BABE RUTH AND THE 1927 YANKEES
(WITH A COMPARISION TO THE 1961 BRONX BOMBERS)
1927! What a year it was…Charles Lindbergh soloed across the Atlantic Ocean in a plane dubbed “The Spirit of St. Louis”…Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” motion picture…the decade of the Roaring Twenties was in full bloom and Babe Ruth and the Yankees were where they belonged: at the very top of the Baseball world!
The cast of characters which comprised Murderers’ Row put the 1927 squad in first place from the opening day of the season. Six months later, they were still there after winning an astounding 110 games and compiling a winning percentage of .714, an appropriately prophetic number foreshadowing the exact number of career home runs (HR) a certain George Herman Ruth would amass.
This team never spent one day out of first place.
Offensively, the 1927 Yankees would lead the league in the following categories: Runs Scored (R), Batting Average (BA), Hits (H), Triples (3B), HR, Total Bases (TB), Slugging Percentage (SLG) and On-Base-Plus-Slugging (OPS). Their pitching staff, anchored by Hall of Fame southpaws Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, obviously paced the circuit in wins (W) and also in Earned Run Average (ERA) and Shutouts (SHO).
They won the pennant by 19 games; and this was at a time when the second place Philadelphia A’s were just starting to compile a team that shortly would become a mini-dynasty in its own right.
The 1927 Yankee team simply outclassed everyone. For example, they defeated the St. Louis Browns twenty-one times that season.
The pennant was pretty much assumed to be going to the Yankees, a position taken by the media perhaps as early as May or June. But another race was taking shape. No one – but no one! – had ever given Babe Ruth a run for his money regarding home runs. Yet here was this twenty-four year old kid, Columbia Lou Gehrig, who was matching the Behemoth of Biff, clout for clout.
The Babe, of course, would wind up with 60 HR, a mark that would not be topped for thirty-four years, and even then, there would be surrounding controversy. Gehrig, who would be relegated to the role of Crown Prince, would slug 47 circuit clouts, the highest total ever amassed up to that time by anyone not named Ruth. They would become the first teammates to hit 100+ HR.
The World Series pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Bombers. The Bucs had three future Hall of Famers on their team, Paul Waner, his brother Lloyd, and Pie Traynor. They also boasted of a fine pitching staff, paced by twenty-two game winner Carmen Hill and they led the Senior Circuit with a .305 BA.
But the Pirates had no realistic chance of winning; they lost the Fall Classic in four games.
The Yankees of 1927 were sandwiched by two other great teams.
The 1927 Yankees begin Spring Training licking their wounds from the previous World Series, a Fall Classic about which much has been written. The St. Louis Cardinals trailed the series three games to two, when they returned to Yankee stadium for Game Six. Veteran right-hander Grover Cleveland Alexander limited the Bronx Bombers to eight hits as the Redbirds prevailed by a score of 10-2. In the seventh and final game, despite a home run by Babe Ruth, the Yankees found themselves on the short end of a 3-2 decision, with Alexander coming in to save the game and the series.
This was the series in which Babe Ruth would hit three homeruns during the fourth game in St. Louis, a feat he would repeat during the same game and in the same city during the 1928 Series. It was also the Fall Classic which featured Alexander facing Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning. Alexander the Great struck out Poosh ‘em Up Tony, an event which would be immortalized on Alexander’s Hall of Fame plaque.
By the way, the final out of this 1926 World Series was made by Ruth, attempting to steal second base. In a sense, this play would be the “springboard of resolve” for what would a year later come to be known as the Greatest Team of All Time.
In 1927, Hall of Fame skipper Miller Huggins had the good fortune of managing the following players:
• First Base: Lou Gehrig – had 447 TB (third highest total ever) and 173 runs batted in (RBI).
• Second Base: Tony Lazzeri – ranked third in the league in HR, stole 22 bases (SB) and had 102 RBI.
• Shortstop: Mark Koenig – had a solid .285 BA and scored 99 R.
• Third Base: Joe Dugan – gritty veteran…had .638 OPS.
• Left Field: Bob Meusel – had a .337 BA….902 OPS…24 SB…a border line Hall of Famer.
• Center Field: Earl Combs – leadoff hitter who batted .356…23 triples…137 R.
• Right Field: Babe Ruth – 1.258 OPS…158 R…164 RBI.
• Catchers: Pat Collins (.825 OPS)…Johnny Grabowski (.673 OPS)…Benny Bengough (.634 OPS).
• Pitching Aces: Waite Hoyt (22-7 won-loss record, 2.63 ERA) and Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00). Note that Pennock retired the first twenty-two Pirates in Game Three of the World Series.
• Relief Pitcher: Wilcy Moore – 19-7 W-L record with a 2.28 ERA.
This team had everything: Babe Ruth, in his most famous – but not his best – year; Lou Gehrig, having one of the greatest statistical seasons ever. No team ever had, or would ever have, a one-two punch equal to The Babe and Lou.
Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri, the first Italian star and precursor to fellow Californian Joe DiMaggio, was just coming into his own. He had a settling effect on his teammates and showed leadership qualities far greater than expected from someone twenty three years old.
Earl Combs, also a Hall of Famer, was fleet afoot, and got on base better than two times out of every five plate appearances. And Long Bob Meusel, who batted behind Gehrig, had one of the greatest throwing arms any outfielder was blessed to have.
The team had great pitching, a deep and versatile bench and more than adequate catching.
While fielding is the most difficult facet of the game to measure, the 1927 Yankees tied for 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the American League with a fielding percentage (FPCT) of .969. This mark was just a tad behind the league leading Chicago White Sox, who paced the circuit with a .971 figure.
So how good was this team? As a digression, let us compare them to their 1961 counterparts, a natural excursion considering the Ruth-Gehrig Home Run Race vis-à-vis the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle Battle. The focal point of the 1961 Yankees was the “Roger Maris Controversy”.
The essence of the issue involving Maris was, of course, the eight extra games in which he would play. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 HR. This remained the seasonal record through 1960. A nice round number…Sixty! Count ‘em! The Bambino smacked his five dozen HR in a 154 game season.
As both Maris and Mantle pounded ball after ball into the stands, their totals kept mounting…thirty…then forty…then forty-five…then fifty.
But then Mantle dropped out of the race. So now it was only Roger versus The Babe.
The reader should be aware that in 1961, the memory of the Babe was very much alive. The Bambino had been dead for less than fifteen years. His former ghost-writer, Ford Frick, was the Commissioner of Baseball. And it was decreed that Maris had to break the hallowed record within a 154 game limit. That is, any HR hit from Game 155 onwards, would be looked at in a different light. This was when the infamous “Asterisk” took on a new meaning.
Maris entered the 154th game with 58 HR. The game was being played in Baltimore, the very place where the Babe was born. I vividly remember watching that game on a black-and-white television. The tension was so thick that it could be cut with a knife. Maris showed unbelievable courage and determination. He actually hit one HR that evening, and drove at least two other balls pretty far to right field. But they were either not far enough or went into foul territory.
When knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm retired Maris in the 9th inning, the whole baseball world knew that the “race” was over. Maris lost.
Of course we know that Maris did ultimately hit number 60 and 61 after the imposed limit.
Tragically, though, in a sense, Maris never recovered from that year and was never forgiven for hitting 61 HR. Maris was a quiet, family man from North Dakota. He shunned the limelight. And the effects of the constantly answering the same questions over and over led to him to such anxiety that patches of hair literally fell from his scalp.
Some of the “knocks” against Roger were:
• Maris was maligned because he, and not the “home grown” Mantle, broke the record.
• Maris hit only .269 that year.
• Because of expansion, many observers felt that the pitching pool was diluted and weakened, thereby cheapening Maris’ heroic feat.
• And, of course, he played in a longer season.
The bottom line was that Maris was a very good player and should have been given more respect. And he did hold the record until 1998. (Unfortunately, shortly after that, new controversies emerged. But that’s another story.)
Continuing with the comparison of both teams, we give one quantitative argument. In 2000 Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein published a book titled: Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Team of All Time. They developed a measure known as the Standard Deviation Score (SDS). Using their metric, we find that the 1927 club registers a 3.69 on this scale, whereas the 1961 club measures 2.97.
My own feeling is that the 1927 Yankees had a big superiority at first base and at second base. I would say that the shortstops were pretty much even and I would give third base to the 1961 club, because of Clete Boyer’s fielding.
Although Yogi Berra hit 22 HR, compared to 8 for Meusel, Long Bob bested Berra in the following four categories:
AB 395 516
R 62 75
RBI 61 103
OPS .795 .902
So I believe the 1927 club had the advantage for left field.
Earle Comb’s career year of 1927 year would put him above almost any other centerfielder in almost any other year. But Mantle’s 1961 year, while not his personal best despite his 54 HR, was one of the best ever. The Mick easily beats out The Kentucky Colonel.
Roger Maris beat Ruth by one HR. He needed fifty more AB and the controversial eight extra games. The Babe comes in second place to no one, which is no knock on Maris.
I give the position of Catcher to the 1961 club, because of Elston Howard and back-ups Johnny Blanchard and Berra.
The pitching staffs were pretty much even, from top to bottom.
Johnny Blanchard was a great pinch hitter; but, other than Blanchard, I believe the 1927 Yankees had a deeper bench.
Not counting Miller Huggins, the 1927 club had four starting Hall of Famers as position players (Ruth, Gehrig, Combs and Lazzeri), and a player which many experts feel should be enshrined, Bob Meusel. Pitchers Pennock and Hoyt also had Hall of Fame careers.
In comparison, Ralph Houk had two position players (Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra)