It's perhaps difficult to blame Jim Steiner for "jumping" to the Mexican League for the 1946 season. Once there, unlike several other American ballplayers who made the move, Steiner stayed for a few seasons.
Steiner began his pro career as a teenager and put in 11 seasons in minor-league ball (four times batting over .300) before making the majors in the wartime 1945 season. He was six feet tall and listed at 185 pounds. He threw right-handed, but batted left. Some databases list him as Red Steiner; he was hardly ever referred to as anything but Jim in newspaper coverage during the years he played.
He was born James Harry Steiner on January 7, 1915, in Los Angeles to Ignatius Steiner and Helen (Hack) Steiner. Ignatius had come to the United States from his native Austria, and worked as a baker for the Bradford Baking Co. Young James attended schools in L.A., including McKinley Junior High School and Jefferson High, which he attended through the 11th grade.
In completing a questionnaire for the American League Service Bureau, Steiner said his life's ambition had always been to play baseball.1
He played American Legion and semipro baseball in the Los Angeles area, and was playing for the R. L. Colburn Brokers semipro team against the Catalina Cubs when he was spotted and signed by Oscar Reichow for the Chicago Cubs' farm team, the Pacific Coast League's Los Angeles Angels.2 Reichow, a former sportswriter, was business manager for the Angels at the time. The Angels in turn placed him with their Class-CWestern Association affiliate in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Steiner only got into five games for Ponca City in 1934, but he was 5-for-14 with a home run. A broken leg cut his season short. In 1935, leg repaired, he hit .324 over the course of 128 games, and drove in 102 runs, prompting a promotion to the L.A. club, where again he showed well in a brief stint, coincidentally again going 5-for-14.
On August 12, Steiner married Miss Thelma Boone in a public ceremony prior to the evening's ballgame at Ponca City.3 The couple later had one child, James Ortus Steiner.
His 1936 season began in Ponca City (.274 in 29 games), before he was recalled to Los Angeles on July 13, and hit .202 in 53 games. Ponca City may have seemed like the boondocks to a young catcher from L.A. Steiner once told Bob Ray of the Los Angeles Times that pitchers didn't have to throw at batters there to keep them loosened up at the plate: "There are so many grasshoppers down there that one is banging you on the side of the face or in the neck most of the time you're at the plate."4
Steiner trained with Los Angeles in 1937, but was optioned out the day before Opening Day and spent the next three seasons (1937 through 1939) playing in the Three-I League for the Moline Plow Boys. Averaging just under 100 games a year, he hit for a combined .302 batting average.
In 1940, Steiner caught for the Tulsa Oilers in the Texas League. He hit .257 in 114 games. After the season, he left the Cubs' system for that of the Boston Braves, signed to Boston's National League club by Jack Onslow.5 In December 1940, he was purchased by the Bees (they were the Bees from 1936 through 1940 before reverting to the Braves name). The Bees placed him with their Single-A Eastern League club, the Hartford Bees. He hit.261 in 107 games.
Steiner was very solid defensively; his fielding percentage was typically in excess of .980 throughout his career, his worst record being .969 in 1943 for Jersey City.
Steiner decided not to play baseball in 1942, but changed his mind after an automobile accident at the end of spring training took the lives of Hartford catcher Al Montgomery and outfielder Ralph Younker. Steiner was the catcher in the May 29 game against Springfield when Warren Spahn had a no-hitter going into the ninth inning until a pinch-hitter broke it up with a leadoff single. He was hitting .261 when he was sold to Indianapolis on August 30. Before the year was out, his contract was sold again, to Jersey City on December 4, 1942. Upon the sale to Jersey City, Steiner was described by the Hartford Courant as "never a lusty hitter at the plate, Jim was a workhorse behind the plate and well liked by Hartford fans."6
He held a defense job during the offseason and in March decided he would stick with the job and not return to baseball. Nevertheless, there he was in a Jersey City Giants uniform, appearing in 112 games and batting .225 in 1943.
In 1944 he declined to report, uncertain as he was about his draft status. Partway into the season, he was able to purchase his own contract from Jersey City for $2,500 and signed with the Pacific Coast League's Sacramento Solons, where he had an excellent year, batting .312 in 95 games. In August he was reclassified 1-A, but nothing came of it. On September 28 he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for three players. On the final day of the 1944 season, he was voted by fans as the most popular player on the Solons.7
Steiner's long-awaited major-league debut came on May 11, when Cleveland hosted the Boston Red Sox at League Park. The Red Sox won, 8-4, but Steiner was 2-for-3 with two RBIs after entering the game in the sixth inning, an excellent way to break into the big leagues. He was 1-for-3 the following day, bringing his average down to .500. Unfortunately, he never got another base hit for the Indians, despite appearing in 10 more games, the last eight as a pinch-hitter. Every game, his average drifted lower, except for the one game he walked. After a dozen appearances, he was batting .150.
After his career, Steiner said that he felt his most outstanding moment in baseball was in 1945, playing in Yankee Stadium and catching while Bob Feller was pitching.8 On August 10 Steiner was sold to the Red Sox for the $7,500 waiver price, and catcher Fred Walters was optioned to Louisville. (On August 2, they had optioned another Steiner to Louisville, second baseman Ben Steiner. The two were not related.)9 Steiner got more playing time with the Red Sox than he had with the Indians, appearing in 26 games and batting .203 with four RBIs. He drew 14 bases on balls, so earned a respectable .356 on-base percentage. In 91 combined chances, he only committed one error, for the Red Sox.
In early November, his contract was sold to Sacramento. With so many veteran ballplayers coming back from military service, his time in the big leagues was done.
Steiner played winter ball in Mexico. Initially a holdout with Sacramento, he could not come to terms and instead signed with the Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes in the Mexican League for the 1946 season, despite a warning by Commissioner Albert Chandler that anyone who did would face a five-year ban from Organized Baseball. Only a few days after he joined the Tecos, he expressed dissatisfaction and talked about returning to Sacramento. But he stuck it out, playing for Nuevo Laredo in 1946 and then with the Veracruz team in 1947. In the winter, he played Cuban ball for Alacranes (.286 in 262 at-bats in the 1947-48 season), and in a very few games for Santiago. He's not seen playing elsewhere in 1948, apparently because of incomplete records; sources do say he played four years in the Mexican League. He was with Nuevo Laredo again in 1949. When teammate George Hausmann quit and said he would apply to National League President Ford Frick for reinstatement, Steiner said he would not and that he "was better off" in the Mexican League than in the American minor leagues.10
Steiner later talked about his experiences in Mexican League baseball, where he'd hit between .280 and .285 each year, but he said that playing only three games a week made it more difficult to stay in shape. He spent much of his spare time hunting or going to bullfights.11
He played out the 1949 season with the Tecolotes, but on February 15, 1950, signed again with Sacramento. Reinstated, he played in 138 games for Sacramento, batting .268. In early 1951, his contract was sold to the Memphis Chicks; both Sacramento and Memphis had working agreements with the Chicago White Sox. Steiner refused to report, and was placed on the voluntarily retired list.
Steiner took up work as a leadman for Rockwell International, living in Gardena, California. He died in Gardena on November 16, 2001.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Steiner's player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Rod Nelson of SABR's Scouts Committee, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 The completed questionnaire is in Steiner's player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
2 Handwritten note by Steiner in his player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
3 Bob Ray, "The Sports X-Ray," Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1935: 14. The year before another player had been married on the field before the game, and it prompted a big turnout of fans for that day's game.
4 Bob Ray, "The Sports X-Ray," Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1936: 13.
5 "Senators Purchase Steiner From Tulsa," Hartford Courant, December 7, 1940: 15, referring to the Hartford Senators. See also W. J. Lee, "With Malice Toward None," Hartford Courant, January 22, 1941: 11.
6 "Jim Steiner Sold to Jersey City," Hartford Courant, December 5, 1942: 9. Sports editor Bill Lee later wrote a lengthier appraisal of Steiner in the May 15, 1945 Courant, writing that Steiner "was not the spectacular sort…[but] a good, hard-working competent and faithful catcher who didn't let up from the time he stuck that big chaw of tobacco into his jaw until the twenty-seventh opposition batter had been retired…He is my kind of ball player."
7 "Solons Will Get Three Players for Steiner," Sacramento Bee, September 28, 1944: 26.
8 Player questionnaire for the Hall of Fame, also located in Steiner's player file. The two never occurred on the same day. In fact, Steiner never actually caught Feller in a major-league game, and he made outs the only two times he batted at Yankee Stadium.
9 Though it might seem unusual for a team to have two unrelated players with the same surname on the team, in the 1940s alone the Sox had Skeeter Newsome/Dick Newsome, Jimmie Foxx/Pete Fox, Bob Johnson/Vic Johnson, and (for that matter) Joe Wood and Pinky Woods.
10 United Press, "Quits at Nuevo Laredo," New York Times, June 7, 1949: 35.
11 It is worth reading more of his thoughts on how Mexican baseball developed over the four seasons he was there. See a McClatchy News Service story which ran in several newspapers, e. g., "Home Looks Good to Steiner, Back from Mexico," Sacramento Bee, March 2, 1950: 20.