Hank Steinbacher (TRADING CARD DB)

Hank Steinbacher

This article was written by Adam Klinker

Hank Steinbacher (TRADING CARD DB)Hank Steinbacher amassed 170 hits in his three-season big-league career. Fully 10 percent of them came in a seven-game flurry in June and July 1938. In that spate, the 25-year-old lefty hitter came to the plate 34 times and pounded out 17 hits, including four doubles, a triple, and a home run. He knocked in nine runs, scored nine, walked three times, and hit a sacrifice fly. Overall, he batted .567 and slugged .867.

Within that fusillade was a record-tying day on June 22, 1938. At Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the White Sox outfielder matched the American League mark by going 6-for-6 against the Washington Senators in a 16-3 Sox win.

Steinbacher finished that campaign, his second, with a .331 average to go with a .459 slugging percentage. Yet he never again had it so good. Steinbacher took clear-eyed stock of himself in an interview in early 1939. “‘I guess I am just an ordinary ball player,’” he said.1 Though his frame of reference was his modest personality rather than his baseball talent, after 1939, he was out of the majors — another might-have-been among the myriad of men to wear a big-league uniform. But for one sterling moment in a 16-year pro career, Steinbacher looked anything but ordinary.

Henry John Steinbacher was born March 22, 1913, in Sacramento, California. He was the second son of Charles, a teamster of German and Mexican parentage, and Anna (Sbarboro), the daughter of Italian immigrants. The young Hank and his brother, Charles, Jr., were joined over the next decade by three sisters — Ellen, Delores, and Rose. Hank attended Holy Angels School and then Sacramento High. A righty thrower, he started off as a catcher with the Junior Legion squads in his neighborhood. He also played, as a teenager, for several winter league outfits, including one sponsored by the Friend & Terry Lumber Company in Sacramento.2

Such were Steinbacher’s early successes that he was signed by the hometown Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League in 1929. He was then just 16 and playing with Great Western Power’s winter league squad.3 Still 10 days shy of his 17th birthday, Steinbacher dazzled Solons manager Buddy Ryan at a spring tryout camp, though a story in the Sacramento Bee said, “Perhaps a year of seasoning in a smaller league would ripen the lad to a point where he can step right into the coast circuit.”4

Eschewing a lower level, Steinbacher debuted for Sacramento — spelling an injured Myril Hoag — on June 17, 1930. He collected two hits and two walks, and scored a run to help blank Seattle, 3-0.5

The youngest regular on the team by three years, Steinbacher settled in like an old hand with future major leaguers including Dolph Camilli, Frank Demaree, and Stan Hack. Hack was Steinbacher’s roommate on the road in their first two seasons before Hack’s callup to the Chicago Cubs. In 1930, Steinbacher hit .314 in 59 games. He followed that up with a solid sophomore year, hitting .294 with 23 doubles as the Solons’ regular left fielder in 1931. In six seasons with the Solons, he hit at a .310 clip, piling up 1,015 hits, including 175 doubles, in 877 games. Even so, no big-league offers came Steinbacher’s way.

“Henry … had to leave home to be appreciated,” observed sportswriter Henry P. Edwards, the man to whom Steinbacher gave his “ordinary ballplayer” self-description in 1939.6

In 1936, Steinbacher moved east, joining the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. He was lured by the possibility of a clearer shot at the majors. He’d also impressed the Saints’ new manager, Gabby Street, who’d previously helmed the PCL’s Mission Reds.

Steinbacher had a breakout season that proved to be his best in professional ball. Hitting .353 with 15 homers and 49 doubles, the outfielder also presaged his 6-for-6 feat with the White Sox by going 6-for-6 in a game for the Saints, en route to collecting 11 hits in 11 at-bats.7

Steinbacher also compiled a long hitting streak with the Saints before he was purchased by the White Sox in August 1936.8 The streak was reported at 38, 42, or 47 games, depending on the source. A report in the August 7, 1936 Minneapolis Star says a scorekeeper’s slight in Kansas City ended Steinbacher’s streak at 38 games but that the team was petitioning for an error to be scored a hit, crediting Steinbacher with a 42-game streak, which would have set an American Association mark.9 Steinbacher cited a 47-game mark when interviewed in Sacramento in 1950.10 Baseball-Reference’s records of longest minor-league streaks make no mention of Steinbacher’s stretch, noting that the longest in the American Association is Eddie Marshall’s 43-game streak in 1935, tied by Howie Bedell in 1961.

A quiet man with a self-effacing personality, Steinbacher had a middling debut with the White Sox at the beginning of the 1937 season. He collected his first big-league hit off the Tigers’ Roxie Lawson on May 2 in Detroit, and his first home run came six days later to spark a rally against the Boston Red Sox in a 6-5 win at Comiskey Park. Wes Ferrell surrendered that homer, and it was not the last time the two squared off. Steinbacher was hitting .333 after the May 8 homer, but his production tailed off. He was sent back to St. Paul until a September callup in which he performed well, mostly as a pinch-hitter, going 3-for-10 with three RBIs. Overall, he appeared in 26 games, hitting .260 with four doubles, a triple, a homer, and eight RBIs.

Timid as he was, Steinbacher endured his share of rookie riling, but apparently took it in stride. According to Edwards, the outfielder was given the nickname “Sammy” sometime in the 1938 season and was assigned the role of clubhouse scapegoat.

“No matter what he did, if the Sox lost, his team mates [sic] blamed ‘Sammy,’” Edwards wrote in 1939. “Even when he made six for six, they grumbled because he scored only three runs and drove in two others. Why the Sox so pick [sic] on Henry? Because they knew he was good natured and could take it without it affecting his work. Some players can be seriously affected by ‘ribbing’ but not so with Steinbacher. He just grins when they gang up on and pan him for not hitting a triple when he hit a mere double or why he did not throw out a runner at the plate on a ball hit way to the Comiskey park score board [sic].”11

For his own part, Steinbacher explained his diffidence and lack of color to Edwards thus: “If drinking, smoking, chewing, night clubbing and battling with the umpires produce what is commonly called a colorful player, then I guess I am just an ordinary ball player. I never did care for smoking, chewing or drinking. I never have been put out of a game … I really think my greatest assets are a pair of good eyes and the ability to time my swing. No use talking, but any time a batter’s timing is off, he is not going to make many hits.”12

Indeed, by the time June 22, 1938 arrived, Steinbacher looked well on his way to proving himself as the regular right fielder on skipper Jimmy Dykes’ Sox squad, even as he’d cooled after a hot start. His average fell from .381 on May 27 to a season-low .316 on June 21. He wasn’t alone in tumbling production. Since May 26, Chicago had gone 7-20, outscored in the losses by a count of 114-43.

“Skipper James Dykes of the White Sox yesterday came out of dugout hiding, took an it’s-about-time hint from his big boss, Lou Comiskey, shook up his lineup and ended the day happier than he’s been in weeks,” Chicago Tribune mainstay Ed Burns wrote in his lead on June 23. “Hank Steinbacher, who had been fading fast in the third spot in the batting order, was moved up to second and went base hit crazy.”13

From his new spot in the two-hole, Steinbacher singled in the first off starter Wes Ferrell, traded from Boston to Washington midway through the 1937 season, and who had yielded Steinbacher’s first big-league homer just over a year earlier. Steinbacher singled again off Ferrell and drove in Stratton in the second as the Sox lead built to 4-0. Steinbacher collected his third and fourth hits of the day off reliever Monte Weaver in the fourth and fifth innings, including a double in the fifth that was his only extra-base hit of the day. Writing for the Washington Post, Shirley Povich called it “a juicy two-bagger” and also provided Steinbacher with the Homeric epithet of “Big-legged.”14

Steinbacher’s fifth hit was an RBI single in the sixth off of lefty swingman Chief Hogsett, to give the Sox a 10-1 advantage. His final safety of the day was a sinking liner to right that bounced in front of Goose Goslin, who was making his last-ever big-league start. Goslin’s Hall of Fame career encompassed just a dozen more games.

Still, when Steinbacher’s day was done, he did not stand alone even on the Comiskey Park turf as a man with six hits in a game. His teammate, Sox left fielder Rip Radcliff, had been the last AL player to turn the trick, though Radcliff had needed seven at-bats in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 18, 1936. But for one day, Steinbacher was among such elite company as Ty Cobb, Kiki Cuyler, Paul Waner, Jim Bottomley (who did it twice), and Ernie Lombardi. Lesser lights like Frank Brower and Myril Hoag — Steinbacher’s teammate with Sacramento in 1930 — could also point to a perfect 6-for-6 in a nine-inning game. Steinbacher was the last man to do it for the next six seasons, until George Myatt accomplished the feat in 1944.15

Any other day in the sporting calendar would likely have merited banner headlines for Steinbacher’s achievement. That evening, however, all the sporting world’s eyes turned to the heavyweight boxing title bout at Yankee Stadium. Just 500 saw Steinbacher’s six hits in the battering at Comiskey that wrapped up in a little over two hours.16 By contrast, 70,000 spectators in the Bronx watched Joe Louis take just a shade over two minutes to avenge his 1936 loss to Max Schmeling, the athletic idol of Nazi Germany.

Steinbacher’s 1938 season took a turn on July 31, when he injured his wrist in the first game of a doubleheader with the Yankees. He had just six plate appearances as a pinch-hitter between August 3 and August 27, notching one hit. He returned to the Sox starting lineup on August 28 in Philadelphia, but was again out of the lineup between September 6 and September 14. After that, he finished off the season as a regular once more. He hit a respectable .291 in those last 21 games and finished 1938 with an overall average of .331 (the seventh-highest mark in the American League), 23 doubles, eight triples, four homers, and 61 RBIs in 106 games.

At the conclusion of the 1938 season, a headline in Steinbacher’s hometown newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, read, “Henry Steinbacher is Judged Best Rookie of 1938 Major Loops,” and listed him alongside Joe Gordon and Ken Keltner as future stars.17

But 1939 was a different story entirely for Steinbacher and the White Sox. The young outfielder began the season as Chicago’s starter in right, but his offensive numbers plunged: he was hitting just .178 with seven RBIs and a triple one month into the season. Amid an outfield complement including Rip Radcliff, Gee Walker, Larry Rosenthal, and Mike Kreevich, Steinbacher soon found himself on the outside looking in. He finished the campaign playing in 71 games, hitting .171 with a homer and 15 RBIs, and was sold to the Browns on December 29.

This “ordinary ballplayer,” Steinbacher, never played in the major leagues again. He returned to the American Association with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1940 and 1941, before being released to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in June 1942. He then came back to the PCL and played three seasons from 1943 into early 1945 with the San Francisco Seals. His first season showed something of a return to form, as he hit .318 with 105 RBIs and matched his career-best mark of 15 homers.

Steinbacher’s professional career ended abruptly when he was inducted into the Army in May 1945. He served through March 8, 1946. Expecting to rejoin the Seals after his Army discharge, Steinbacher was reinstated by the San Francisco club. However, the team cut him on April 12, before he even donned a uniform. The Seals said Steinbacher could not benefit under the Veterans’ Reemployment Act, which reserved the jobs or equivalent payment of men called to duty in wartime. On November 7, 1946, Steinbacher sued the Seals in Federal Court for back pay of $650 per month and bonuses.18 The suit was settled March 25, 1947, with Steinbacher receiving a check for $5,184 from the Seals.19

Having returned home to Sacramento, Steinbacher became a police officer in 1947, eventually partnering with another ex-Solon, Gene Babbitt, in the Sacramento Police Department’s Car No. 5.20

Steinbacher continued playing baseball recreationally with the SPD’s nine, which he also managed for several years, and in old-timers’ games. He also served as an instructor for a youth baseball school sponsored by the Sacramento Bee and a local radio station in the mid-1950s. His partner was former Solons teammate and one-time big leaguer, Alex Kampouris.21 Steinbacher retired from the Sacramento force in 1969.

Steinbacher married the former Frances Laverda Sciaroni of Sutter Creek, California, on October 21, 1933. The couple had one daughter, Janet.

He died in Sacramento on April 3, 1977, at the age of 64. The Bee remembered him as an “ex-Solon,” with a passing reference to his big day nearly 40 years earlier: “He moved up to the White Sox in 1937 and the following year batted .331 in 106 games, including 28 doubles [actually 23], eight triples and four homers. In one game he went six-for-six.”22 The Sporting News, in its brief obituary, did not mention Steinbacher’s 6-for-6 outing. The paper also misreported the one-time outfielder’s date of death, saying he died on April 4.23

In 1984, Steinbacher was named the left fielder on the Bee’s All-Time Solons team.24

His wife, Frances, died in 1995 and was interred at Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum in Sacramento. Next to her lies “an ordinary ballplayer.”

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Baseball-reference.com

U.S. Census Bureau Records

 

Notes

1 Henry P. Edwards. From a typewritten story distributed January 15, 1939, by the American League Service Bureau, appearing in the Hall of Fame file of Hank Steinbacher. Henry P. Edwards, “Genial Hank Steinbacher, Goat of Most Chi-Sox Jokes, Just Doesn’t Take to Night Life,” Dallas Morning News, January 16, 1939: 3.

2 Sacramento Bee, October 15, 1927: 36.

3 “Steinbacher, Young Outfielder, Signed by Senators,” Sacramento Bee, November 19, 1929: 20.

4 Rudy Hickey, “Henry Steinbacker [sic] May Prove To Be Excellent Prospect for Senators,” Sacramento Bee, March 12, 1930: 26.

5 “Woodland Lad Plays Part in Senators’ Win,” Woodland Daily Democrat (Woodland, Califorrnia), June 18, 1930: 4.

6 Edwards.

7 Edwards.

8 Irving Vaughan, “Cubs’ Chances Rest on Winning Streak,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1936: 3. (Vaughan refers to Steinbacher as “Harry Steinbacher.”

9 Charles Johnson, “Laxity of Scorer is Unfair,” Minneapolis Star, August 7, 1936: 22.

10 Wilbur Adams, “Steinbacher, Babbitt, Former Solons, Are Police Teammates,” Sacramento Bee, April 6, 1950: 22.

11 Edwards.

12 Edwards.

13 Edward Burns, “Steinbacher Gets Six for Six to Tie Record,” Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1938: 19.

14 Shirley Povich, “Chisox Shake Slump, Trounce Nats, 16 to 3,” Washington Post, June 23, 1938: X18.

15 For a listing as of mid-2019, see Ed Eagle, “Players with at least 6 hits in a 9-inning game,” MLB.com, July 14, 2019 (https://www.mlb.com/news/six-hit-game-c266043102)

16 Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1938: 1

17 Sacramento Bee, Oct. 1, 1938: 15.

18 “Steinbacher Seeks Back Pay, Bonus From Seals,” Hanford Sentinel Hanford, California), November 8, 1946: 6.

19 “Seals Pay 1946 Salaries and Bonus to Carroll, Steinbacher,” San Francisco Examiner, March 26, 1947: 27.

20 Adams.

21 “Veteran Alex Kampouris Again Accepts Coaching Post for Bee-KFBK Baseball School, Gets Three Assistants,” Sacramento Bee, June 22, 1955: 31

22 “Ex-Solon Steinbacher Dies At 64,” Sacramento Bee, April 5, 1977: C1.

23 “Obituaries,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1977: 45.

24 Bill Conlin, “Solon Stars: Sacramento’s All-Time Team Rich in Tradition, Talent,” Sacramento Bee, July 10, 1984: AA1.

Full Name

Henry John Steinbacher

Born

March 22, 1913 at Sacramento, CA (USA)

Died

April 3, 1977 at Sacramento, CA (USA)

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