Today we have the third and final part of our three-part series, ranking the past ten decades from worst to first for the Yankees and their fans. If you’ve been following along thus far, you may have noticed that the first six entries on our list were the past six decades, so we’re going to have to go way back for the top four. Given that of the 40 World Series played from 1920 through 1959, the Yankees appeared in 24 of them and won 18, rest assured none of these decades slipped into the top four undeservingly. We’ve covered some great decades so far – today we get to the legendary times with the almost hard-to-believe levels of success. (If you did miss our first two parts, you can catch up here and here.)
4. The 1940s
World Series wins: 4
AL Pennants: 5
Regular Season winning percentage: .604
Top hitter by WAR: Joe DiMaggio, 44.0
Top pitcher by WAR: Tiny Bonham, 19.1
The 1940s to a great extent were about change, both in the world and in baseball, and the Yankees were no exception. Over the course of a decade, rosters will always evolve, but with many MLB players missing time to serve in WW II, there weren’t too many constants in the game during this time. Two things did remain constant for the Yankees, however, in that they continued to win championships throughout the 1940s and they continued to win them with Joe DiMaggio as their best player.
After coming off four straight World Series wins to end the previous decade, the 1940 team had a down year – meaning they finished only two games out of first place. After that it was a quick return to their World Series ways as they appeared in the next three fall classics, winning two. After a four-year stretch (with plenty of roster upheaval) of not reaching the World Series despite averaging 87 wins per year in a 154 game season, the team came back to add two more titles to the trophy shelf in 1947 and 1949.
Four World Series wins in five World Series appearances with the AL’s best winning percentage would be the best decade in most franchise’s history – but this is the Yankees, so the 1940s doesn’t quite crack the top three on our list.
3. The 1920s
World Series wins: 3
AL Pennants: 6
Regular Season winning percentage: .608
Top hitter by WAR: Babe Ruth, 102.8
Top pitcher by WAR: Waite Hoyt, 36.1
The addition of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 not only changed the franchise but changed the sport, which is about as understated as it can be put. In his first season in the Bronx, a 25-year-old Ruth added a ho-hum 11.7 WAR, 255 OPS+ to the team, leading it to a 95-win season. Somewhat remarkably, Ruth would continue that level of dominance throughout the decade, and the team would manage to get even get better.
After World Series appearances in both 1921 and 1922, the team broke through for its first championship in 1923. After a second-place AL finish in 1924, the team had its only down year of the decade in large part due to a mysterious Ruth illness in 1925, but then rebounded to reach the series again in 1926, then win two more in 1927 and 1928 (with the 1927 team considered among the greatest of all time). Over the course of the 1927–1928 seasons, the Yankees posted a ridiculous .685 winning percentage and went 8-0 in World Series play.
Appearing in six World Series in a decade, while winning three with two of the most legendary players ever to play leading the way is one of the more remarkable decades in baseball history. Yet only when talking about the Yankees, can we count three World Series losses as a negative, which is what keeps Murderer’s Row out of our top three.
2. The 1930s
World Series wins: 5
AL Pennants: 5
Regular Season winning percentage: .636
Top hitter by WAR: Lou Gehrig, 74.2
Top pitcher by WAR: Lefty Gomez, 43.6
The Yankees of the 1930s had five seasons in which they did not win the World Series. In those seasons, they averaged a 91-63 record and finished in second place in the AL four times, with one third-place finish. Those are some pretty good teams - unless you compare them to the Yankee teams that won World Series in the 1930s.
Here’s what they did in the other five years of the decade: They posted a season average record of 104 -50, won the AL by an average of 14.5 games, and went 20-3 in World Series play. It’s hard for a team to distance itself from its competition more than the Yankees of the 1930s did. The 1932 championship team was still led by Ruth and Gehrig, who were joined by recent additions and future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Bill Dickey. Gehrig, Ruffing, and Dickey would be joined a few years later by the likes of Lefty Gomez and a young Joe DiMaggio to form the team that closed the decade by winning four straight World Series, becoming what many still consider the Yankees’ greatest dynasty.
A .636 winning percentage over a decade with five World Series wins and a 20-3 record in those World Series’ is almost unfathomable. Yet once again this is the Yankees, and as dominant as the Yankees were in the 1930s, it still wasn’t good enough to land in the top spot on our list.
1. The 1950s
World Series wins: 6
AL Pennants: 8
Regular Season winning percentage: .621
Top hitter by WAR: Mickey Mantle, 67.9
Top pitcher by WAR: Whitey Ford, 26.3
I’m sure to the shock of absolutely no one, the Yankees’ greatest decade was the 1950s. Obviously, we don’t have enough time to comprehensively cover the extent to which baseball was dominated by the Yankees in the 1950s, but I’d like to start by quickly mentioning two seasons in particular.
In 1959 the Yankees were better than league average in both runs per game and runs allowed per game. They went 79–75 and finished in third place in the American League, although their run differential suggested that poor luck may have taken a couple of wins off their win total. A few years prior in 1954, the team won 103 games (more than any of their five consecutive title-winning teams from 1949 – 1953) and finished with the exact same run differential as Cleveland, who won 111 games that season. I bring those two seasons up first because they’re the only two seasons in the 1950s in which the Yankees did not reach the World Series.
The team started the decade by picking up where the 1949 champions left off and won the first four World Series of the decade, each year from 1950 -1953. They’d add a fifth championship trophy to the decade mantel (pun intended) in 1956, then a sixth in 1958. Rather interestingly, their two World Series losses in the 1950s both came in seven-game series. In 1955, they lost to a Brooklyn team that led MLB in wins that season in seven games, then in 1957 would lose in seven games to a Milwaukee Braves team that won the NL by eight games that season. So, the Yankees did not only win six World Series titles in the 1950s but came within two games of winning eight – and again, the 1954 team that did not reach the World Series may have been the best of them all, registering the most wins of any Yankees team in the decade.
Among a group in which the worst decades produced a lot of success and others that were dominated by dynasties, the 1950s clearly stand alone as the greatest decade in Yankee history.
That brings an end to our three-day, three-part list – I hope you liked it, and I hope you leave a comment or two in the comments section telling me what I got right and what I may have missed.