Grave Story: Steve Sundra (1910-1952)

Here lies Steve Sundra, who had a pretty up-and-down career as a pitcher — except for the season when he was almost perfect. Sundra pitched for the New York Yankees (1936, 1938-40), Washington Senators (1941-42) and St. Louis Browns (1942-44, 1946).

Steve Sundra was born in Luxor, Pa., on March 27, 1910. He had a younger brother, Ed, who was 17 years his junior. Steve taught him to throw a baseball, and he ended up with a 6-year career of his own in the minor leagues. Steve first came to national attention as a pitcher on the sandlots of Cleveland. The Fisher Foods team had been chosen to represent the city in a National Baseball Federation amateur championship tournament in Cleveland in 1931. Sundra, just 21 years old at the time, was their hired gun.

The Sundra Family grave market at Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland. Steve’s name is partially obscured by grass and the sinking of the stone over time.

Fisher Foods had recruited Sundra away from another team in Cleveland called the Quakers. There, he was the protégé of Carl Schlee, a veteran catcher who had played in the minors for a couple of teams in the 1920s. Sundra pitched in three games in the tournament, throwing 2 shutouts and allowing 2 runs in the third. He threw a 3-hit shutout of the Montgomery, Ala., team, with 9 strikeouts. Cleveland Indians general manager Billy Evans happened to be in attendance, and he quickly became a fan.

Sundra led the Cleveland team into the finals against Cincinnati and shut them out 8-0 to win the amateur title. Within a couple of months, he was property of the Indians and was making plans to start his pro career in New Orleans in 1932.

“The kid has a great temperament for a pitcher,” crowed Evans. “His fastball isn’t so far behind that of some of the big stars in the major leagues now, and for a busher his change of pace and hooks aren’t so bad.”

Sundra made his debut with the Pelicans on March 14, 1932, with three shutout innings in relief. He wasn’t in New Orleans long, as Cleveland moved him to Quincy of the Three-I League. When the league folded, he headed to the Burlington Bees of the Mississippi Valley League. He won 16 games all total, but that was based mostly on raw talent. He spent the next few seasons refining his game.

Cleveland kept him with the Zanesville Greys for all of the 1933 season, where he had a 14-12 record. The talent, again, was obvious, but so were his weaknesses. He once struck out 13 in a game but hit 4 batters. On the flip side, he threw a 1-hitter against Beckley on August 22, allowing just a single to first basemen Kerby Farrell. The next season, he went 7-7 for Toledo of the American Association, but his ERA lurched over 5.

Sundra split 1935 between the Cleveland and New York Yankees organizations. He started the year with the Minneapolis Millers and, apparently, was loaned to the Yankees’ Newark Bears team in the International League. He pitched poorly for the Millers but was excellent with the Bears, winning 5 games with a 1.47 ERA in 8 appearances. In the offseason, the Yankees traded pitcher Johnny Allen to the Indians for Sundra and Monte Pearson, making the acquisition permanent.

Sundra during his time with the Minneapolis Millers. Source: Hennepin County Library.

After acquiring him, the Yankees were in no hurry to bring Sundra to the major leagues. He spent almost all of 1936 and ’37 in Newark, where he won a combined 27 games and looked great while doing it. In those two years, the only major-league action he saw came on April 17, 1936. He threw 2 scoreless innings of an 8-0 loss to the Red Sox in relief of Red Ruffing. He walked 2, allowed 2 hits and struck out opposing starter Lefty Grove. Yanks manager Joe McCarthy praised Sundra’s talent and worked with the pitcher to improve his control, but they seemed to lack faith in his abilities and kept him in the minors.

Sundra cracked the Yankees roster in 1938, and he’d spend the rest of his pro career in the majors. His numbers in his first full season as a swingman don’t look impressive – 6-4 record, 4.80 ERA, 1.601 WHIP in 93.2 innings – but statistics can be misleading. Sundra started a few games where he was absolutely pounded, but McCarthy kept him in the game to take his lumps. In his first appearance of the season, he allowed 8 runs over 7-1/3 innings but recorded the win anyway, because the Yankees won 12-10. For the season, he gave up 50 earned runs in 93-2/3 innings, but 24 of those runs – almost half – came in three starts. Take away those performances, and his ERA drops all the way down to 3.13 on the year. As a starter, Sundra went 4-3 with a 7.14 ERA, but he had a 2-1 record and 2.14 ERA as a reliever.

In one of his best games of the year, Sundra relieved Joe Vance on July 27, 1938. Not only did he shut down the St. Louis Browns with 3-2/3 hitless innings, he hit a solo homer to help spark a 7-5 comeback win.

The 1938 Yankees took the AL pennant and swept the Cubs in the World Series. Sundra either wasn’t on the postseason roster or didn’t appear in the Series. He would play a much larger role in the Yankees success in 1939, though.

Early in spring training, the Daily News said Sundra could be the biggest surprise in camp. “Besides being the biggest eater and heartiest laugher in camp, the good-natured Croat (Croatian) from Cleveland is one of the most overlooked prospects… Down here [Manager Joe] McCarthy keeps his eye on him like a yokel on Sally Rand’s nude ranch.”

(Google Sally Rand for a further explanation. Possibly with SafeSearch on.)

Sundra earned his first win of the 1939 season on April 23, tossing a 7-4 complete game against the Senators. He won twice more in May, despite being roughed up as a starter and a reliever. His season started to turn around after throwing 4-2/3 scoreless innings in relief in an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox on May 30. It dropped his ERA to 4.50 on the year, and it kept dropping for the rest of the season. He won another game in relief in June and then threw a complete game against Washington in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader, raising his record to 5-0 on the year.

July 4, 1939, is better remembered as being the day that Lou Gehrig returned to Yankee Stadium and gave his famed farewell speech. Sundra remembered every detail of it until his dying day. “We played Washington a doubleheader that day. Dutch Leonard beat us in the first game. Between games, Lou came over to me. ‘Big Steve,’ he said – he always used to call me that – ‘Big Steve, win the second game for me, will ya?’ I won that game 11-1. Look it up when you get a chance… it’s in the records.”

Source: Daily Press, August 24, 1940.

From August 12 through the 25th, Sundra made three appearances and picked up three more wins. He threw 6-1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Oral Hildebrand for the win in an 18-4 rout of the Philadelphia Athletics. He threw a complete game against the A’s on the 20th and followed that up with a shutout of the Browns on the 25th. Sundra threw three more complete game wins in September to raise his record to 11-0, going into the final game of the season.

Sundra and his perfect record went to the mound in the second game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox. Ted Williams broke a scoreless tie in the top of the 4th inning with a solo home run to right field, his 31st of the year. Sundra surrendered another run in the 5th and two more in the 6th inning. The Yankees’ comeback ran out of time – literally, as it was called after 7 innings due to darkness – and Sundra was tagged with a 4-2 loss. It left him with an 11-1 record and 2.76 ERA in 24 games, 11 of which were starts. He threw 8 complete games and one shutout, while walking 56 and fanning 27. It wasn’t a lights-out season, as he was bailed out of a few games by the dominant Yankees offense. However, his ERA+ on the year was 158, which makes him half again as good as the average pitcher that year. Clearly, there was a good bit of skill mixed in with the luck.

The ’39 Yankees won the AL pennant in a landslide, with a 106-45 record that was 17 games better than Boston. They also swept the Reds in 4 games to win the World Series. Sundra worked 2-2/3 innings in Game Four. He allowed 3 unearned runs, which put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole. After they tied the game, Joe DiMaggio singled in 2 runs in the top of the 10th inning and scored after some sloppy fielding by the Reds, giving the Yankees a 7-4 win and another championship.

Sundra went into the Yankees training camp in 1940 hoping that his success would let him get a chance at being a full-time starter. “I don’t know how many I could win if I started regularly, but I am sure I would do all right,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence, and that is what I needed.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t return to the same heights in 1940. He was mostly ineffective in 27 games, including 8 starts. He won 4 games and lost 6, and while they weren’t recorded at the time, he picked up 2 saves to go with his 5.53 ERA.

Sundra celebrated his 30th birthday in 1941 by being sold to the Washington Senators. He got his revenge a month later by holding his old Yankees teammates to 5 hits in a 6-3 Senators win. Though the Senators granted Sundra’s wish and made him a starter, he ended the year with a 9-13 record and 5.29 ERA. He struck out a career-best 50 batters in 168-1/3 innings, but he walked 61 hitters and had a WHIP of 1.568.

Sundra’s career turned around on June 7, 1941, when the Senators traded him and outfielder Mike Chartak to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Roy Cullenbine and pitcher Bill Trotter. With the Senators, Sundra had gone 1-3 with a 5.61 in 6 appearances. He turned things around for the Browns and had an 8-3 record for the rest of the season, with a more reasonable 3.82 ERA. He was even better for the Browns in 1943, winning 15 games against 11 losses. He was 7th in the AL in wins, 5th with 3 shutouts and added a fine 3.25 ERA as well. He beat the Yankees 9-1 on August 11, walking 8 and allowing another baserunner on an error. But the only hit he allowed was a solo home run by Charlie Keller in the 2nd inning.

Sundra was poised for even greater success in 1944. He won 2 of his first 3 starts, along with a no-decision, and allowed just 3 earned runs in 19 innings for a 1.42 ERA. Before he could go any further, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and continued his pitching career for Camp Sibert, a chemical warfare training camp in Etowah, Ala. They also had some good ballplayers, including Sundra, Vic Wertz, Tom Hughes and Spud Chandler. The Browns ended up winning 89 games to capture the American League pennant. They lost the World Series to the crosstown Cardinals, but they never forgot that Sundra got them off to a strong start. The Browns awarded him a half-share of their World Series money, despite the fact that he pitched in 3 games.

Prospective St. Louis Brown starters in 1944. From left to right: Nels Potter, Sundra, Sig Jakucki, Al LaMacchia and Tex Shirley. Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 22, 1944.

Sundra missed all of 1945 while pitching and playing right field at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. He was discharged from the Army in February of 1946 and returned to the Browns. He was 36 years old by then, and his knees were aching. He got into 2 regular-season games with the Browns and threw 4 innings, allowing 5 runs on 9 hits and 3 walks. The Browns released him at the end of May, ending his playing career.

In 9 seasons, Sundra had a 56-41 record with a 4.17 ERA in 168 games. In 99 starts, he threw 47 complete games and 4 shutouts. He also walked 321 batters and struck out 214 others. Sundra was a productive batter as well, with a .209 career average and 2 home runs among his 63 hits.

Sundra’s release may have ended his playing career, but he didn’t go down without a fight. The Amvets (American Veterans of World War II) asked the U.S. Department of Justice and baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler to investigate three MLB teams, including the Browns, for alleged violations of the Selective Service Act. The Act stated that individuals discharged from the armed forces must be restored to their former jobs if they applied within 90 days, unless the circumstances of the employer had changed so that reinstatement was unreasonable or impossible. Amvets claimed that Sundra, Russell Kerns of the Tigers and Benny McCoy and Bob Harris of the Athletics were all released in spring training (or shortly after, in Sundra’s case) of 1946 after returning from military service.

Amvets had filed similar charges against the Pacific Coast League, then an independently operating minor league. The PCL argued successfully in court that the caliber of player had improved during the plaintiffs’ absence, thus falling under the Selective Service Act loopholes.

Sundra filed suit against the Cardinals in October of 1947 for violation of the Selective Service Act, asking for $5,413 in damages. He stated he was “ready, willing and able” to return to his pitching duties when he signed his 1-year, $8,000 contract following his discharge. The Browns responded that they signed the pitcher on February 24, 1956, thus restoring him to his position. He was released on May 29, 1946, with the team contending, “Sundra was never qualified to perform the duties of a major league pitcher.”

The court case dragged on into 1949, with several of Sundra’s former teammates testifying in his defense and members of the Browns management testifying against him. In December of 1949, Federal Judge Roy W. Harper ruled against Sundra, stating that he “lacked the skill and ability to pitch in the major leagues in 1946 and was given his unconditional release for just cause.” Harper also noted that Sundra was a fastball pitcher and added, “I think the court is fully justified in concluding that the pitching life of fastball pitchers is less in most instances than that of other pitchers.”

Sundra, who made his home in Atlantic City, N.J., during his playing career, had taken a job in the construction industry after his departure from baseball. He returned to Ohio and spent part of 1950 pitching for a semipro team in Dayton.

By January of 1952, it was reported that Sundra was back in Atlantic City and fighting a losing battle to an unnamed but incurable disease (later reported to be cancer).

“Look at this arm,” he told a reporter, slowly rolling up his sleeve. “It used to be strong and muscular, but now…

“I used to weigh 200 pounds not so long ago, but I’m down to 130 now. I’ve had four major operations. It’s been two years since I was able to work last, maybe I don’t even have my job anymore.

“There isn’t much I can do now. I just lay in bed all the time and,” he pointed to a nearby rosary, “think about that.”

Sundra noted that he hadn’t received any visitors from his baseball days, outside of Connie Mack. He wanted to let his old teammates know that he was “still in there pitching.”

“Say hello to all the fellas,” he told the reporter. “Just tell ‘em Big Steve said hello.”

Sundra returned home to Cleveland to be cared for by his father and brother. He made it two more weeks. Steve Sundra died on March 23, 1952, at the age of 41. He weighed about 75 pounds at the time of his death. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland.

Let’s end this sad story on a slightly more upbeat note. Sundra was a big man – he weighed about 215 pounds in his playing days, but he was a physically fit 215 pounds. He had a reputation of being the fiercest steak eater in the game. After one game with the Browns, he and teammate Al Milnar went to a local restaurant, and Sundra said, “Give us the biggest steak you have in the place.” He was told the biggest steak they had was too large even for two hungry ballplayers, but Sundra was insistent.

The steak, which weighed in at 15 pounds, took an hour and a half to cook, and another hour to eat. Sundra couldn’t finish his portion, which caught the attention of some nearby teammates who had never seen him leave a steak uneaten. They teased him about his bird-like appetite.

“Don’t worry about me,” he shot back. “I’ll come back tomorrow and finish what I started.”

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