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Looking back on the 1911 Highlanders, the most mediocre Yankees team in history

The 1911 team is the only Yankees team to ever finish with a .500 winning percentage.

Russ Ford
1911 Highlanders ace Russ Ford

The 2016 Yankees will start the unofficial second half of the season with a record of 44-44, which is good for a .500 winning percentage. Finishing the season at .500 wouldn’t be that far-fetched because the team has hovered a few games above or below that mark for most of the season. FanGraphs projects the team to finish 80.5-81.5, so .500 is definitely a possibility. If they do go 37-37 the rest of the season and finish at 81-81, it will be the first time since 1911 (and the only other time) that the team finished at exactly .500. That 1911 squad was a far cry from the one we’re watching today though.

The 1911 Highlanders started off the season with four straight wins. On April 17, 1911, the team ended the day in first place but would never do so again that season. They quickly fell behind the legendary Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics (who won 101 games that season and the World Series) and by the end of May, they were in fifth place out of the eight American League teams. Despite going 17-7 in June, including a stretch where they went 10-1, the Highlanders never finished a day ranked higher than third place for the rest of the season.

Of course, the sport was actually very different in 1911. It was the Deadball Era, and two players for the Highlanders, Birdie Cree and Harry Wolter, tied for the lead in home runs on the season with a grand total of four. Cree also led the team in batting average with a .348, which was far behind Ty Cobb’s major league leading .420. Right behind Cree in batting average for the Highlanders was shady first baseman Hal Chase, who was also the team’s manager that season.

Everyone stole bases back then, using small ball to scratch out runs. Twenty-two different Highlanders recorded at least one stolen base, and the team totaled 269 stolen bases, including 11 by pitchers. Amusingly, we don’t know if the team had a good caught-stealing percentage though because that statistic wasn’t recorded in 1911.

On the mound, the Highlanders’ best pitcher was Russ Ford, who went 22-11 and threw 281.1 innings, including 26 complete games. Ford ranked 69th on Pinstripe Alley’s Top 100 Yankees and was famous for throwing an “emery” ball, which is a ball that has been scuffed up by an emery board. The Highlanders’ pitchers were used much more liberally than today, with all but one making at least one start and one relief appearance. The Highlanders pitching staff totaled 90 complete games, which was third worst out of the eight AL teams.

As Yankees fans today worry about the state of the team, it can be helpful to look back at their history to gain some perspective. The 1911 team was just the start of a ten-year stretch of very bad teams. The team did not go to their first World Series until 1921, and they didn’t win it until 1923. Today’s team has been massively successful. They haven’t had a losing season since 1992, and they won five championships in that time. Given the team’s revenue and its long tenured general manager, Brian Cashman, today’s Yankees fans shouldn’t have to wait as long as Highlander fans in 1911.