The Fortunes of War

The other day I was talking with my son the genius (everyone agrees he gets it from his mother). He suggested looking at the guys World War II made into stars. We talked for a while ironing out exactly what he meant and this is the result (so if you think this is a bust, blame him). 

There were three categories of people involved in our discussion (Pete Gray is in a category by himself). First is those who were rising stars when the war broke out, continued to play well, and had at least a few good years after the war. People like Bill Nicholson, Spud Chandler, and especially Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser fit into this category. Second, those people who were retired or failed players who got back to the Major Leagues and had one last fling. These include guys like Tony Cuccinello who retired in 1941, then came back and almost won a batting title in 1945 and Johnny Dickshot who had played four undistinguished years in the National League (the last being in 1939), then came back to the Majors with the White Sox and had a great 1945. Finally, there were those guys who were either new or almost new,  had been nothing special, became stars during the war years, then disappeared as impact players almost immediately afterward. It’s that last group that we decided were worth a look. I picked two Yankees players as good examples of this type player. 

Nick Etten

NIck Etten got to the Major Leagues in late 1938 as a 27-year-old first baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics. He stayed on as a marginal player into June 1939, then was sent to Baltimore where he stayed until 1941. The Philadelphia Phillies picked him up and he stayed there through 1942. He hit .300 in 1941 and managed a total of 22 home runs and 120 RBIs in his stint with the Phils. So far not much of a career. 

Then in 1943 he made it to the New York Yankees. With the war in full swing and many of the better players gone Etten blossomed. He hit .271, had 14 home runs (tied for his career best), and 107 RBIs. His OPS was 775 and he had 245 total bases. The Yanks got to the World Series, winning it in five games. In 19 at bats, he got two hits (both singles), but did drive in two runs. 

He flourished in 1944 and 1945. In ’44 he won the AL home run title with 22 and also led the league in walks with 97 while putting up a 865 OPS.. The next year he hit only 18 homers but had a league leading 111 RBIs. with 90 walks, an OPS of 824, and made the All-Star Game. By 1946 the war was over and the pre-war regulars were back. Etten hit .232 with only nine home runs and 79 RBIs in 108 games. By 1947 he was back with the Phillies where he got into 14 games, hit .232 and had one home run. In May the Phils sent him back to New York and the Yanks failed to activate him. His career was over. He hit .277 (.283 during the war), with 89 home runs (54 during the war), and 526 RBIs (309 during the war). He died in 1990. 

Snuffy Stirnweiss

 Snuffy Stirnweiss is, to me, the quintessential World War II era player. He was born in 1918 and got to the big leagues in 1943 as a second baseman, replacing Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. He had a rough time in 1943, hitting .219 with no power and 11 stolen bases. He got into one game in the ’43 World Series and scored a run. He was a star for the next two years leading the AL in runs, hits, triples, and stolen bases both years and winning the batting title in 1945. He also led the league in OPS and slugging in 1945. 

With the return of the regulars, he became a run of the mill role player never hitting above .256. His postwar highest hit total was 146, he managed a high of 18 stolen bases, and his slugging percentage dropped (although he still had a decent OBP). He remained the Yankees primary second baseman through 1948 (remaining with the team into 1950), making the World Series in both 1947 and 1949. He hit .259 with a triple and three RBIs in the 1947 series and appeared in one game of the 1949 series without batting. 

The Yanks sent him to the St. Louis Browns in June 1950. He’d played all of seven games for New York. He had 50 games for Cleveland in 1951 and appeared in a single game for the Indians the next season. He was killed in a train wreck in 1958. 

For his career he hit .268 (.301 for the war) with 604 runs (266 for the war), and 989 hits (460 during the war). His longer career gives him a smaller ratio of hits and runs during the war than Etten, but his war years are huge compared to his postwar career. And before anyone asks, I have no idea where “Snuffy” comes from. 

There were a number of guys like this, but these two strike me as the best of the lot. They remind me of the NFL “replacement” players of  several years back, but they are significant in the history of the game. At least both Etten and Stirnweiss played for winners.

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2 Responses to “The Fortunes of War”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    Interesting topic. One has to wonder how many would-be baseball players never got to play in the Majors due to death, severe wounds, illness, etc., due to the war. Just another “hidden” tragedy of war.
    Nice job, Bill

  2. sportsphd Says:

    Bill,

    The player your comment makes me think of is Warren Spahn. When WW2 rolls around, he had pitched in a total of 4 MLB games and been sent back to the minors by Casey Stengel. He goes on to earn a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, while serving as a combat engineer during the Battle of the Bulge, among other places. Move the bullet that earned him the Purple Heart a couple of inches, and we go from one of history’s great left-handed pitchers to a terrible tragedy for Mr. and Mrs. Spahn.

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