March 27 – Happy Birthday Steve Sundra
Most of the top four occupants of the Yankee’s All-Time leader lists read like a Who’s Who of Baseball’s legends. Except for the all-time single season best winning percentage list for Yankee pitchers with at least ten decisions. For that list you really do need a score card. Tom Zachary is number one with his 12-0 performance in 1929. He’s tied with Aaron Small who went 10-0 for the 2005 Yankees. Alfredo Aceves, who now pitches for the Red Sox, helped the 2009 Yankees win a World Championship with his 10-1 season pitching out of the bullpen. Most Yankee fans of today remember both Small and Aceves. Zachary is a familiar name in Yankee history because he was also the pitcher who gave up Babe Ruth’s 60th home run in 1927. But I’m willing to wager no current Yankee fan has ever heard of the pitcher in third place on this list. His name was Steve “Smokey” Sundra and he is the Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant for March 27th.
Sundra was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Cleveland, where he began his pitching career with area semi-pro teams. He was originally signed by his hometown Indians in 1932 and pitched in that team’s farm system until 1935 when he was made part of a trade that sent him and Monte Pearson to the Yankees for the temperamental pitcher, Johnny Allen. The Yankees assigned Sundra to their Newark farm team and during the next two-and-a-half seasons, he went 32-14 for one of the best minor league clubs in history. That performance helped earn him a spot on the 1938 Yankee roster and he finished his first season in pinstripes with a decent 6-4 record, appearing in 25 games including 8 starts. He ended that ’38 season with four straight victories but did not get to participate in the 1938 World Series, which New York won, to make it three championships in a row for Manager Joe McCarthy’s Bronx Bombers.
You don’t win three consecutive World Series in any era without great pitching and those Yankee teams of the late thirties had as many good arms as any team in history. Just making that staff was a testament to Sundra’s pitching ability and in 1939, he proved it. He appeared in 24 games that year and won his first 11 decisions. With the four straight wins he had to close out his 1938 season, Sundra’s winning streak grew to 15 games just one short of the AL Record. Despite losing Lou Gehrig, that 1939 Yankee team ran away with the Pennant by winning 106 games. They were so far ahead in the standings McCarthy began resting his front line starters in late August by expanding his rotation. Sundra loved the regular turns and won five of six consecutive starts posting a shutout and throwing five complete games during that impressive stretch. But in his last start of the regular season, in the second game of a double-header against Boston, the big right-hander’s streak came to an end when he lost a 4-2 decision to finish the year at 11-1. Despite his late-season excellence and his 11-1 record, Sundra made just one two plus inning relief stint in the Yankees fourth straight World Series victory that October.
When he slumped to 4-6 the following year he was sold to the Senators who traded him to the Browns in June of the 1942 season. Pitching against war-time diluted lineups, Smokey went 25-14 during his one complete and two partial seasons in St. Louis before entering military service. He tried to come back in 1946 but failed. He retired with a 56-41 lifetime record. Unfortunately, Sundra became a victim of a ravaging form of cancer that ended up killing him in 1952 at the age of 41.