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.
1939 New York Yankees
It was May 2, 1939, and Gehrig -- who had batted below .300 in 1938 and had his salary cut from $39,000 to $35,000 -- was hitting an anemic .143 after eight games. He met with manager Joe McCarthy in the lobby of the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit and told him, "I'm taking myself out, Joe." McCarthy asked why. "For the good of the team," Gehrig said. "Nobody has to tell me how bad I've been and how much of a drawback I've been to the club." When the announcement that Gehrig wouldn't be playing came over the public address system in Detroit, and that his 2,130-consecutive-game streak would end, the sparse crowd applauded for two minutes.
His replacement was someone named Babe. Ellsworth "Babe" Dahlgren hit a homer and a double and the Yankees routed the Tigers, 22-2, in their first game without Gehrig.
Soon after, Gehrig checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral scleroris, a kind of infantile paralysis involving the central nervous system. The Yankees announced his retirement, but he remained team captain. He routinely carried the lineup card to home plate and took a place on the bench. What did he see?
He saw a team that won with pitching and defense. Its staff -- mainly Red Ruffing, Bump Hadley, Lefty Gomez, Monte Pearson and Oral Hildebrand -- so outdistanced the competition that its team earned run average was more than a run under the league average. He saw a 24-year-old star in his fourth season, DiMaggio, and a strapping Bill Dickey, superior in hitting and catching to any prior Yankees receiver. Punctuating the one-week anniversary of Gehrig's retirement, the Yankees, on June 28, hit eight homers in the first end of a doubleheader and hit five more in the second game. Both remain Major League records. DiMaggio, Dahlgren and Joe Gordon each clouted three homers. The Yankees won the opener over the A's, 23-2, and the nightcap, 10-0. It should have been evident to the baseball world that day that New York would overcome anything and win its fourth consecutive Series.
The Yankees won the pennant by 17 games over Boston and swept Cincinnati, allowing the Reds just five earned runs in the Series.
Here are the remaining teams in the top 10:
1927 New York Yankees
Ruth and Gehrig engaged in a neck-and-neck home run battle through the summer. Ruth prevailed, breaking his own record by clouting 60 -- the second time he hit more homers than each of the other teams in the league -- and Gehrig hit 47. Ruth, Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri finished first, second and third in the league, hitting 125 homers between them. On the mound, Wilcy Moore, Waite Hoyt and Urban Shocker finished one, two and three in ERA. The team also had the top four pitchers in winning percentage, with the minimum of 15 wins.
With a 110-48 record (.714), the Yankees finished with the second best record of all Series winners. They pitched better and scored more than anyone else. They hit a hearty .307 as a team and started a string of 12 consecutive World Series wins by sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates, even though the string was set in 1927, 1928 and 1932. That is a mother lode of distinctions for a team with a mythic, and deserved, reputation.
1909 Pittsburgh Pirates
The best Pittsburgh team was undoubtedly the 1909 edition, which finished with a 110-42 record -- a .724 winning percentage, first among all Series winners. The Pirates' shortstop was Honus Wagner, then 35, but still regarded as the preeminent player in the National League. Stocky with long arms, Wagner seemed altogether wrong-limbed for a shortstop. Despite his ungainly appearance, the Flying Dutchman was graceful and swift, and, in an age of few home runs, the owner of the highest slugging average in six different seasons. The Pirates got help at the plate from center fielder Tommy Leach and left fielder Fred Clarke, who finished first and second in the league in runs scored.
Their pitching could be described as stingy on a daily basis, allowing just two earned runs a game. The Cubs' pitching was better, but the Pirates outhit them for the pennant. Then the baseball world awaited an exceptional matchup in the World Series, Wagner went head-to-head with Ty Cobb, a driven, some say maniacal, center fielder for the Detroit Tigers.
Cobb won the Triple Crown with nine homers, 107 runs batted in and a .377 average. Cobb's steal of home helped Detroit win Game 2. But by the time it was over, a surprising performance by Babe Adams, a rookie hurler, had already stolen the show. Adams won three games, including Game 7. Wagner thoroughly outplayed Cobb, stealing six bases to his two and outhitting him, .333 to .231.
1942 St. Louis Cardinals
The 1942 Cardinals had that rarest of baseball commodities: balance. Their outfield comprised Terry Moore, Enos Slaughter (better known as Country) and their pacesetter, rookie Stan Musial, whose uncoiling swing was vicious yet invulnerable in a way that all-out swings rarely are. The Cardinals soared on pitching. In Mort Cooper and rookie Johnny Beazley they had the league's top two leaders in wins and ERA. The infield was anchored by rangy shortstop Marty Marion. Behind the plate they had Walker Cooper, who habitually spat tobacco juice on batters' shoes as they came to the plate.
St. Louis beat Brooklyn by two games for the pennant, then took on the defending champion Yankees, winners of five of the past six world championships. After New York took Game 1, 7-4, in Sportsman's Park -- with Red Ruffing going a perfect 7 2/3 innings -- St. Louis sent the Yankees packing in four straight-the last three at Yankee Stadium. In the eighth inning of Game 2, Musial singled home Slaughter, who also threw out the potential tying run at third in the ninth inning. Ernie White shut out the Yankees in Game 3, before St. Louis won a 9-6 slugfest in Game 4. Slaughter recalls Game 5: "We were down, 1-0, in the fourth inning, and I came up and hit one in the seats to tie it. We went to the top of the ninth tied, 2-2. We got a man on and Whitey Kurowski hit one into the left-field seats. That gave us the Series."
1944 St. Louis Cardinals
Slaughter, called into the service in 1943, missed the 1944 contest, the so-called Streetcar Series, that matched the St. Louis Browns against the Cardinals. Both Series teams were west of the Mississippi River for the first time.
The Cardinals had two advantages. For one, baseball was short on talent because of the war effort. Some of the greatest players -- including Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller -- missed three to five prime years while they were in the service. The Cardinals, however, still had the services of Musial, the best player in the league. They hit a paltry 100 homers, but still led the league and dominated virtually every offensive, fielding and pitching category. Marion won the league's Most Valuable Player award. The Cards' second advantage was to be playing the Browns, a team with little past and no future.
The Browns won Game 1 on the road and raised eyebrows by taking a 2-1 lead in games at Sportsman's Park, the venue owned by the Browns but home to both St. Louis teams. But four Browns errors in the last three games cost them the Series.
1905 New York Giants
The way they pitched, the 1905 New York Giants didn't need to score many runs. Their ace was Christy Mathewson. "Matty" was legendary for his "fadeaway curve," actually a screwball, and for his pinpoint control. One opposing hitter said that Mathewson could throw a ball into a cup at pitching range. Amazing to tell, but twice in his career he recorded more wins in a season than walks! He may also have been the most beloved player of his time.
Matty posted a 31-9 record and a stingy 1.28 ERA, both league bests. But that was merely the prologue for a more fabulous epilogue. Facing Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, Mathewson hurled three complete-game shutouts in five days. He saved his best for last, winning his third, the Series clincher, on just one day of rest. Chief Bender, a Chippewa Indian from Carlisle Indian School, won the only game for Philadelphia in Game 2, beating Iron Man Joe McGinnity, 3-0. But McGinnity didn't allow an earned run, so the Giants' ERA for the Series was 0.00. The games are known as the "all-shutout Series," since no losing team scored a run. The Athletics hit .161, the lowest ever for a World Series. The combined .185 of both teams is also the lowest ever. The anemic hitting mirrored the paltry sums disbursed to the players: the Giants' share (based on a percentage of the gate) was $1,142 a man. The Athletics took just $382 each, but the owners tossed in their gate share to raise the total to $832.22.
Mathewson's performance remains the best in World Series history.
1910 Philadelphia Athletics
By 1910 it wasn't McGraw's Giants but Mack's Athletics who reigned supreme. They left second-place New York in the dust, winning the pennant by 14 1/2 games.
Mack had excellent moundsmen in Chief Bender, Jack Coombs, who won 31, and Eddie Plank (who won 326 games in his career). They positively stifled offenses, allowing just 1.79 runs per game. Mack also had assembled three-quarters of his famed $100,000 infield, with Eddie Collins at second, Jack Barry at short and Frank Baker at third. (First baseman Stuffy McInnis would join the team in 1911.) Baker would lead the league in home runs four straight years, and earning the name "Home Run" Baker, though he only hit between nine and 12 homers in all four seasons.
In the Series, the A's took five games to obliterate the Cubs, who had won their second -- and last -- World Series two years before. Bender and Coombs won all four games and the combined score was 35-15.
1907 Chicago Cubs
The Cubs rose from consummate disappointment to achieve the ultimate prize. In 1906 the club finished 116-36 (.763) -- still a post-1900 record -- only to be dumped in the World Series by their crosstown rival White Sox, known that season as the Hitless Wonders.
The 1907 club, which finished 107-45 (.704), was a Cubs team known for its pitching and defense. Writer Franklin P. Adams played off the euphony of Tinker to Evers to Chance -- the Cubs infielders -- and immortalized in verse this "trio of bear cubs, fleeter than birds..."
Poetry is nice, but pitching helps, and a 1.73 team ERA had everything to do with winning. The Cubs eliminated the Tigers
easily -- the first of three consecutive World Series defeats for Detroit -- winning four straight after the opening game was called a tie on account of darkness.
1998 New York Yankees
The 1998 Yankees won 125 games without a superstar. No Yankee was listed among the league leaders in homers, runs batted in or slugging average. The team drew far more walks than any club in the league and had a superior on-base percentage. The Yankees were the only team with an ERA under four, scored nearly six runs per contest, and thus outscored their opposition by 309 runs, nearly two a game.
The two Davids -- Wells and Cone -- carried the starting load, while Mariano Rivera had not yet achieved legendary status in the bullpen.
Lesser players produced several of the Yankees' biggest wins. In the league championship series they were down two games to one in Cleveland. Andy Pettitte had been pelted with four homers in 4 2/3 innings the night before. They needed a gem from rookie Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. El Duque combined with Mike Stanton and Rivera on a four-hit shutout. Cleveland didn't win another game. After Chuck Knoblauch tied Game 1 of the World Series with a three-run homer and Tino Martinez belted a grand slam, the San Diego Padres went down four straight. Scott Brosius, who knocked in a career-high 98 runs during the regular season, was voted Series MVP for hitting home runs in consecutive innings in Game 3 to sink San Diego. Their sweep contributed to a record 14 straight Series wins.
1929 Philadelphia Athletics
The 1929 Athletics didn't just edge the Yankees, the twice-defending champions. They beat them by 18 games. The year was a prelude to the big offenses characteristic of the 1930s. Four teams hit .290 or better. The A's main masher was "Double-X," Jimmie Foxx, a man with blacksmith arms who hit 534 career homers. The A's were set apart, however, because they remembered how to pitch. In a fence-busting season, they were the only American League team to allow under four runs a game.
The World Series was barely a hiccup in their season. With a chance to tie the Series at two games apiece, the Cubs took an 8-0 lead into the seventh inning of Game 4. But the A's rallied against Chicago ace Charlie Root. Al Simmons's homer broke up the shutout, and five of the next six hitters singled. Art Nehf relieved and induced Mule Haas to hit a fly to center. But Hack Wilson lost the ball in the sun for a three-run homer. A walk, two singles, a hit batter and a double by Jimmy Dykes gave Philadelphia a 10-8 lead, which it held. The game remains the biggest comeback in World Series history. The Cubs rebounded in Game 5 and took a 2-0 lead into the ninth. But a two-run homer by Haas in the ninth, then a double by Bing Miller that scored Simmons, gave Philly the Series.
The A's launched a mini-dynasty that won them a Series in 1930 and another pennant in 1931. The Yankees then seized the reins again, winning the pennant and World Series in 1932.
Kenneth Shouler, from Harrison, New York, is the author of The Major League Baseball Book of Fabulous Facts and Awesome Trivia (HarperCollins). Steven Shouler, an application developer for 1-800-flowers helped analyze the data for this story.