1923 was a historically monumental year for the Yankees. The original Yankee Stadium was built, the franchise won its first World Series, and Babe Ruth won the American League MVP — becoming the first Yankee to do so.
Yet the team took a step back in 1924, winning nine fewer games than the previous season, which was only good enough for second place in the American League. The 1925 season was even a bigger step back as the team (due in part to a mysterious extended absence of Ruth) won only 69 games, finishing in seventh place in the eight-team AL. With a refocused Ruth, the team bounced back resoundingly in 1926, winning 91 games and the AL pennant, but eventually lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.
With the return of a rededicated Ruth, along with a very good and very deep pitching staff and the rise of Lou Gehrig who was transforming from a very good young player into an all-time great, the stage was set for what would become one of the greatest — if not the greatest — team season in baseball history.
Regular Season Record: 110-44
Manager: Miller Huggins
Top hitter by rWAR: Babe Ruth (12.6)
Top pitcher by rWAR: Wilcy Moore (6.6)
World Series result: Yankees sweep Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-0
Before we get into some of the specifics of the Yankees’ 1927 season, I have to warn you: If you’re a fan of the modern game who doesn’t enjoy the focus on launch angle, exit velocity, and power-hitting which brings many home runs and walks, but also many strikeouts (with a disinclination for “small ball” thrown in for good measure), then you would have hated the 1927 Yankees.
A total of 22.6 percent of the team’s plate appearances ended in either a home run, walk, or strikeout — by far the highest percentage in either the American or National Leagues. (The next nine teams finished between 18.3 percent and 15.3 percent.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1927 Yankees also finished below-league average in both stolen bases and sacrifice bunts.
Yet despite what the John McGraws and Ty Cobbs of the world preached, the Yankees led the league in runs per game by a light-year with that approach. (Their 6.30 RPG was almost a full run better than second-best Philadelphia’s 5.43.) In addition to RPG, “Murderers’ Row” also led the league in HR, BB, Ks, BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS+ with a mind-boggling 127.
You’re a reader of Pinstripe Alley, so I won’t bore you with an explanation of how great Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were. I will however assure you that the 1927 Yankees’ lineup was much more than Ruth and Gehrig. Center fielder and future Hall of Famer Earle Combs finished fourth in the AL with 7.1 WAR, the best among center fielders. Second baseman and future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri posted 6.4 WAR which was good for fifth-best in the league overall and second-best among infielders. If WAR existed at the time, they all likely would have poked fun at slacking left fielder Bob Meusel and his 135 OPS+ and 4.2 WAR (only 12th best in the AL.)
Unsurprisingly, the team’s ability to prevent runs was impressive as well. Led by future Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock in addition to Urban Shocker (18 wins, 137 ERA+, 3.30 FIP) the Yankees posted the fewest runs allowed per game in the AL — almost three-quarters of a run per game better than second-best Philadelphia. I wouldn’t want to speak for the aforementioned pitchers but I’m sure they’d add that the team’s defense played a big part in that, as the Yankees also had the highest percentage of batted balls turned into outs in the AL in 1927.
Furthermore, the team’s offensive approach may not have been the only way in which Miller Huggins would have rubbed modern fans the wrong way. Despite having a very deep and talented starting rotation, Huggins had zero qualms with using his secret weapon — Wilcy Moore — early and often. Moore, despite also starting 12 games, relieved in 38, closing out 30 of them. In his 213 innings between starts and relief appearances, Moore won 19 games while posting a 2.83 FIP and led the AL in both saves (13) and ERA (2.28). If you’re curious if a reliever usage pattern such as Huggins used with Moore was common, it was not. In the entire decade of the ’20s, only two other pitchers besides Moore had a season with both 35 or more relief appearances and 10 or more saves.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the Yankees’ 1927 season was that despite the incredible performances, it didn’t come without drama, and winning the pennant was far from a foregone conclusion for part of the season.
On June 8th of that season, despite playing to an impressive 32-15 record, the Yankees found themselves only two games ahead of the Chicago White Sox in the AL standings. Eyebrows were surely raised further when the White Sox were in the Bronx that day to face the Yankees and would send future Hall of Famer Red Faber to the mound to face them.
Matters looked bleak as the Yankees came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, trailing by five runs (somewhat ironically, Faber added insult to injury with an RBI single in the top of the ninth). When Yankees third baseman “Jumpin” Joe Dugan fouled out with a runner on first, the Yankees win probability stood at one percent. Yet after a Ruth single, and an RBI double from Gehrig followed by a two-run single from Cedric Durst, the Yankees had pulled to within two runs.
That’s when Tony Lazzeri came to the plate and hit a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth. The game would eventually go 11 innings with the Yankees winning in the bottom frame on a Ray Morehart walk-off single.
You may be wondering why I’d single out this mid-season game in a season in which the team had 110 wins — there are two reasons. First, Lazzeri’s home run was the biggest hit of the season for the Yankees going by championship win probability added (cWPA). Secondly, and whether there’s cause or just correlation is up to each of us individually to decide, the Yankees went on a tear after that game and never looked back. Within two weeks their two-game lead had stretched to 10, in part due to a nine-game winning streak. For the rest of the season, they’d win a ridiculous 74 percent of their games, going 78-29, and would win the AL pennant by 18.5 games.
The World Series against the Pirates wasn’t exactly a fait accompli, but it was close. Wilcy Moore started one game and closed out another, pitching a combined 10.1 innings while allowing only one run, leading all pitchers in cWPA with 14.34 percent. Ruth would hit two dingers (the only two of the series) and Gehrig would add four extra-base hits, but it was light-hitting shortstop Mark Koenig who stole the show. His 9-for-18 performance added 9.30 percent cWPA, best among position players in the four-game sweep.
I know I promised I wouldn’t bore you with Ruth and Gehrig talk, but we can’t finish today without discussing them further. Although we all know they were all-time greats, the magnitude of their 1927 season can’t be overstated. In 1927, Gehrig posted 11.9 WAR with an OPS+ of 220. For some perspective, only three other players ever — Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Barry Bonds — have reached both of those numbers in the same season. Yet Gehrig finished second in both categories on his own team in 1927.
Gehrig also posted an almost comical .474/.765 OBP/SLG line for the 1927 season. That put him in even more exclusive company as Ruth and Bonds are the only other players to have a season in which they reached both of those numbers. I’m sure you know how this ends — once again, both of those numbers were only good enough for runner-up on the 1927 Yankees.
Regardless of how you weigh varying factors such as different eras, length of season, level of competition, etc., the 1927 Yankees are without question in the discussion of the best team of all time. Many Yankee fans are partial to the 1998 group, and I know you didn’t ask me but if you did I’d probably lean toward the 1939 juggernaut, but there is no wrong answer among those three. I’d also be remiss without pointing out that the Yankees went 21-1 against the St. Louis Browns in 1927, and they most certainly would not have gone 21-1 against the Chicago American Giants or the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants.
For today’s purposes, what we can likely agree on is that the 1927 Yankees were almost a century ahead of their time in several regards, and also set the standard by which all other great teams are measured today.