When people list the greatest Yankees teams in franchsie history, they typically start in one of two places. Some will take the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” Yankees’ team. That team, featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, posted the best winning percentage in Yankees’ history at .714, having gone 110-44. They went on to sweep the Pirates away in the World Series.
The other obvious option is the 1998 Yankees. That team won the most regular season games in Yankees’ history after a 114-48 regular season. Add in three playoff rounds and 11 more wins, and the World Series-clinching victory over the Padres that took them to 125 wins. No MLB team has ever won more games in a year than that.
However, if you’re picking a third team to throw into that conversation, you’re probably selecting the 1939 Yankees.
Regular Season Record: 106-45-1
Manager: Joe McCarthy
Top Hitter by WAR: Joe DiMaggio (8.3)
Top Pitcher by WAR: Red Ruffing (4.4)
World Series: Yankees sweep Cincinnati Reds, 4-0
This era of the Yankees had already become a dynasty heading into the 1939 season. The three previous seasons all ended in World Series championships, marking the first three-peat in the history of the Fall Classic. In fact, the Yankees lost only three World Series games across those three titles. It was utter dominance from a team also never faced late-season competition for the AL pennant, either.
Those three championship campaigns saw the transition from Gehrig being the team’s best player to Joe DiMaggio taking over that role. Beyond those two, the ‘39 team also featured Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Red Ruffing, and were just generally stacked all around.
The Yankees started out the new season with three wins, and in the third of them, gave a major league debut to Charlie Keller. While not on the list of future Hall of Famers, Keller would go on to be an excellent hitter and an important part of the Yankees’ for years to come.
As the team got off to a good start to the season, one player in particular, did not. After an 0-for-4 game on April 30th, Gehrig was hitting an uncharacteristic .143/.273/.143. The next day, he removed himself from the lineup, ending his consecutive games streak at 2,130.
Of course, there was a lot more wrong than just a bad start to the season. A couple weeks after removing himself from the lineup, Gehrig underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with ALS. He had to retire immediately, and would be honored at Yankee Stadium on July 4th, when he gave his famous “Luckiest Man” speech.
On the field, the Yankees caught fire in May. Over the course of the month, they went 24-4, scoring 213 runs, at an average of 7.6 per game. By the time May was over, they were already up 6.5 games in the AL. Other than during a brief losing run in July, the Yankees’ lead stayed above that 6.5-game mark for most of the rest of the season.
The ‘39 Yankees were led by a powerful offense that averaged over six runs per game on the season. The best of the group was DiMaggio, but there was excellent hitters up and down the lineup. Of the eight most used players at the various positions, six of them not only had an OPS+ over the average 100, they had an OPS+ over 120. Those six — DiMaggio, Dickey, Gordon, Keller, Red Rolfe, and George Selkirk — led the way on a team that is ninth all time time in runs per game, ahead of even the ‘27 Yankees.
With that deep a lineup, you hardly needed the best pitching staff in the league, but they arguably had that as well. Led by Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, the Yankees allowed just 3.66 runs per game, the best in the AL by almost an entire run. Of the 152 games, only 23 were stated by a pitcher who finished the year with an ERA+ under the league average 100.
As mentioned, the Yankees sputtered a bit in July. (In this case, “sputtering” is going 16-12, which is a 92-win pace over 162 games.) However, they rebounded over August and September, going 40-19 to ensure that they won the AL by 17 games. Their final run differential of +411 is still the best in MLB history. In comparison, the ‘27 Yankees were +376 and the ‘98 Yankees were +309.
In the World Series, the Yankees faced the Reds, who used an eight-game September winning streak to pull away from the Cardinals. With 97 victories, Cincinnati was a good team, and they even went on to win the World Series in the following season of 1940. In 1939, however, they were no match for a historically great Yankees team.
Game 1 was close with the Yankees needing a complete game from Ruffing, and a walk-off single from Dickey to come away with a 2-1 win.
In Game 2, the Yankees got another complete game, this time from Monte Pearson, who threw a shutout. Meanwhile, the offense got four early runs and never looked back, winning 4-0. Keller got New York off to a great start in Game 3 at Crosley Field, hitting a first inning, two-run home run. After that, starter Lefty Gomez lasted only one inning due to an injury, but that didn’t end up mattering too much. The Yankees’ got a solid effort from Bump Hadley out of the bullpen, as their lineup belted three home runs on the day with DiMaggio and Dickey adding to Keller’s. The Yankees won 7-3 and were now a game away from a fourth consecutive championship.
In Game 4, the Yankees needed a ninth-inning rally to take the game to extra innings, but they finished things there, thanks to one of the funniest plays in World Series history. With two on and out, DiMaggio singled home the go-ahead run. However, an error on the play led to Keller attempting to score all the way from first. Keller and the throw home arrived right at the same time, leading to a collision with Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi. The catcher had been struck in the groin, causing him to be dazed. In an event known as “Lombardi’s Big Snooze,” tried in vein to get the ball as DiMaggio raced all the way around to score a third run:
The Reds couldn’t come back in the bottom of the 10th, and the Yankees were champions again.
The 1939 Yankees have the sixth-best winning percentage of any team that won the World Series. Considering that, their run differential, and the rest of their impressive season, you could absolutely put them on a short list of the best teams in baseball history.