Earlier this week, I was looking through old children’s videos to see if the film was still intact, and to finally give myself a reason to throw stuff out of the house. I came across an old Sesame Street episode, with Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus. When Bird called for “Snuffy,” I had my player.
During World War II, several of baseball’s greats (Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, etc.) fought overseas and put their promising careers on hold. While Snuffy Stirnweiss was only 24 during his Major League debut in 1943 and was not a bench player per say, he was definitely given many more opportunities to play during wartime than in peacetime.
Originally a shortstop who wore #2 on the back of his shirt, Stirnweiss was a former North Carolina Tar Heel who toiled in the minors for a few seasons. In fact, the only reason why he was playing baseball was due to ulcers. The military would not allow Stirnweiss to fight, and he was forced to stay home. Nevertheless, he played his first Major League game for the Yankees in April of 1943. That season he would only play 83 games, with a .219 average and 20 errors in the field. Yet, the Yankees would win the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals, with Stirnweiss batting once in five games. Next season, he would switch positions to the other side of the infield, manning second base, and would become a transcendent player for the next two seasons.
1944 was a whole new Snuffy. Not only did Stirnweiss lead baseball with 723 plate appearances, but would also eclipse the American League in runs (125), hits (205), triples (16), WAR (8.5), and stolen bases (55) in the dead ball era. A lock for AL MVP? No; he finished fourth in the voting behind Detroit pitchers Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, who won 29 and 27 games, respectfully. Third place was St. Louis Browns shortstop Vern Stephens, who carried his team to the Fall Classic only to lose against the crosstown rival Cardinals. The Yankees would finish in third place and miss the playoffs.
As if to prove the previous season was not a fluke, Stirnweiss again led all of the AL in plate appearances (718), at-bats (632), runs (107), hits (195), triples (22), stolen bases (33), batting average (.309), and a slew of other categories. However, the MVP and the playoffs slipped through his grasp again, finishing behind Newhouser and the Tigers again.
Finally the war was ending during 1945, which meant not only the return of American heroes, but the return of baseball heroes. DiMaggio’s and others homecomings signaled a decline in Snuffy’s career, as his lineup spot was replaced by Phil Rizzuto, and his position taken by Joe Gordon. While Stirnweiss was voted for his first All-Star game, he was a different player, with only 122 hits and 18 stolen bases, a far cry from his last few years.
1947 was in some ways a bounce back year. Joe Gordon was traded to Cleveland for Allie Reynolds, and Snuffy regained second base. He would score 102 times, and started all seven games of the 1947 World Series, in which the Yankees were victorious.
Stirnweiss would play on another WS team before being sent to the Browns in 1950, with mixed results. The following year, he was traded to Joe Gordon’s team, the Indians, for his final 51 games.
Snuffy Stirnweiss retired at the age of 33 with career totals that don’t show nearly how important he was for the Yankees during a dark time in history. Tragically, the Red Bank resident was killed six years later at the age of 39 when a train he was on derailed and fell off a bridge. Even though Stirnweiss has no retired number, or street, or monument, he remains an integral part in the continuation of Yankees’ baseball throughout the 1940s.