Snuffy & the Wartime Peaksters
In 1944-45, the height of the wartime talent depletion, some hitters had good years far above their career norms. Which ones were the most out of context?
This, of course, is “the Snuffy Stirnweiss question.” His first two full years in the majors, 1944-45, were both excellent offensive seasons for any hitter, and — because he was also a slick keystone fielder — rank second all-time in WAR for a player’s 2nd & 3rd years combined. In the rest of his career, Stirnweiss was a solid player, but a below-average hitter.
Do any other players fit that mold?
For this little study, I focused only on batting, as measured by Runs Created (RC). I set the threshold at 80 RC for a season in 1944-45, which takes in 53 seasons by 38 different batters. Eighteen of those 38 had their career high in RC in one of those years, including nine with their two best years.
For those 18 players, I found the percentage gap between their best RC year from inside and outside the period. For example, Stirnweiss had 122 Runs Created in 1944, while his best outside the period was 70 RC in 1947, a gap of 74%. I’ll call this Gap 1. Gap 2 is the same calculation between their best year and their second-best year outside the period.
This table shows those 18 players ranked by the weighted average of Gap 1 and Gap 2 (double-weighting Gap 1). Bold indicates those whose two best years in Runs Created were 1944-45; italics means they reached 80 RC in both seasons:
|Player||Gap 1||Gap 2||Wt. Gap||#1 RC 1944-45||Best RC Other||#2 RC Other|
|Mickey Rocco||88%||636%||271%||81 (1944)||43 (1943)||11 (1946)|
|Luis Olmo||184%||406%||258%||91 (1945)||32 (1943)||18 (1950)|
|Buster Adams||104%||345%||185%||98 (1945)||48 (1943)||22 (1947)|
|Johnny Barrett||139%||219%||165%||86 (1944)||36 (1942)||27 (1943)|
|Chuck Workman||29%||433%||164%||80 (1945)||62 (1943)||15 (1946)|
|Snuffy Stirnweiss||74%||97%||82%||122 (1944)||70 (1947)||62 (1948)|
|Goody Rosen||54%||128%||79%||105 (1945)||68 (1938)||46 (1946)|
|Ray Sanders||31%||165%||75%||98 (1944)||75 (1943)||37 (1942)|
|Johnny Lindell||65%||67%||65%||102 (1944)||62 (1947)||61 (1948)|
|Tommy Holmes||59%||68%||62%||153 (1945)||96 (1948)||91 (1947)|
|Jim Russell||40%||57%||46%||105 (1944)||75 (1946)||67 (1943)|
|Johnny Hopp||39%||43%||41%||106 (1944)||76 (1950)||74 (1946)|
|Ron Northey||21%||54%||32%||103 (1944)||85 (1943)||67 (1947)|
|Phil Cavarretta||26%||32%||28%||111 (1945)||88 (1946)||84 (1943)|
|Dixie Walker||22%||22%||22%||123 (1944)||101 (1937)||101 (1946)|
|Nick Etten||8%||25%||14%||106 (1944)||98 (1941)||85 (1943)|
|Babe Dahlgren||4%||23%||10%||85 (1944)||82 (1941)||69 (1940)|
|Stan Spence||4%||8%||5%||109 (1944)||105 (1942)||101 (1946)|
The top four above — Rocco, Olmo, Adams and Barrett — played little outside deep wartime; each had at least 60% of his career PAs in 1944-45. Rosen, Sanders and Workman each had just one qualifying year outside 1944-45, and two of those were 1943. And the last three listed (Etten, Dahlgren, Spence) didn’t hit that much better in their wartime peaks than otherwise.
That leave eight guys of greatest interest: Stirnweiss, Lindell, Holmes, Russell, Hopp, Cavarretta, Walker and Northey.
Johnny Lindell came through the minors as a star pitcher, going 41-11 his last two years at the top levels, relying on a knuckler and curve. But his fastball failed to impress Joe McCarthy, and since Johnny hit .302 on his way through the bushes, Marse Joe made him an outfielder in 1943. He led the AL in triples that year and the next, when he paced the junior circuit in total bases and extra-base hits. He was drafted in ’45 and missed much of the year, then returned with two so-so campaigns. His last hitting hurrah was a 138 OPS+ as a semi-regular in 1948.
After two down years, Lindell went back to the minors, the mound and the flutterball, and earned a return to the bigs with a ’52 record of 24-9, 2.52, leading the PCL in wins and Ks. Too bad his return came with the abysmal Pirates, 50-104 in 1953. Despite completing 15 of 26 starts, Lindell joined the rest of his rotation with a sorry W-L record despite respectable ERA+. He also logged a team-high 136 OPS+ in 109 PAs, with a handful of games at OF/1B and a boffo 8 for 21 and 2 HRs pinch-hitting. One of those pinch-bombs was a tying 3-run shot in the 9th, batting for another two-way player, Eddie O’Brien.
Among all modern players, only Lindell and Babe Ruth are known to have 50+ games at LF, CF, RF and pitcher.
Tommy Holmes debuted at 25 in 1942 after two good years at Newark, the Yankees’ top farm club, teaming with Stirnweiss and Lindell to lead the ’41 Bears to 100 wins. In a rare bungle, New York let him go for two ordinary players, and he quickly took hold of the Braves’ CF spot with a balance of offense and defense that averaged 3.4 WAR in his first two years. His bat bloomed in 1944 and especially in ’45, when he hit .352 and led the majors in hits, HRs, doubles, total bases, slugging, OPS and OPS+. He had the NL’s top WAR by a long shot, but lost the MVP vote to Cavarretta, who edged him for the batting crown on the final day. The 28 HRs were by far his best, accounting for almost one-third of his career total and more than his next two best years combined. Holmes remained a good player after the war, batting .315 over 1946-48, but with just 21 HRs.
In 1945, Holmes and teammate Workman (another lefty OF slugger) ranked #1-2 in HRs, but most of that came at Braves Field, where they combined for 37 of their 53 HRs; Holmes hit .408/1.170 there, .300/.837 away. Boston hit 68 of 101 HRs at home that year, and were #1 in home BA and OPS, but ranked just 5th in NL scoring. Holmes fell off quickly after age 31, hitting .281 in two more years of semi-regular play, as Braves Field morphed into a pitcher’s park. In 1951, he took a job as player-manager with Boston’s Eastern League affiliate, but returned to guide the big club after they fired Billy Southworth in June. Tommy got the ax the following May, after a slow start in the Braves’ gloomy last year in Boston, and wound up his MLB career in a Brooklyn bench role.
Gauging his wartime peak is difficult, as it coincided with his natural peak age of 27-28. You couldn’t say he fattened up against the weakest teams: Out of 122 players with 300+ PAs against winning clubs in 1944-45, Holmes was 2nd in BA (.333) and 3rd in OPS. Against the Cardinals, the class of NL pitching in those years, he hit .360/1.091 in 199 PAs, both tops by far among 43 players with 100+ PAs. (See table at bottom for 1944-45 splits against winning and losing teams.)
Who was Jim Russell? A key to Pittsburgh’s surprising 90-win ’44 season, along with Barrett and Dahlgren from the list above, he later teamed with Holmes for Boston’s ’48 pennant. The Bucs bagged Russell in a minor-league draft after he romped through a class-B league; they seasoned him one more year at the top rung, then gave him the LF job in 1943. He held his own with a 102 OPS+ that year, and led all left fielders in assists. In ’44, he ranked top-10 in BA, OBP, runs scored and runs created, while pacing the league’s LFs in range, assists and DPs.
Russell followed that up with another good year, making him one of 15 players to clear 80 RC in both 1944-45. In ’46 he fell off a bit more, but still ranked 11th in NL runs created. After a down ’47, he was dealt to the Braves, where he played two-thirds time and was solid on both ends, but he got hurt in August and missed the World Series. Russell got back to full-time in ’49, but didn’t hit, and then played out the string in Brooklyn. (Each Russell trade involved another on this list, Johnny Hopp and Luis Olmo.)
In the table below, note that Russell had the largest negative OPS gap between winning and losing opponents; also 9th largest out of 143 players with 200+ PAs both ways in 1944-45.
Johnny Hopp had a career year in 1944, but (a) he was 27, the most common peak age, and (b) some of that peak value came just from playing more that year than any other. He hit well in 1941, earning some MVP votes, and was a ’46 All-Star, hitting .333. His 1950 rates were almost the same as ’44, but in one-third fewer trips. Taking in his career arc, including his minor-league record, it could be mere coincidence that his best year came under such conditions.
Not-so-fun fact: Hopp’s .160 slugging average in the World Series is the worst of the 288 players with at least 7 Series hits. He went 8 for 50, all singles.
Phil Cavarretta‘s raw numbers for 1944-45 were by far his best, ranking #1-2 in almost every measure among his 14 years as a regular. But like Robin Yount, he was a regular from age 18; both needed several years to get their bats going. Cavarretta started to break out in 1940, age 23, but he got hurt just when he was hot, and missed half the year. For 1940-42 combined, his 122 OPS+ was 30th out of 115 players with 1,000 PAs. He raised that to 136 for 1943-44 (age 26-27), then led the majors in BA and OBP for 1945, leading the Cubs to the Series, where he hit .423.
A strong ’46 followed, placing 3rd with a 139 OPS+ and .401 OBP. His next 5 years were solid, but back down to his pre-war hitting level, while injuries cut his playing time; and his last 4 seasons were strictly bench stuff.
Cavarretta’s 1945 spike owed a lot to his work against weak teams (see table), which was not true of him generally; his career edge against sub-.500 teams was less than the norm for his era. That MVP year was the one time that he crushed losing teams, batting .443 off the league’s two worst staffs, but .265 off the Cardinals (plus his own Cubs hurlers were by far the best). I think that makes his MVP among the more suspect of big wartime years, but he did have several other years of high-caliber hitting.
Dixie Walker hit .300 or better in 10 of 13 years as a regular, but his .357 BA in 1944 was 38 points above his next-best mark, his 172 OPS+ 35 points better. Yet for every reason to call it a fluke, there’s a counterpoint. He was 33 in that big year; but he was a late bloomer, posting his seven best full-time OPS+ marks age 30-36. He was playing in Ebbetts Field; but that park favored pitchers during the war, as the balata ball dampened the park’s HR-friendly nature. (Brooklyn hit only 27 HRs at home in ’44.) You can’t dispute the talent depletion; but the best pitching that year belonged to the Cardinals and Reds, and Walker hit .370 against them.
So give his big year a markdown, yes, but don’t make it a Groupon. Walker hit .319 for 1943-45 combined, and .314 for 1946-48. He was a hitter.
Ron Northey is a rare modern case of a young MLB star who went on to log more minor-league time after that stardom than before, and wound up playing almost as much in the bushes as in the show. As a prospect, he was sold by the A’s to the Phillies before ’42, going from a team that ran last in 5 of the prior 7 years to one with a 4-year cellar skein of 100+ losses. The Phils made it five straight in Northey’s undistinguished rookie year, but both improved much in 1943; Philly gained 22 wins and broke out of the basement, while Northey began to make good on the power potential he’d shown hitting 31 bombs in his first pro season. He stepped up again the next year, among the ’44 NL’s top seven in OPS+, RBI, total bases, and each kind of extra-base hit. For Phillies age 24 or under, it was the second-best offensive season of the live-ball era to date. And while his outfield range was limited, he led NL flycatchers with 24 assists and 7 DPs.
Northey had been classed 4-F for the service, but those players were reviewed in 1945, and he was drafted. He homered in the first game of his ’46 return, and finished with 16 taters; in a low-scoring NL campaign, Northey ranked 5th in HRs, 6th in slugging and extra-base hits, despite missing 26 games. A slow start in ’47 led to a trade for Harry “The Hat” Walker, who had seemed washed-up the year before but surged to the batting title (and joined brother Dixie in that accomplishment).
Northey became a platoon man for the Cardinals, and while that helped produce near career-best rates for 1947-48, it cut back his playing time more than you’d think. With their three best hitters swinging lefty — Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter and Northey — the late-’40s Cardinals faced more southpaws than righties, an unprecedented portside parade. Northey slumped in ’49, though he hit well down the stretch. The Cards blew the pennant with 4 straight losses in the final week, twice falling to mediocre lefties while Northey sat. That fall, he was shipped to the Reds, again for Harry the Hat (who truly was finished this time). He remained a productive platoon man that year, through a mid-season trade to the Cubs, with two game-breaking pinch-hits in his last three outings.
Knee surgery cost Northey all of 1951, and although he broke camp with the Cubs the next spring, he was farmed out after just one PH appearance, and remained in the minors for 3-1/2 seasons. His bat was still potent, putting him in the 1953 I.L. leaders in HRs and OBP. But with Ralph Kiner and Hank Sauer already aboard, the Cubs had no use for another lumbering outfielder. So Northey shuffled off to Buffalo, Detroit’s top farm team, posting even better numbers. That just got him dealt to Charleston, an independent team in the American Association, which he ravaged at a .344/1.047 clip.
During that ’55 season, he was acquired by the Giants and then the White Sox, who finally brought him up for the last month. For the rest of that year and the next, Northey was the game’s best pinch-hitter, walloping at a .380/1.144 pace, with 25 RBI in just 50 ABs. For his career as a PH with bags full, Northey went 10 for 22 with 3 slams. And his 9 career pinch-HRs tied for the most during that span.
For his post-war career, Northey had a 123 OPS+, #32 out of 241 players with 1,500 PAs in that span.
And finally …
Snuffy Stirnweiss played football in college and was drafted by the fledgling NFL, but signed with the Yankees instead at age 21. Superb all-around play in the Piedmont League — .307 BA, .510 SLG, great range and sure hands at 2B — brought a late-season promotion to Newark in 1940. He spent the next two years with the Bears, whose 1941 edition is considered one of the greatest minor-league teams. They went 100-54, won the flag by 10 games, and featured 28 future or former big-leaguers, at least seven of whom would draw MVP votes in the majors — Stirnweiss, Tommy Holmes, Johnny Lindell, Hank Borowy, Hank Majeski, Russ Christopher and Tommy Byrne.
Stirnweiss didn’t excel at the bat in either of his Newark years, posting a .340 OBP with modest power. But his speed and daring stood out: 73 steals in 1942, 40 more than anyone else in the three highest farm leagues, and thrown out just 9 times. The stolen base had gone out of fashion with the high-octane ’30s; from 1932-42, only the Senators’ George Case had swiped 40 in a season, but wartime was bringing it back. Stirnweiss won the Yankees’ shortstop job in 1943 (Joe Gordon was guarding second), but by July 4 he was hitting just .217 and slugging .257, and he started just 12 of the last 92 games, finishing at .219 with but 11 SB in 20 attempts.
Under normal conditions, that could have been curtains for Snuffy in pinstripes. But Gordon joined the Army in ’44, giving Stirnweiss a crack at his natural position. After an up-and-down start, he caught fire in July and hit .352/.948 with 34 steals in the second half. He finished at .319, led the majors with 205 hits, 55 steals and 125 runs, led the AL with 16 triples, and was one behind Lindell in total bases. Just a monster year. Those 125 runs were a team record for 2B that lasted to 2002, and were 18.5% of the team total — about what Ruth had in his 177-run year. On defense, he led AL second-sackers in what-have-you, and racked up the AL’s best dWAR, leading to the total WAR crown.
The next year was a carbon copy, pacing the AL in BA, SLG, OPS and OPS+, runs, hits, total bases and triples, topping both leagues in steals, dWAR and WAR. He’s still the only 2B ever with 6+ oWAR and 2+ dWAR in two seasons.
But the boys came home, the clock struck midnight, and Snuffy’s stick turned into a pumpkin. In ’46, playing 3B with Gordon returned, his BA sank to .251, while his OPS plunged by .204. The team still had faith, trading Gordon that winter. But two similar years followed; his steals withered and died. Snuffy still was a plus hitter for the position, his 89 OPS+ placing 6th among regulars for 1946-48, and his glovework made him 4th in 2B total WAR. But he turned 30 that fall; time marches on, and so did the Yankees. In ’49, Stirnweiss lost his job to Jerry Coleman, and he didn’t bat once in the Series. He was dealt to the Browns the next spring, and hit .216 in his final two years.
Snuffy’s post-war OPS+ wound up at 83 (in over 2,500 PAs), compared to 142 in his big years. And in the final analysis, there’s no one else like him. No other hit so well in the depths of wartime, yet was so ordinary outside that period in a substantial span that included prime age seasons.
This table shows OPS+ of the eight featured players, in their big season(s) during 1944-45 and in their 3 best years of regular play outside wartime (90 games or 300 PAs). Figures are unweighted:
|Big WWII OPS+||Next 3 OPS+||Diff.|
|Stirnweiss (2 yrs)||142||89||-53|
|Holmes (2 yrs)||152||122||-30|
|Russell (2 yrs)||130||104||-26|
|Lindell (1 yr)||138||114||-23|
|Cavarretta (2 yrs)||152||130||-22|
|Walker (2 yrs)||150||131||-19|
|Hopp (1 yr)||150||134||-16|
|Northey (1 yr)||145||131||-14|
Stirnweiss was 26 in 1945, and stayed healthy enough to average 140 games in the next three years. He retained his batting eye; both his walk rate and BB/SO ratio were better after the war. But he just didn’t drive the ball like he had; his BAbip fell from .345 in 1944-45 to .279 in 1946-48, and his bases per hit fell by 14%.
What he lost, above all, were the marshmallow opponents. In 1944-45, he hit .283/.770 against winning teams, .344/.939 against losers — the 3rd-largest OPS gap among 61 players with 1,000 PAs in those years. In the next three seasons, he hit .256/.688 against winners (losing .082 of OPS compared to his peak), and just .251/.683 against losers (OPS down by .256). His ability to hit big-league pitching hadn’t changed so much, but now he saw only the real major leaguers.
The four worst AL staffs in Snuffy’s big years were the ’44 Indians, ’45 ChiSox, and Boston both years. He hit .344 against them. The best four staffs were the Tigers and Browns both years; Stirnweiss hit .278 against them. Had the league been at full strength in his best years, I can believe he would have been a plus hitter, but I can’t conceive of him as a batting star.
But while most of those with fluke wartime peaks were average to poor defensive outfielders — your Chuck Workmans and Buster Adamses — Stirnweiss was an outstanding middle infielder, making him a valuable player even at his post-war batting level. As far as I can see, that combination makes him unique. But I’ll throw the floor open to your nominations.
Batting vs. Winners & Losers
For the 18 in our original list, this table shows their 1944-45 splits against winning and losing teams. The column headed “OPS +/-” is their (OPS vs. winners) minus (OPS vs. losers). Take this with two caveats: (1) a team’s W-L record is not a direct pitching measure, and (2) there’s quite a difference between a .503 team like the ’45 Indians and a .682 team like the ’44 Cards. Even so, I think it has some place in this discussion.
Subscribe to: RSS feed