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Baseball's Greatest Teams

Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

Lou Gehrig had solved pitchers for years. But now, in the spring of 1939, he couldn't understand why he was too weak to hit or field. Seeing their captain in such rapid decline made his teammates uneasy. Then Joe DiMaggio tore a muscle in his leg and missed more than a month. Twenty-three other Yankees could truly say the problem was with their stars, not themselves.

With such an inauspicious beginning, you'd think that the New York Yankees, working on a streak of three consecutive world championships, were in deep trouble. Not so. The 1939 Bronx Bombers would prove to be the greatest baseball team ever to walk on grass.

Even now, 63 years later, their accomplishments are vastly undersold. Armchair talk about the greatest teams often starts with the 1927 Yankees and gets around, in no set order, to several lumber-laden Brooklyn Dodgers squads of the 1950s, to the 1961 Yankees, to the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, and, lately, to the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 regular-season games and 125 in all. All were great, but none were the equal of the 1939 Yankees.

How can anyone claim preeminence for one team? That question can be answered systematically. In rating teams, we want to know four things about them. To start, did they win the World Series? It seems arbitrary, exceedingly odd even to consider calling wildly successful regular-season teams like the 1906 Chicago Cubs, who won 116 games, or the 1954 Cleveland Indians (111 wins) or the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116) the greatest teams ever, since neither finished the job and won the World Series. Next, we need to establish how dominant a team was relative to its peers. How far ahead of the league average was it in runs scored (called relative offense) and runs allowed (relative defense), and what was its winning percentage?

We can calculate which World Series-winning team was the most dominant by multiplying three numbers: winning percentage, relative offense and relative defense. The product of those numbers gives us an index, which we used to rank all 97 Series winners since 1903. In the case of the 1939 Yankees, their 106-45 record gives them a winning percentage of .702 (fifth among all World Series winners). Their 967 runs scored was 1.208 times better than the league average of 801 (17th place). Finally, they allowed just 556 runs, the lowest ever among Series winners, and 1.440 times better than the league average of 801. To derive their overall rating, we multiply .702 x 1.208 x 1.440. The product of 1.221 tops every other World Series winner.

The 1939 Yankees excelled in keeping their opponents from scoring. Imagine -- they scored a staggering 411 runs more than they allowed and outscored opponents by a ridiculous average of 2.72 runs per game! They also swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.

Teams that played prior to the first World Series of 1903-in leagues like the National Association (1871-75), the National League (1876-present), the American Association (1882-91) and the Union Association (1884) -- are not included here. Had they been included, teams like the Boston Red Stockings in 1875 (National Association), who recorded a 71-8 (.899) record and outscored their opponents by more than six runs per game, would be near the head of the pack. That's a pretty fair differential in football. But the more one goes back in time, the more uneven the competition is, allowing for an unnatural degree of dominance by several teams. Interestingly, this dominance of the very early years is mirrored in our list, too, where the only post-1950 team to make the top 10 is the 1998 Yankees.

Some recent World Series winners rate poorly. In last place on the list of World Series winners are the 1987 Minnesota Twins, the only team here to allow more runs (806) than it scored (786). The 1997 Florida Marlins (93rd), 2000 Yankees (96th), and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (82nd) don't exactly make the roll call of all-time greats, either.

The use of this method doesn't tell us that the 1927 Yankees could pull up stakes and beat the 1952 Dodgers or that the 1976 Cincinnati Reds could crack the pitching of the 1970 Baltimore Orioles. Those outcomes are fun to ponder but forever unknowable. It is inequitable to transplant a team like the 1927 Yankees -- with their 1927 heights and weights, training methods and diets -- to a wholly different era, like bulbs in foreign soil.

I am arguing that the 1939 Yankees dominated their time more than any team in baseball history dominated its time.

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