SABR

Terry Steinbach

This article was written by Herb Schaper and Stew Thornley.

Terry Steinbach grew up in an athletic family that focused on the fun of the games they played. Although he didn’t give a lot of thought to college scholarships or professional aspirations during his formative years, Steinbach took his baseball talents to a 14-year career in the major leagues that included three World Series and three appearances in the All-Star Game.

Terry Lee Steinbach was born March 2, 1962, to Lloyd and Burnell “Nellie” Steinbach in New Ulm, a hotbed for amateur baseball in south-central Minnesota. Lloyd worked for the 3M Company in New Ulm and also with Marco out of Mankato, Minnesota, as a service technician for office copiers in addition to coaching youth sports. Nellie was a cook at the school. (“I think she did that to keep an eye on us,” Terry said.)

Terry is the third son, behind Tim and Tom, and also has a younger sister, Tracy, another good athlete who played hockey and softball. Along with his siblings as well as other neighborhood kids and friends, Terry spent a lot of time in the Steinbach backyard, playing games with improvised rules. “We did a ton of stuff in our backyard,” said Steinbach. “We had to be creative, make up our own games.”

The family attended games of the Brewers and Kaiserhoff, the New Ulm town teams, at Johnson Field and picked up cracked bats.   They broke some of them in two and used the short end for the backyard stickball games. A tennis ball hit into the garden or clothes on the line was an out, a drive off the side of the garage was a double, and those coming down on the top of the garage or the roof of the Baptist Church gym, across the alley, were home runs. “We just played baseball for fun,” said Steinbach, adding that competing with his older brothers meant he was “always playing up” and helped with his development as a player.

At New Ulm High School, Steinbach played football in ninth grade and ran on the cross-country team for three years, although his best sports were hockey and baseball. A typical spring and summer for Steinbach was baseball for the New Ulm Eagles high-school team, followed by more baseball with VFW and American Legion teams.

Steinbach started playing VFW ball at the age of 12. Four years later, in 1978, he played for the New Ulm American Legion team that won the state tournament (with Steinbach beating out Bloomington’s Kent Hrbek for the Most Valuable Player award) and the regional tournament in Rapid City, South Dakota, advancing to the American Legion World Series.

In 1980, after graduating from high school, Steinbach played for the Kaiserhoff under manager Ken Brueske. The Kaiserhoff produced a 14-2 regular-season record and went on to win the Class B state amateur championship. Steinbach hit two home runs in the championship game as the Kaiserhoff beat Dundas in 11 innings. With a batting average of .500 and 10 runs batted in (RBIs) in five games, Steinbach was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

The summer teams the Steinbachs played on included other fine players, including Jeff Schugel, a high-school teammate, and Doug Palmer, who had gone to Cathedral High School in New Ulm.

Steinbach didn’t give much thought to college coaches and professional scouts being at games, which kept him from pressing and possibly playing poorly. He said part of the reason was because of the attitudes of other New Ulm players he watched or played with. “In New Ulm, guys who were drafted or went to college didn’t have egos. It kept baseball in perspective for me.” 

Steinbach considered attending a Division II college in Iowa, where he would be able to play hockey and baseball. However, after being drafted in the 13th round by the Cleveland Indians in 1980, he started to think more seriously about his future in baseball. Steinbach had numerous offers from larger colleges for a baseball scholarship and settled for the Minnesota Gophers, where his brother, Tom, had just wrapped up a standout season as a freshman.

Tom and Terry were joined by brother Tim on the Gophers in 1981. Tim, who had graduated from New Ulm High School in 1977, played two years of baseball and hockey at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, before transferring to Minnesota. After sitting out a year because of the transfer, he joined the varsity, and the Gophers had three Steinbachs in the lineup.

Tim was a catcher while Terry played third base and Tom patrolled right field, often exhibiting his strong throwing arm. The Gophers finished first in the Big Ten West Division in 1981 (the first year the conference was split into divisions) but lost in the conference tournament. They went the other direction in 1982, finishing second in the West with an 8-8 conference record, but then won the Big Ten tournament and advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs. Steinbach had a .402 batting average in 1982 and drove in 65 runs, breaking the team record set by Tom Steinbach in 1981. (Both marks have since been surpassed by others.)

Steinbach had returned to the Kaiserhoff, along with many of his former teammates, in 1981, but in 1982 the group looked for the chance to play elsewhere. An avid outdoorsman, Steinbach hoped for an opportunity to play in the Alaska Summer League, but the invitation finally came after he had accepted an offer to play in the Cape Cod League on the East Coast. Even though it wasn’t Alaska, Steinbach enjoyed his time on the Cape, “having fun and living the life of a rock star.” Players were provided with jobs that allowed for their baseball schedule, working in the early morning and late afternoon before going to the ballpark. 

On the Cape, Steinbach played first base for the Cotuit Kettleers. He led the league with a .431 batting average and received the Pat Sorenti Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player.  Steinbach said the Cape Cod League was a valuable opportunity to play with more consistent competition. The Gophers played first-rate teams during the Texas spring trip and Big Ten schedule, but their season was mixed with a number of nonconference games with teams from smaller colleges in the area. On Cape Cod, Steinbach said almost all the players were Division I caliber.

The Gophers finished first in the Big Ten West in 1983 but lost in the conference tournament. After the season, both Tom and Terry went into the pro ranks. Tom signed with the Seattle Mariners organization and Terry, who decided to forego his senior year at Minnesota, with Oakland. At the time, Tom and Terry were one-two in career RBIs with the Gophers with 175 and 165, respectively. Tom also held the Gophers career mark for home runs with 45, a record that stood until Robb Quinlan broke it in the 1990s. Terry had a career .375 batting average, which at the time tied him for the team record with Greg Olson, who had wrapped up his college career in 1982 and, like Terry, would later play in the major leagues. In addition to the Steinbachs, the 1983 amateur draft by major-league teams included two other New Ulm players, Schugel and Palmer, who were drafted by the Minnesota Twins.

Tom and Terry were both assigned to short-season Class A teams in the Northwest League, Tom with Bellingham, Washington, and Terry with Medford, Oregon. They played against each other during the regular season and again in the league championship series, in which Medford defeated Bellingham. Terry hit .315 with six home runs and 38 RBIs in 62 games for Medford in 1983. 

Tom did not do as well, and his stay in the professional ranks was briefer. Terry notes the “luck in pro ball,” specifically that Oakland drafted players for only about 30-35 rounds in 1983 while Seattle, a team that had come into the majors only six years before, was still trying to stock its rosters and drafted through more than 50 rounds. This gave Terry the luxury of competing with a smaller mix of incoming players his first year while Tom got lost in the shuffle of all the players the Mariners had drafted. He was released by the Mariners after the 1983 season.

Terry progressed up the minor-league ladder. He came back to the region, playing for the Madison (Wisconsin) Muskies in the Class A Midwest League in 1984. His manager there was Brad Fischer, who was also Steinbach’s manager the next two years with Huntsville (Alabama) in the Class AA Southern League.

Steinbach didn’t begin catching until after his second year of pro ball. He had been hitting well, but the organization had a couple players in its system projected for the infield corners, Mark McGwire for third base and Rob Nelson at first base (Nelson did not last long with the A’s and McGwire eventually took over first base). After the 1984 season, the A’s sent Steinbach to the Arizona Instructional League to start catching.

Steinbach was a backup to Brian Dorsett at Huntsville in 1985, finding more time in the lineup as a designated hitter, but he became the starting catcher in 1986. He performed well, hitting .325 with 24 home runs and 132 RBIs, the latter figure breaking the league record of 122, set by Steve Balboni in 1980. Steinbach was named the Southern League MVP. However, it was a long summer, squatting behind the plate in the heat of the southern United States, made longer as Huntsville, which had won the Southern League title, advanced to the championship round again before losing to Columbus (Georgia).

Steinbach’s season earned him a promotion as a September call-up by the Oakland A’s, and he joined the team in Cleveland. On Friday night, September 12, Steinbach entered the game as a defensive replacement for catcher Mickey Tettleton. He then led off the seventh inning, facing left-hander Greg Swindell. Steinbach made it a memorable debut, becoming only the 60th player to homer in his first at-bat in the majors.

After the 1986 season, Steinbach had two days back in Minnesota before he and his wife, Mary, took off for winter ball with Licey in the Dominican Republic League. “I was fried,” he said of spending two more months catching in hot weather before he finally returned home in late December. He did mention that the money in the winter league, more than he earned in the minors, was helpful to the couple, who had married two years earlier.

Steinbach started the 1987 season sharing the catching duties, but when Tettleton slumped at the plate, Steinbach took over the number-one spot. He finished the year with a batting average of .284 with 16 home runs in 122 games (107 of them as a catcher). Besides exhibiting a solid bat, Steinbach did well behind the plate, particularly in throwing out runners trying to steal.

A freak injury early in the 1988 season put Steinbach on the disabled list; he was hit in the eye by a throw during batting and infield practice and suffered fractures around the orbital bone. He was still voted by the fans as the starting catcher for the American League in the All-Star Game, even though his batting average at the break was only .219.

While some questioned whether he deserved his spot on the All-Star team, Steinbach came through in the game itself. After two scoreless innings at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Steinbach led off the third with a home run to right off Dwight Gooden. In doing so, he became the first player ever to homer his first time up in the majors and his first time up in an All-Star Game. He came up the next inning with the bases loaded and hit a long fly to left, not quite far enough for a grand slam but deep enough to bring in from Dave Winfield from third. The sacrifice fly made the score 2-0, and the American League held on for a 2-1 win. By driving in both runs for his team, Steinbach was voted the All-Star Game MVP.

Oakland won the American League West Division and then swept the Boston Red Sox in the league playoffs. Steinbach hit .364 in the World Series, although the A’s lost in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers (a series best remembered for the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson winning the first game with a two-out, two-run homer run in the last of the ninth off Dennis Eckersley). 

The season concluded with Steinbach joining others from the summer All-Star team for a tour and series of games in Japan, an experience he enjoyed more than playing in the Dominican Republic League in 1986.

Steinbach was again the starting catcher in the All-Star Game in 1989, and Oakland repeated as the American League champions, this time winning the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, although it was overshadowed by the earthquake that struck the Bay Area prior to the third game. Steinbach had caught the first two games of the series (hitting a home run in Game Two) with Dave Stewart and Mike Moore on the mound for the Athletics, who won both games. Bob Welch was the Game Three starter, and his regular catcher was Ron Hassey, so Steinbach relaxed in the dugout as he awaited the pre-game ceremonies at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

“It got loud, we saw the overhang shake, and the dugout started shaking,” is how Steinbach described what happened. “It was a weird feeling.” The players jumped out of the dugout and initially did not realize the extent of the damage from the earthquake. The power in the stadium was out, but they thought it would be restored and the game still played. Soon they learned of how devastating the earthquake was. Steinbach found his wife and both were concerned about how their one-year-old daughter, Jill, and her babysitter were doing at their home across the bay in Oakland.

The World Series did not resume for another 10 days. When it did, Oakland defeated the Giants on Friday night to take a three-game-to-none lead. The next night, the Athletics got off to an early lead, and Steinbach padded it with a two-run triple in the fifth inning. He capped the game’s scoring with a bases-loaded walk in the eighth as Oakland won 9-6 to capture the world championship.

Oakland made it three straight pennants in 1990, although the Athletics were swept in the World Series by Cincinnati. Steinbach had one more appearance in the postseason, hitting .292 with a home run and five RBIs in 1992, although the Athletics were defeated in the league playoffs, four games to two, by the Toronto Blue Jays.

Steinbach loved the Oakland organization and described it as “a great way to learn the game.” He said Sandy Alderson and Walt Jocketty in the front office and manager Tony LaRussa “stressed the right attitude and effort.” He also noted how the organization brought in veteran leadership with players such as Don Baylor, Dave Henderson, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Parker to go with the young talent they were developed. (Oakland had three straight Rookies of the Year from 1986 to 1988 in Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss). Steinbach hung out with one of the veterans, Carney Lansford, who took him under his wing and taught him baseball and life lessons.

Steinbach’s biggest year with Oakland came in 1996 when he hit 35 home runs and drove in 100. (His previous highs in those categories were 16 and 67, respectively.) Steinbach’s 34 home runs as a catcher—one of his homers was as a pinch-hitter—set an American League record for the most home runs in a season by a catcher.

Steinbach was a free agent after the 1996 season and looked at the opportunity to go home. Terry and Mary, who had three children by this time (Jill and sons Lucas and Jake), maintained homes in Oakland and Minnesota as well as a place in Arizona for spring training. He said the constant shifting was not a problem for Jill but that Lucas, about to start school, might have had more trouble with it. 

The scene in Oakland had been changing. Walter Haas no longer owned the team, and LaRussa and Jocketty were also gone. Steinbach decided to make a change himself, signing with the Twins and enjoying the opportunity to come home and live full-time in Minnesota, even though it meant a cut in pay after his best season in the majors.

Steinbach provided a young team in Minnesota with veteran leadership over the next three seasons and, in the final month of his career, had the chance to catch his second no-hitter. The first was in 1990 with Dave Stewart as the pitcher. In a Saturday morning game on September 11, 1999, Steinbach caught the no-hitter of the Twins’ Eric Milton. He noted the difference in his roles in the games. Stewart was a veteran when he pitched his no-hitter and called his own game, using a wipe system if he wanted to change the catcher’s signal. “I did a lot of following with him,” Steinbach said of Stewart’s no-hitter. “Milton, however, I’m the veteran. I was more nervous than he was in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. He’s going to pretty much throw what I call, so I felt a tremendous amount more pressure not to blow it.”

In 2000, Steinbach went back to playing with the Kaiserhoff in New Ulm, although he had a couple of exciting offers. One was to catch the second half of the season with the St. Louis Cardinals, a chance to work again for Tony LaRussa, who was managing the Cardinals. The other was to play for the U. S. team in the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

He and his family went to their lake home to decide which opportunity to follow. However, Steinbach then tore his hamstring from the bone while waterskiing and wasn’t able to do either.

Steinbach plays in a 35-and-older league for the Hanska Bullheads that plays along the Hwy. 19 corridor to the west and south of the Twin Cities. He likes the shorter games (batters start with a 1-and-1 count) and that there are only two games a week. Brothers Tom (who had continued to play for many years with the Kaiserhoff) and Tim are also on the Hanska team. Steinbach says that getting “caught up in the hype of big-league ball” could cause a person to “lose sight of the love of the game that comes back with the town ball.”

He’s had offers to play in the Roy Hobbs Tournament in Florida each November, but he doesn’t allow anything to interfere with hunting in the fall. (Steinbach even skipped a team reception with President George Bush at the White House following Oakland’s 1989 championship so he could go hunting.)

Steinbach has long been involved in the communities where he has played and lived. He now has an endowment, funded by money he receives for autograph requests, that is used for scholarships to students at the New Ulm high schools. “It keeps me on top of the fan mail,” he says of the charitable program.

Steinbach still works with catchers with the Twins during spring training and also helps coach the Wayzata High School varsity baseball team.

In early 2002, Steinbach was inducted into the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame along with Darin Erstad, Chuck Knoblauch, and Robin Ventura.

Steinbach was one of several native Minnesotans who caught in the major leagues in the 20th century. The list includes Wes Westrum, Tim Laudner, Brad Gulden (who was also born in New Ulm), Tim McIntosh, Greg Olson, and Don Wheeler. Among that group, Steinbach has the best career batting average (.271) and slugging percentage (.420). His career includes more than 1,500 games and 5,000 official at-bats. In the field, he had exactly 8,400 putouts and assists and exactly 100 errors for a fielding percentage of .988. 

In addition to 1,381 games behind the plate, Steinbach played 62 at first base, 22 at third, 15 in the outfield, and he was the designated hitter 69 times. He had more than 100 hits in 10 of his 13 full seasons. Steinbach finished his career with 162 home runs, approximately one every 33 official at-bats.

Notes

Carl “Red” Wyczawski also provided information for this biography.

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

Interview by Schaper and Thornley with Terry Steinbach, February 15, 2008.

“Don’t Pinch Steinbach” by Kit Stier, The Sporting News, September 29, 1986, p. 21.

“Steinbach Learns, Earns” by Kit Stier, The Sporting News, June 29, 1987, p. 15.

“Unlikely Star, Improbable Script: Steinbach Leaves Boldest Signature on A. L.’s 2-1 All-Star Victory” by Dennis Dillon, The Sporting News, July 25, 1988, p. 16.

“New Ulm Has Had Its Share of Professional Ballplayers” by Carl Wyczawski, Johnson Park: 50 Years of New Ulm Baseball Tradition, Volume One, 1989, pp. 20-25.

“Steinbach Reflects on Great 1988 Season” by Jim “Red” Bastian, Johnson Park: 50 Years of New Ulm Baseball Tradition, Volume One, 1989, pp. 33-35.

“Many Involved in ‘Stats,’” Johnson Park: 50 Years of New Ulm Baseball Tradition, Volume One, 1989, p. 36.

“Cold Sweet Home” by E. M. Swift, Sports Illustrated, January 27, 1997, p. 56.

“Steinbach, Raabe Suit Up for ‘K’” by Jim Bastian, New Ulm Journal, June 3, 2000.

“Terry Steinbach: The Game I’ll Never Forget” by Al Doyle, Baseball Digest, July 2005, p. 76.

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