National Pastime Museum: The tragic death of Snuffy Stirnweiss

By Marty Appel

George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss was a war-time middle infielder with the New York Yankees who won an American League batting championship, and who later died a horrific death in a railroad accident, his train plunging into a river.

He would have been 100 this year, but he only lived to 39 and was adjusting to an anonymous, low profile career in finance after glory days with the Yankees.  

He was a stumpy little guy at 5’8”, 175 pounds  – a prototype middle infielder of his era. He did not have the athletic body of say, Giancarlo Stanton, to say the least.  His nickname was borrowed in part from a popular comic character of the time (Snuffy Smith), and his use of snuff, a type of tobacco inhaled.  Of course many players used different variations of tobacco back then, mostly a chaw stuffed in their cheek. It was a ballplayer thing.

Stirnweiss grew up in the Bronx and went to Fordham Prep, playing baseball, basketball and football, and then went off to the University of North Carolina, where he was more of a football star than a baseball one.  After his 1940 graduation, he was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL. But when his hometown Yankees offered him a baseball contract, he dropped football, and at 5’8”, that may have been a wise decision. Baseball was better able to find a place for a small man.

The idea of a regular job with the Yankees was probably remote in the minds of the Yankee front office.  Second base had become an exalted position, with Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon going back to the ‘20s. Snuffy gave the Yanks three minor league seasons of little distinction, but then made the big club in the world championship season of 1943.  He hit only .219 in 83 games, mostly at shortstop while Phil Rizzuto was in the service.

Yes, there was that thing called World War II, and in 1944, it snared Gordon.  Joe McCarthy decided that Snuffy was up to the task of replacing him, and he played every game that year, leading the league with 723 plate appearances, 125 runs, 205 hits, 16 triples and 55 stolen bases, while batting .319, a 100-point jump.  He was fourth in MVP voting, and his stolen base total was third highest in Yankee history (and still sixth to this day).

Where did this all come from?  How do you jump 100 points? It’s hard to pinpoint, because everything during wartime baseball was hard to measure.  Obviously the pitching was weaker than in “normal” times, but not 100 points worse than in ’43. If it was the era of steroids, we could have a theory, but it was just the era of tobacco.  There was no evidence of any form of performance enhancement. But hey, 100 points? A .219 hitter comes in fourth in MVP voting the next season?

The doubters were silenced in 1945.  His season was very much duplicative of 1944, as he led the league in at bats, runs, hits, triples  (where his 22 tied for second all-time in team history), stolen bases, slugging percentage (.476, despite hitting only ten home runs) total bases AND – batting average.  

He hit .309, which made him the fourth Yankee (with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and twice Joe DiMaggio) to win a batting championship.  There have only been four others since then.

The batting contest came down to the last day of the season.  Tony Cuccinello of the White Sox was at .308, and Snuffy at .306.  The White Sox were rained out – the game was not replayed – and so it was up to Stirnweiss to win it on his own.

Well, he did have some assistance.  Playing in front of a home crowd and a home town official scorer from the Bronx Home News, he was awarded a hit on a muffed grounder to third after other writers in the press box rushed to get Bert Gumpert to change his error call.  He wound up going 3-for-5 and finishing at .3088 to edge Cuccinello – the only day in the entire season he led the league.

1946 saw the return of war-time players and Snuffy’s playing time began to downsize (although he earned an All-Star selection).  Joe Gordon reclaimed second base, and Stirnweiss played only 46 games there, moving to third base more frequently. When Gordon was traded for Allie Reynolds in 1947, and with a new manager (Bucky Harris) in place, he reclaimed second, but hit just over .250 in those seasons, as he was now facing first rate pitching.   He had turned into a very ordinary player by the time Casey Stengel took over in 1949, and in 1950 he was off to the St. Louis Browns. He spent 1951 with Cleveland and by 1952 was back in the minors.

He managed in the Philadelphia Phillies and Yankee farm systems after his playing career, but after the 1955 season, left baseball for good, determined to make a career for himself in finance.   

He had one other important Yankee moment though.  On Old Timers Day in 1956, he was an invited guest to Yankee Stadium.  It happened to be the day that the Yankees chose to release the popular Phil Rizzuto, deciding to give his roster spot to the aging Enos Slaughter.

Rizzuto was livid and embarrassed, being released in front of all his old Joe McCarthy-era teammates.  Stirnweiss sized up the situation, put his hand on Rizzuto’s back, and gently led him out of the stadium and to his car.  “Don’t say anything, Phil,” he said. “Just go home and cool down.”

Rizzuto himself told the story many times.  He said Stirnweiss was responsible for his broadcasting career, which would begin the following season and last 40 years.

“If Snuffy hadn’t led me out that day, I might have popped off, criticized management, and never had a chance to broadcast.  Instead, I wound up playing golf a few days later with the people from Ballantine Beer, and they hired me for the following season.”

Stirnweiss meanwhile had a wife and six children, and his top baseball salary had been $17,500.  He needed to continue working, beginning with a job as a solicitor for a bank. But he suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1957, and after his recovery worked for the firm of Caldwell and Company, commuting to Manhattan each day by train from his home in New Jersey.

On September 15, 1958, he was on his train for New York.  It being Rosh Hashanah, the number of commuters was down. He sat in the second car behind two locomotives, a smoking car, traveling at 42.5 mph instead of the prescribed 22.5.  The drawbridge over Newark Bay was open, and the train was unable to stop in time. The locomotives and the first two passenger cars plunged into the water, and Snuffy, one of 30 passengers in the second car, died in the plunge.  It may not have been instantaneous – he was holding his rosary – but he was lost. In all, 48 people were killed that day on the Newark Bay Bridge (which was dismantled in the 1980s).

He was only 39.

There never was a clear explanation of what went wrong apart from “human error,” but for a long time, the reading of Stirnweiss’s name on Old Timers Days at Yankee Stadium would evoke tears from the fans.  His “everyman” appearance, his three World Championship rings, and his batting championship had always made him a fan favorite.