Baseball fans inclined to the romantic are frequently brought back to earth by the observation that the major-league game, at bottom, is mere entertainment. Many ballplayers have had professional careers in show business or broadcasting after their playing days, but Harry Steinfeldt did it the other way around. He is also the answer to one of the oldest and most enduring trivia questions (a form of amusement baseball virtually invented): "Who was the third baseman with Tinker, Evers, and Chance"?
Henry M. Steinfeldt was born in St. Louis September 29, 1877, son of German immigrants. In his early childhood, his family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. The details seem lost to history, but he spent several years as a juvenile performer with a traveling minstrel show.
He may have developed his baseball talents during his youthful travels; many such shows incorporated baseball games, both eccentric and legitimate, in their repertoire. (Eccentric is the word for it: in researching something else, the author once came upon an ad in an 1868 Chicago newspaper promoting a baseball game to be played on an ice rink with skates). At any rate, in 1895, aged 17, Steinfeldt appears in the professional baseball ranks, playing for Fort Worth in the Texas League. He then advanced to the Western League, and in 1898 was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.
He spent his first few major-league years as a utility infielder, and established a reputation as an elite glove, playing all the infield positions. He became the Reds' regular third baseman in 1901, and stayed at that bag the rest of his career.
In 1903 he rose to stardom, batting .312 and leading the league in doubles (32). But he was shelved most of 1904 by a broken leg, and his slow recovery and lackluster play pushed the Reds to seek alternatives. In the winter of 1905, Steinfeldt was traded to the Cubs.
1906, the first of Steinfeldt's five seasons with the Cubs, was the finest of his career, solidifying his status as the best third baseman in the league. He hit .327, second in the league, and led the NL in hits and RBI. He also won the first of his three fielding percentage crowns. In 1907, he had one of the great performances in World Series history, batting .471 in the Cubs' four-game sweep (one tie game) of the Detroit Tigers.
For 1908, he was signed to a three-year contract, unusual for the day, and began a marked decline in offensive output. By 1910, the year Franklin Adams immortalized the other three-quarters of the infield in doggerel, Steinfeldt was almost finished.
Steinfeldt held out before the 1911 season, refusing to report for spring training. The Cubs were satisfied enough with potential replacements to ask waivers, and Steinfeldt was sold to the minors. After a further short holdout, Steinfeldt reported to his minor league club, and reached the majors again later that year with the Boston Braves.
He was felled by a "serious illness", and played only nineteen games for Boston. What exactly ailed him is variously stated, and perhaps no one in the medicine of that era really knew. There were recoveries, and attempts to reenter baseball as player or manager, interrupted by recurring illness.
Steinfeldt died in Bellevue, Kentucky, August 17, 1914, of a cerebral hemorrhage, a month short of his 37th birthday.