After three years without a title, the Yankees finally broke their mini-slump in 1936, beating the Giants in six games. That would begin an unprecedented run of success, as they would go on to win four in a row and five in six years. Today, we will reminisce on the second of those titles, with 1937 signaling the beginning of one of the most momentous dynastic shifts in the franchise’s history.
For the previous decade-plus, the Yankees had become synonymous with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Although the former departed after the 1934 season, Gehrig still carried the torch of the vaunted Murderers’ Row and the memory of that initial dynasty. By 1937, Gehrig was 34 — and though still a dominant threat in the box — there was a new superstar in town. Joe DiMaggio debuted the year prior, and in 1937, entrenched himself as the starting center fielder and new face of the Yankees, accepting the crown from his veteran teammate.
Regular season record: 102-52
Manager: Joe McCarthy
Top hitter by rWAR: Joe DiMaggio (8.3)
Top pitcher by rWAR: Lefty Gomez (9.2)
After an Opening Day 3-2 loss at the hands of the Washington Senators, the Yankees rattled off five straight victories and eight in their first eleven overall to grab a narrow lead in the American League. However, a cold spell that saw the team lose four in a row and five of six dropped them back into second place.
That would not last long. Seemingly receiving a kick of urgency in the rear, the Yankees would win 14 of their next 17 contests, regaining first place in the AL on May 20th — a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the way out.
This rendition of the Yankees was a remarkably streaky team, with losses coming in bunches of three or four interspersed between extended winning stretches. For example, they lost six of eight to begin June, but followed it up with 30-6 tear that culminated in a nine-game winning streak bisected by the All-Star game, part of a larger 15-1 run.
Speaking of the 1937 All-Star Game, over half the starting nine consisted of Yankees. Gehrig started at first, DiMaggio in right field, Bill Dickey behind the plate, Red Rolfe at third base, and Lefty Gomez took the ball for the start. If the game had an MVP award, I’d imagine it would have gone to Gehrig, who went 2-for-4 with a two-run home run in the first off Dizzy Dean and a two-run double in the sixth off Van Mungo.
New York cruised the rest of the way, going 58-30 in the second half, including a ten-game winning streak in the beginning of August. They finished the season with a record of 102-52 — 13 games ahead of the second-place Detroit Tigers — and averaged 6.2 runs per game while allowing 4.3 runs per game, both roughly a run better than the respective AL averages.
Throughout the season, Yankee Stadium underwent extensive renovations. The wooden bleachers were replaced by concrete seats while the three-tier grandstand was extended beyond both foul poles to the right- and left-center positions that typified the Classic Yankee Stadium look. Most importantly during this period, the dimensions of the field shifted. The sharply-angled cutout in left field was shaped into a sweeping curve that continued to center field, while the deepest point of the park — Death Valley just left of dead-center — was brought in 29 feet from 490 to 461. This new configuration alleviated some of the issues of right-handed power hitters like DiMaggio, and would stand for the next 36 years.
1937 also marked the first time in five seasons that Gehrig did not finish as the team’s WAR leader among position players. That distinction belonged to DiMaggio, and what a season he had. In 151 games, DiMaggio batted .346/.412/.673 with 215 hits, 167 RBI, a 166 OPS+ and an MLB-leading 46 home runs, 151 runs scored, and 418 total bases. Gehrig’s campaign was none-too-shabby, batting .351/.473/.643 with 37 home runs and an MLB-leading 127 walks and 1.116 OPS, but it was clear that the mantle for face of the Yankees was beginning its transfer to DiMaggio.
Surprisingly, neither player was the overall team leader in WAR. Lefty Gomez compiled an all-time pitching performance in 1937. He won his second pitching Triple Crown with a 21-11 record, 2.33 ERA, and 194 strikeouts in 278.1 innings pitched. He also led the league with six complete game shutouts, a 193 ERA+ and 3.29 FIP.
Despite all these accomplishments, somehow none of the Bronx Bombers won the MVP at the end of the year. Detroit’s Charlie Gehringer took home the award despite an OPS almost 150 points lower than Gehrig (obviously that statistic wasn’t prevalent back then but I’m including it for context). He probably snagged the award thanks to his league-leading .371 average — thank goodness we have more useful measures of performance today. DiMaggio finished second and Gehrig fourth. Bill Dickey with his 29 home runs — the second-highest tally ever by a catcher at that point — finished fifth while Red Ruffing and Gomez finished eighth and ninth respectively.
That brings us to the World Series, where the Yankees met the team they had bested the previous Fall Classic — the New York Giants. The matchup featured a remarkable assembly of Hall of Fame talent, with the Yankees boasting manager Joe McCarthy, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Dickey, and Lazzeri and a rotation headed by Gomez and Ruffing while the Giants brought the triumvirate of manager Bill Terry, right fielder Mel Ott, and pitcher Carl Hubbell.
Game 1 was a pitchers’ duel through the first five innings, with the Giants scoring the only run on a groundball double play with runners on the corners off Gomez. However, the Yankees exploded for seven runs in the bottom of the sixth on a procession of singles, and would go on to win the game 8-1 with Gomez pitching a complete game.
The Bombers repeated that feat in Game 2, and in a similar fashion. The Giants once again scored the game’s only run through the first 4.2 innings, this time an Ott RBI single in the first off Ruffing. New York replied with eight unanswered runs — two in the fifth, four in the sixth, and two in the seventh — including three runs driven in by Ruffing himself on a single and double. Like his future Hall of Fame teammate, Ruffing pitched a complete game in the Yankees’ 8-1 rout.
New York’s run prevention dominance carried over into Game 3, this time with Monte Pearson on the mound. He was almost able to match the feat of the two starters who went before him, but McCarthy went to Johnny Murphy to get the final out of the 5-1 victory. The offense scored a run in the second, two in the third, and one in the fourth and fifth to put themselves on the cusp of back-to-back titles and an utter humiliation of their rival Giants.
The Giants managed to avoid the sweep with a 7-3 win in Game 4. The Yankees actually scored first on a DiMaggio sac fly in the first. However, the Giant erupted in second, tagging Bump Hadley and Ivy Andrews for six runs. The game was a brilliant final World Series appearance for Hubbell, giving up three runs in a complete game effort. It also featured the last Gehrig World Series home run, a solo shot in the ninth.
The cross-river rivals were only delaying the inevitable, however, as the Yankees would seal the deal in a decisive 4-2 Game 5 win at the Polo Grounds. The Bombers opened the scoring on a Myril Hoag solo shot off Cliff Melton in the second. DiMaggio doubled their lead in the next inning with a solo shot of his own. Ott answered right back, tying the game with a two-run homer off Gomez in the third. Two innings later, the Yankees sealed the deal. Lazzeri led off with a triple and was driven home on a Gomez single. Gehrig concluded the scoring with a two-out double to plate Gomez and win the World Series, finally putting the Yankees up three-to-two in the head-to-head Fall Classic record between Yankees and Giants.
Thus, the Yankees secured their second back-to-back title, setting the stage for their nigh-on invincibility in the next two seasons.