George H. "Snuffy" Stirnweiss, Class of 1936
Professional Baseball Player
George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss was born in Manhattan on October 26, 1918, but his family soon moved to Van Nest Avenue in the Bronx. His father, Andrew, Sr., was a policeman, and his mother, Sophie Daly Stirnweiss, was a homemaker. They raised George and his brother, Andrew, in a two-family house shared by Henry and Mary Stirnweiss, George’s German immigrant grandparents. Though the neighborhood around Morris Park Avenue was expanding rapidly in those days, the area was still fairly rural. As recalled years later in the Kent Good Times Dispatch by George’s brother, Andrew, Prep Class of 1941, cows and farms were still common during his boyhood when the borough was still remote from the rest of the city.
Coming from Public School 83, George entered Fordham Prep in 1932 and graduated in 1936, the same year that he led the Prep to the New York City Catholic High School Baseball Championship. He had also played some basketball along the way, and quarterbacked the Prep to winning football seasons in 1933, 1934 and 1935. Baseball historians debate how exactly Stirnweiss acquired the nickname “Snuffy” — some say it was his habit of using snuff, others cite allergies or sinus problems (which along with an ulcer prevented him from serving during the war), and still others refer to old Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comics. While at the Prep, however, George answered to another moniker, “Rabbit,” on account of his legendary speed.
Rabbit excelled at one other Prep athletic endeavor: handball. In fact, “Stirney” — another of George’s diminutives at Fordham — won the 1934 underclassman intramurals handball crown, interestingly foreshadowing another future member of the Yankees organization, Daniel Fiorito, Class of 2008 who during his Prep years became “The Father of Shmolley,” a handball-type game invented at the Prep in the early 21st century.
After his Hughes Hall days, with the guidance of his Prep coach, Fordham legend and fellow Hall of Honor inductee, Earl “Zev” Graham, Stirnweiss left Rose Hill with an athletic scholarship for the University of North Carolina. At North Carolina, he became a key runner-passer-punter for the Tarheels. He started at quarterback his sophomore year, and during the next three years the Tarheels won 21 games, lost only four, and tied three games. North Carolina’s opponents during this period included Duke and Tulane, as well as eastern powerhouses like NYU and Fordham with its “Seven Blocks of Granite.” In George’s senior year of football at UNC, the team was ranked number 12 in the nation as he quarterbacked them to an 8-1-1 record. His performance earned him a second team All-American berth.
Stirnweiss graduated North Carolina in 1940, the recipient of the school’s prestigious Patterson Medal for his accomplishments in baseball and football. He was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League, though the New York Football Giants actually signed him. Baseball had his heart, though, and “the chunky son of a Bronx policeman,” as the papers would dub him, heeded his father's advice and chose to play with the New York Yankees instead, who would buy out his contract from the Giants. He started his career in the summer of 1940 with the Norfolk Tars, a Piedmont League Yankee farm team, but was promoted to the Newark Bears in the International League by the end of the season.
Stirnweiss won over the hearts of many fans during his years with Newark, but of one in particular, Jayne Powers, a hardball fan through and through, and the great love of George’s life. He would court her through his minor league days and they would marry in the spring of 1943, his first year in the majors with the Yankees. He was quoted at the time as saying, “Gosh, it’s great to be young and a Yankee!”
Three seasons into his major league career, Stirnweiss won the American League batting championship with a .309 average, beating Tony Cuccinello of the White Sox by .00009. He had also led the league in total hits in 1944 and 1945, (205 and 195 respectively), and was a prolific base stealer, leading the American League with 45 in 1944 and with 33 in 1945. He won three World Series rings with the Yankees (1943, 1947 and 1949) and was a member of the 1946 All-Star Team. He led the league with triples in two consecutive seasons (1944 and 1945), a feat not repeated until 2005 and 2006 by José Reyes of the New York Mets. In 1948, he made only five errors and set a major league a record with a .993 fielding percentage.
Critics sometimes disparaged Snuffy’s baseball accomplishments because he played for the Yankees during the war years, when other players were in the military. But Babe Ruth objected to that assessment, saying of Snuffy, “That sawed-off runt playing second base is the only ball player who could’ve gotten a uniform when the Yankees really had a ball club.”
The Yanks traded him to the St. Louis Browns in 1950, and he went to the Cleveland Indians the following year. He would go on to manage minor league teams in Schenectady and Binghamton, NY, retiring from baseball in 1956. Yankee shortstop and baseball broadcasting legend Phil Rizzuto had a fond memory of Stirnweiss from August of that year. Snuffy happened to be at Yankee Stadium for Oldtimers Day and ran into Rizzuto in the hallway just after Phil found out that he’d been cut from the team. According to an account of this incident that appeared in Newsday after Rizzuto’s death, Phil was ready to find some reporters and pop off against the Yankees when he ran into Snuffy. Stirnweiss talked Rizzuto down, kept him clear of the press, and insisted that Phil and his wife join the Stirnweisses for a few days in the Catskills. “He was an angel,” Rizzuto would later wrote, adding that his subsequent celebrated career as a broadcaster might never have happened if he had publicly blasted the team that day.
Soon after Snuffy hung up his glove, he entered the banking field with the Federation Bank and Trust, but in June of 1957, though still a young man, he suffered a heart attack and spent a year convalescing. Returning to work in 1958, Stirnweiss joined Caldwell & Company on Wall St. as a foreign freight agent, though baseball was still in his blood, and shortly before his death, he had taken charge of the sandlot baseball program for the New York Journal-American newspaper.
George Henry Stirnweiss died on September 15, 1958. The Jersey Central train he was taking from Red Bank, New Jersey to Manhattan ran through an open drawbridge and plunged into Raritan Bay, killing nearly 50 people, including Snuffy, who according to his brother had barely made the train when it left Red Bank. By some reports, when George’s body was finally retrieved, he was holding a rosary.
George and Jayne had six children: Susan, Barbara, George, Jr., Edward, Catherine and Mary Ellen. At the time of the tragedy, the youngest was just 17 months old. Before the accident, Snuffy and Jayne had also begun the paperwork which would eventually lead to adopted son Gerard joining the family years later. Of all the honors Stirnweiss received during his career, he often said that was most proud of being named “Father of the Year” by Major League Baseball in 1946.
The Stirnweisses were known for their love of children. They were frequent visitors to hospitals and orphanages, were involved in programs benefitting underprivileged children, and were generous supporters of local youth athletics and Catholic education. The gymnasium at Red Bank Catholic High School, where Snuffy was an avid volunteer, speaker and fundraiser, was named in his honor. A portion of the Stirnweiss Building was integrated into the rebuilt Red Bank Catholic Student Center, dedicated in 2013.
George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss was an extraordinary second baseman, but more than that, he was an extraordinary husband, father and friend with an abiding concern for the welfare of the young boys and girls of his community — a remarkable legacy.
“I still miss George. He is my best friend” — the words of Fr. Matthew O’Rourke, fellow member of the Class of 1939, thinking back decades later on his old buddy Rabbit and their time together at the Prep.