lines similar to these even once, let alone in back-to-back seasons, are a rare breed indeed: This is Roberto Alomar territory, or maybe Frankie Frisch. That’s about it.

Well, except for one George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss, who presented these sizzling performances in 1944 and 1945.

Ah! But 1944 and 1945 were World War II seasons. And in 1946, with the war over, Stirnweiss’ stats would drop dramatically into run-of-the-mill slappy-second-baseman mode, and remain there for the rest of his career. Thus his spectacular seasons have been written off as wartime anomalies, and his career is routinely dismissed. No one considers Stirnweiss at all when discussing the best second basemen in history, or even the best individual seasons achieved by second basemen.

But is that right?

There’s no question that Stirnweiss’ rate of production benefited from the reduced quality of competition in the war years. (At the same time, of course, his raw hitting stats were inhibited by the inferior balata ball.) But was the day-to-night transformation in performance that Stirnweiss displayed between 1944-45 and 1946-48 simply and entirely a function of the wartime-to-normal change in conditions? Or could it be that his career included a genuinely huge peak and sudden decline that just happened to coincide with the war and its end?

To find out, let’s look at what sort of change in league-normalized performance was displayed by the best hitters in the major leagues who had significant regular playing time before, during and after World War II. I identified the 18 players who were actively performing as offensive stars all through the period—at least one outstanding full season in 1941-42, and in 1943-45, and in 1946-47. (For the details of the methodology, please see the References and Resources section below.)

Here’s the mean average OPS+ produced by these top 18 in these seasons, as well as the mean average Win Shares per 154 games. The “delta” for each category indicates the degree to which their wartime league-normalized performance was greater than the average of their immediate prewar and postwar seasons:

 Years    OPS+  Delta    WS/154  Delta
1941-42  124.6           23.7
1943-45  139.0  10.4%    28.4    18.6%
1946-47  127.2           24.2

The pattern is unmistakable: it was obviously easier to exceed league-norm performance during the heart of the talent-depleted war years than it was before or after. The degree of improvement under wartime conditions by these 18 stars was 10.4 percent in terms of OPS+, and 18.6 percent in terms of Win Share rate.

How does this compare with Stirnweiss? His rookie year was a wartime season, 1943, in which he hit poorly but drew a lot of walks (OPS+ of 82) in a utility role, contributing seven Win Shares. Then he burst into the sterling performances of 1944 and ’45 before falling off to nothing-special rates of production:

 Years    OPS+  Delta    WS/154  Delta
1941-42   n/a            n/a
1943-45  121.7  35.2%    27.5    51.1%
1946-47   90.0           18.2

We see that Stirnweiss’ wartime to postwar change in production was not at all similar to those of his contemporaries. Even including the modest rookie-year performance, Stirnweiss’ 1943-45 OPS+ was a towering 35 percent greater than that of 1946-47, and his Win Share production rate was superior by more than 50 percent. Thus it’s simply wrong to consider Stirnweiss’ drop-off in performance in the immediate postwar seasons as anything close to representative or typical of the quality-of-competition effect.

Therefore, dismissing his glittering 1944-45 stat lines as simple wartime illusions isn’t warranted. We can confidently conclude that the Snuffy Stirnweiss in the postwar era was little more than a league-average second baseman. But it’s also true that the Snuffy Stirnweiss of 1944-45 was a legitimate superstar performer.

Just how good was he?

Let’s reduce Stirnweiss’ OPS+ and Win Shares figures of 1944 and 1945 by the factors indicated by the performances of his 18 contemporary stars: Deflate his OPS+ by the inverse of 10.4 percent, and his Win Shares by the inverse of 18.6 percent. When we do this, his 1944 OPS+ becomes 125.9, and for 1945 it’s 130.4; his Win Shares per 154 games become 29.5 and 29.0. Just how extraordinary is that remaining level of production?

Well, here’s the complete list of middle infielders other than Stirnweiss who between 1920 and 1960 delivered back-to-back seasons of both OPS+ of 120 or greater and Win Shares of 25 or greater:

{exp:list_maker}Ernie Banks
Lou Boudreau
Joe Cronin
Bobby Doerr
Frankie Frisch
Charlie Gehringer
Joe Gordon
Billy Herman
Rogers Hornsby
Jackie Robinson
Vern Stephens
Arky Vaughan {/exp:list_maker}That’s it: 12 guys in 40 years. And of that dozen, 10 are in the Hall of Fame, and 11 are in the Hall of Merit. This is a sort of performance that only great or near-great players have delivered.

This isn’t to say that Snuffy Stirnweiss ought to be in the Hall of Fame. His sudden decline in production following 1945 was all too real, and all too permanent. But for that all-too-brief two-year period, Snuffy Stirnweiss was a genuinely great player, and we shouldn’t fail to perceive that greatness in the “fog of war.”

Who was this Snuffy anyway?

Like so many ballplayers of his era, Stirnweiss lied about his age, passing himself off as having been born in October of 1919, when in truth it was 1918. The son of a New York City policeman, Stirnweiss left home to attend the University of North Carolina, where he was a star not only in baseball but an All-American halfback in football, his compact 5-foot-8, 175-pound stature notwithstanding. Indeed, upon graduation in 1940 he was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL.

Instead Stirnweiss accepted an offer to sign with the New York Yankees organization. Assigned to the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League, in 86 games he hit .307/.401/.510, and stole 19 bases. This earned him a season-ending call-up to the Yankees’ Double-A (the equivalent of today’s Triple-A) Newark Bears farm club in the International League, where he went 6-for-14 in four games.

In 1941 Stirnweiss played as a semi-regular second baseman/shortstop for Newark, picking up 21 steals in 100 games and hitting moderately well. And in ’42 he won the full-time second base job for the Bears, and while hitting .270/.336/.397 Stirnweiss led the International League with the remarkable total of 73 stolen bases—the next-highest total, not only in the International League but in the American Association and Pacific Coast League, was 33. This startling performance led to his promotion to the majors for 1943.

Stirnweiss was declared 4-F by his draft board for a combination of reasons: He was supporting his mother and sister, and moreover he suffered from gastric ulcers and hay fever. The constant sniffling may have been what led to the “Snuffy” nickname; I’ve also read that it derived from the fact that he treated his sinus problems with snuff (which might seem like more of a cause then a treatment, but hey, it was a much different era than our own).

The greatly diminished level of offensive production Stirnweiss delivered in 1946, ’47 and ’48 was far from star quality, but it wasn’t bad: He remained a solid, steady performer overall. He hit for a modest average with almost no power in those years, but contributed well otherwise: His high walk rate kept his OBP above league average, and he continued to run the bases well (though in the post-war era the Yankees almost completely stopped attempting to steal bases). Moreover Stirnweiss displayed a fine glove; in 1948 he committed just five errors in over 700 chances at second base, posting a fielding percentage of .993 that would remain the major league record until 1964.

As to why Stirnweiss’ hitting suddenly dropped to its new plateau in 1946, I don’t know. He doesn’t appear to have suffered an injury. The likely culprit would seem to be his chronic intestinal and respiratory problems, sapping his strength and robbing him of the capacity to sustain the kind of bat speed he generated in 1944-45, and plausibly contributing to his continuing decline in his early 30s.

Whatever it was, in 1949 new Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave rookie Jerry Coleman the majority of the playing time at second, reducing Stirnweiss back to a utility role. He rode the bench in early 1950, and then was traded to the St. Louis Browns in June. Presented with the renewed opportunity for regular play, at the age of 31 Stirnweiss was unable to take advantage of it, hitting poorly. Cleveland picked him up and deployed him as a backup in 1951, but in early 1952 the Indians sent Stirnweiss to the minors, and he would never make it back.

He did some managing in the Eastern League, for Schenectady (in the Phillies’ system) in 1954, and for Binghamton (in the Yankees’ system) in 1955. In 1956 Stirnweiss took a job in the banking industry, as solicitor of new accounts (a fancy name for “salesman”) for the Federation Bank and Trust Co., but in June 1957, though still only in his late 30s, he suffered a heart attack and was forced into temporary retirement.

Upon his recovery, Stirnweiss, living in Red Bank, N.J., found employment as a foreign freight agent with Caldwell & Co. on Broad Street in Manhattan. Also he was doing volunteer work in youth baseball, running the sandlot program sponsored by the New York Journal American.

The tragic end

On the morning of Sept. 15, 1958, Stirnweiss was commuting to a luncheon appointment in the city on the Central Railroad of New Jersey train No. 3314 as it sped toward the four-track lift bridge spanning Newark Bay. 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.

It was one of the most terrible railroad disasters in U.S. history. The death toll was 48, including the not-quite-40-year-old Stirnweiss. He left behind his wife of 15 years (the former Jane Powers) and six children, the youngest at the age of 17 months.

Year  Age  Lg     AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   SB   CS   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+   WS
1940  21  Pied   300   68   92   17    4   12   51   19    ?   47   55 .307 .401 .510    ?    ?
1940  21   IL     14    3    6    2    1    0    3    0    ?    ?    ? .429   ?  .714    ?    ?
1941  22   IL    363   50   96    9    3    5   48   21    ?   39   63 .264 .336 .347    ?    ?
1942  23   IL    552  109  149   17   10   11   74   73    ?   55   67 .270 .336 .397    ?    ?
1943  24   AL    274   34   60    8    4    1   25   11    9   47   37 .219 .333 .288   82    7
1944  25   AL    643  125  205   35   16    8   43   55   11   73   87 .319 .389 .460  139   35
1945  26   AL    632  107  195   32   22   10   64   33   17   78   62 .309 .385 .476  144   34
1946  27   AL    487   75  122   19    7    0   37   18    6   66   58 .251 .340 .318   84   13
1947  28   AL    571  102  146   18    8    5   41    5    3   89   47 .256 .358 .342   96   20
1948  29   AL    515   90  130   20    7    3   32    5    4   86   62 .252 .360 .336   87   17
1949  30   AL    157   29   41    8    2    0   11    3    2   29   20 .261 .380 .338   90    6
1950  31   AL    328   32   71   16    2    1   24    3    3   51   49 .216 .322 .287   54    4
1951  32   AL     88   10   19    1    0    1    4    1    0   22   25 .216 .373 .261   77    3
1952  33   AL      0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0   x    x    x     x    0
1952  33   AA    320   62   76    9    7    7   39    3    ?   80   53 .238 .390 .375    ?    ?
1954  35   EL      9    ?    3    ?    ?    ?    ?    ?    ?    ?    ? .333   ?    ?     ?    ?

References & Resources
William B. Mead, Even the Browns, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1978, p. 104.

Stirnweiss’ Bullpen Wiki page

Obituary and related coverage in The New York Times, September 1958

Obituary and related coverage in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, September 1958

I identified every player who, in each of the three periods 1941-42, 1943-45 and 1946-47, had at least one full season with an OPS+ of at least 120 and/or at least 20 Win Shares. The mean average OPS+ and Win Shares per 154 games values were calculated and compared. Full seasons only were used in the analysis.

The 18 qualifying players are:

Luke Appling
Lou Boudreau
Phil Cavaretta
Roy Cullenbine
Bob Elliott
Joe Gordon
Jeff Heath
Billy Herman
Tommy Holmes
Johnny Hopp
Charlie Keller
George McQuinn
Stan Musial
Bill Nicholson
Stan Spence
Vern Stephens
Mickey Vernon
Dixie Walker

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Comments

  1. said...

    Hi — Interesting subject and enjoyable reading, but I’m not persuaded by the study. The control group is profoundly different from Stirnweiss, who did not star either before or after the war. So why should we expect their performance to illuminate his?

    To accept that Snuffy’s stats suggest a huge natural peak that just happened to coincide with wartime talent depletion, I would need two more things:

    – Some data on the average wartime performance gains by various levels of “true” talent, including non-stars. I would not be surprised to find a few other players whose true level was MLB average who had big spikes against weakened competition. The Federal League might provide further examples.

    – Some explanation of Snuffy’s abrupt rise from ordinary minor-league hitter at age 22-23, to MLB star hitter at 25-26, and then his immediate and permanent return to ordinary at age 27. And examples of others with that pattern who did not suffer a significant injury.

    His wartime stardom is too big of coincidence to be explained by a control group that doesn’t have much in common with Stirnweiss.

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