For those just joining, last week I introduced the historical tournament we’re holding, pitting the best Yankees teams against each other using the baseball simulation Out of the Park Baseball 21. Today we’re running down the first-round matchups in the Ruth region.
Let’s just say Shakespeare would have trouble matching this drama. (Note, the series heading links to full box scores for each game. Also interspersed are images of the final series stat lines for each team. And check out the updated bracket here.)
The top-seeded 1927 team, dubbed “Murderer’s Row,” is widely considered one of the greatest major league teams of all time. Featuring a prime Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, they coasted to a 110-44 regular season record before sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 in the World Series. But who did they find opposite them in the opening round? Their close cousins, the 1926 Yanks, who boasted a largely similar roster, though they lost their World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’d be like walking into your bathroom and finding a malicious identical twin trying to assume your life. The battle is bound to get dirty.
And this one did. After winning Game One, 3-2, the ’27 Yankees dropped the next three, teetering on the brink of a shocking first-round elimination. Then they remembered who they were. They won Game Five, 7-5, powered by Ruth and Gehrig, who each went 2-for-4 with 3 RBI. In Game Six, it was Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel and Ben Paschal picking up the slack, steering them to a 5-1 victory behind the brilliant pitching of Waite Hoyt, who hurled 7.1 innings of one-run baseball.
That set the stage for a decisive Game Seven. Tied 1-1 heading into the fourth inning, Tony Lazzeri took Dutch Ruether deep for a two-run homer, which proved to be all the ’27 Yanks would need. The final was 3-1.
Gehrig, who hit .346/.414/.462 with one home run and five RBI, was named series MVP. His ’26 counterpart managed a meager .610 OPS. The ’27 Ruth also played well, hitting .320/.393/.440 with a home run and four RBI, far better than his ’26 version, who had an OPS of .693. He also didn’t do his stat line any favors by getting tossed out in the first inning of Game Two for arguing balls and strikes.
The 1956 Yankees featured a Triple Crown-winning Mickey Mantle, along with supporting castmates Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. The ’51 Yanks had Joe DiMaggio, taking one last bow before exiting the stage, as well as “The Scooter” Phil Rizzuto, Berra and a greenhorn in Mantle.
The ’56 boys opened the series like they wanted to shove Joe D into a retirement home. They won the first game 7-1, powered by three RBI from Mantle. In Game Two, it was 11-2, with Mantle again driving in three. They also won Game Three, though by a close 2-1 margin.
The series seemed over. DiMaggio was looking washed up and the ’51 Mantle hadn’t yet harnessed his prodigious talent. But their teammates wouldn’t go quietly. The ’51 team hit back in Game 4, 9-2. They smothered them again in Game 5, 6-1. The double play combination of Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman were leading the charge. They eked out a 4-3 win in Game Six, setting up another seventh game in the bracket. It wasn’t close. They jumped on Johnny Kucks for four runs in the first inning and cruised to a 10-0 win. DiMaggio went deep.
For their dominant start, ’56 went out like lambs. Shortstop Gil McDougald had an OPS of 1.278. Elston Howard’s was .970. But Mantle’s was just .799 after getting off to a quick start, and the rest of the team disappointed. For ’51, it was Jerry Coleman who led the way, with a .912 OPS and five RBI. He took home MVP honors and gave DiMaggio at least one more round with his ’51 teammates.
The 1923 team entered this series as the favorite. They were the Yankees’ first-ever World Series winner and had Babe Ruth. A young Lou Gehrig was cutting his teeth. They had a fatal flaw, however: a sparse eight-man pitching staff. Not exactly ideal in a series that went the distance, as this matchup with Mickey Mantle’s 1958 squad did.
It was a back-and-forth affair, often punctuated by late inning drama, which taxed 1923’ four-man bullpen. Entering a decisive Game 7, the ‘23 bullpen threw 20 of the team’s 53.1 total innings. That’s 37.5%, a mark not uncommon for more modern teams with much deeper pens. That may have led to one of the most dramatic and peculiar ends to a series-ending contest.
Entering the ninth inning up 3-1, the 1923 team needed just three outs to advance. Righty George Pipgras was on the mound. He was the fourth reliever to enter the game. There was no margin for error. After a leadoff walk, Yogi Berra hit a two-run shot to tie the game at three. Elston Howard singled. Andy Carey tried unsuccessfully to lay down a bunt – twice – before earning a walk. (Never a good sign to walk a guy who’s trying to give himself up). Consecutive singles plated two more runs and the ’58 team would go on to score a total of seven runs in the inning. Pipgras suffered the further embarrassment of being relieved by Benny Bengough, who was a catcher.
The 1958 team advanced, with Yogi Berra winning MVP honors.
It was the signature season of one of the Yankees’ signature stars. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, had a career high 9.4 bWAR and won the MVP in 1941. Surely that’s too much star power for the gutty, gritty 1996 Yankees to overcome, right?
You might think so, but you’d be forgetting the comeback mojo of the Joe Torre’s ’96 squad, which dropped Games One and Two, at home, against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series before storming back to win the series 4-2.
A similar script played out here as well. The 1996 dropped the first two games and were down 3-1 entering Game Five. But they wouldn’t give up. A 3-0 win in Game Five was followed by a 7-1 pasting in Game Six.
Game Seven was an instant classic. The ’96 team struck first, scoring two in the top of the first, but 1941 answered back with one in the bottom half. Back and forth they went, ending the ninth inning tied 4-4. In the top of the 10th, facing Johnny Murphy, Bernie Williams led off with a walk. He then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error on Bill Dickey. Paul O’Neill was intentionally walked and Cecil Fielder drew a base on balls too. Bases loaded, no one out in the 10th inning of Game Seven. Murphy still something left in the tank, however. He struck out Tino Martinez looking, then did the same to Mariano Duncan. Would he get out of this monumental jam? Darryl Strawberry strode to the plate and …. Murphy walked him! The 1996 Yankees took a 5-4 lead and closed out the win in the bottom of the 10th.
Bernie Williams was the MVP.