The 1931 season was a transitional year for the New York Yankees. General manager Ed Barrow made the controversial decision to not retain former ace Bob Shawkey as manager despite an 86-win season in his first full season on the job, and he also chose to pass over slugger Babe Ruth as a potential player-manager. The Bambino longed to manage and clamored for the job, but Barrow and owner Jacob Ruppert decided to go with the former Chicago Cubs skipper Joe McCarthy. The ruling did not pay immediate dividends though, as the Yankees finished a distant 13.5 games behind Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics despite 94 wins.
The second-place showing was far from a disaster though--many players had great seasons. The powerful Yankees offense set a modern-day record that still stands with an incredible 1,067 runs scored. Every starter in the lineup had a wRC+ of at least 100 and the terrific outfield of Ruth, Earle Combs, and Ben Chapman combined to hit .334/.428/.539. Ruth was his typical dominant self, leading the American League in walks (128), on-base percentage (.495), slugging percentage (.700), wRC+ (209), rWAR (10.0), and fWAR (11.3). They were strong the mound too, as a 22-year-old southpaw from California named Lefty Gomez burst onto the baseball scene with a 21-win season that featured a sterling 2.67 ERA and 150 ERA+, both second in the league only to Athletics ace Lefty Grove. The downfall of the team was the rest of the starting staff though--Red Ruffing, Hank Johnson, and Herb Pennock each started at least 23 games and none had an ERA+ above 93. Nonetheless, two more players had a key role in giving fans something to remember about this team.
At first base, Lou Gehrig entered his prime with five tremendous seasons under his belt already. From 1926 through 1930 (his first five full seasons as a starter), he hit .348/.453/.655 with a 183 wRC+, averaging 199 hits per year, made up of 44 doubles, 16 triples, and 33 homers. He took advantage of the superb offense around him to lead the league in RBI three times, including a major-league record 175 in '27. He famously accomplished all these feats while playing in the lineup every day. Gehrig followed up these years with one of his most dominant seasons in '31. He led the league in five major offensive categories including runs (163), hits (211), and total bases (410).
To date though, he had never led the league in homers; it seemed that Ruth would never relinquish that honor. The man they called "The Sultan of Swat" spent a record 12 seasons atop the leaderboards in home runs, and he had done so a then-record five years in a row from 1926-30. "Larrupin' Lou" kept pace with his teammate throughout the '31 season though, and he trailed Ruth by only one going into the final day of the year on September 27th. The Yankees faced the Athletics, who did not have much to play for since they were starting the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in a few days. Still, they started the man that Gehrig would finish runner-up to in AL MVP voting, 31-game winner Lefty Grove. It was only a tune-up start for Grove before he took the mound in Game 1 of the World Series, but he was a competitor and certainly did not plan on letting the Yankees push him around. He even carried a minuscule 1.92 ERA into the game. If Gehrig wanted to tie Ruth for the league lead in homers at 46, he had his work cut out for him.
Yankees backstop Bill Dickey also had a terrific season in '31. The 24-year-old from Arkansas was in third full season as their primary catcher since taking over the position from Johnny Grabowski and Pat Collins in '29. Dickey provided stellar defense, but also gave them an offensive advantage from the position that the franchise had not often previously enjoyed by hitting .327/.378/.442 with a 121 wRC+. Entering the final day of the season though, Dickey and his backups Arndt Jorgens and Cy Perkins were on the verge of an unprecedented feat. Throughout the season, no Yankee catcher had committed a passed ball. Starters had uncorked 24 wild pitches, which although low was second-highest in the AL, but the team's catchers did not let a single ball bounce away from the glove on cross-ups or anything. To finish their perfect season, Dickey was charged with the mission of catching 23-year-old Gordon "Dusty" Rhodes.
The game turned out to be a rousing success for both Gehrig and Dickey. The Yankees surprisingly bludgeoned the future Hall of Famer Grove for eight runs on five hits in just three innings of work. He was tagged with only his fourth loss of the season, finishing at 31-4 with his ERA jumping above the 2.00 plateau to 2.06. Ruth had three hits, but none of them went for extra bases. Meanwhile, Gehrig did tie Ruth with his 46th homer of the season, and Ruth missed sole possesion of the home run crown for the first time in six years. Only once previously had he finished in a tie for the league lead in homers--his very first year atop the leaderboard in 1918 (Tillie Walker tied him with 11 while he was still mostly a pitcher). It was a transitional year for Ruth as well, who would never lead the league in homers again. Gehrig would do so twice more, including 49 in his Triple Crown year of '34, a feat that Ruth never accomplished. Gehrig set an AL record that has never been broken with a staggering 184 RBI.
Dickey caught a flawless game, and the '31 Yankees became the first and only AL team to ever go an entire season without a passed ball. It was a tribute to the remarkable catching abilities of Dickey, Jorgens, and Perkins that they somehow avoided these errors all season long. These three players and Gehrig finished their tremendous seasons 81 years ago today.