Any discussion of the 1939 Yankees requires a quick review of the era in order to apply some context and properly set the stage.
From 1936 through 1938, the Yankees won the World Series each season, and posted an average record of 101-52, good for a .660 three-year winning percentage. They captured the American League pennant by an average of a ridiculous 14 games per season and went 12-3 in World Series contests. If their success stopped there, they’d be in the discussion of the best Yankee dynasties of all-time.
Yet somehow, in 1939, they improved. The ’39 group was the best of the four teams of the late ‘30s and is in the discussion of the best Yankee club of all time — which by extension means in the discussion of the best team in baseball history. If you chose any of the 1927, 1939, or 1998 Yankee teams as your personal pick, you wouldn’t really be wrong with any of them. Yet no other team was as quietly dominant as the ’39 club, not only in Yankees history but in baseball history – perhaps even sports history.
The 1939 Yankees went 106-45, a .702 winning percentage. They’re one of just three Yankee teams to ever post a winning percentage higher than .700 (unsurprisingly, 1927 and 1998 were the others.) They won the AL by 17 games and swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series by a cumulative score of 20-8 in the four games. They were the first team in baseball history to win four championships in a row.
Amazingly, based on their +411 run differential, they were likely better than their record indicated, with a Pythagorean W-L of 111-40. No team in the long history of the league has ever outscored opponents by anywhere near that many runs; the ‘39 champions are the lone club over 400.
It didn’t take them long to get going in April of ’39, as they won five of their first eight games, then went on a 28-4 tear through May and early June that separated them from the pack for good. By July 1st, they were 50-15 and held a 16-game lead in the AL, and they didn’t exactly let up off the gas pedal the rest of the way. An 18-7 record over their final 25 games in September showed a relentless focus and drive to win every game, even if the contests had become irrelevant as far as the standings were concerned.
Led on offense by a then-24-year-old Joe DiMaggio, the Yankees paced the league in runs, runs per game, home runs (by a mile as they hit 166 – second best was 124), OBP, SLG, and home run, walk, and extra-base hit percentages. Interestingly enough, they finished dead last in sacrifice bunts, with 28 fewer than the next lowest team. (Take that, old-school/small ball fans.)
On the run prevention side, the pitching staff led by Hall of Famer Red Ruffing posted a team ERA+ of 132* and were the only team to allow less than one hit per inning for the season. Defensive metrics in 1939 aren’t what they are now, but we do know that the Yankees’ gloves turned batted balls into outs at a higher rate than any other AL team by far, with a 73 percent defensive efficiency – no other team was above 70 percent.
*For some perspective, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, currently has a 134 ERA+
Team-wide production on a level that high, as you would expect, included many great individual performances. They had future Hall of Famers in DiMaggio, Ruffing, Bill Dickey, and Joe Gordon, who all had great seasons. They also had a roster full of players who were considered to be between good and very good, play to their full potential.
For example, 22-year-old rookie outfielder Charlie Keller finished 13th in the AL in WAR in 1939, which was only good enough for sixth-best on his own team. Keller had a great season, likely would have won a Rookie of the Year award had it existed in 1939, and still produced less WAR than teammates DiMaggio (who led the AL), Gordon, Dickey, Red Rolfe, and George Selkirk. Overall, five of the top nine AL WAR producers in 1939 were Yankees.
Speaking of Rolfe, the then-30-year-old third baseman: Red led the AL in hits, doubles, and runs scored while posting a 130 OPS+, which was 12th-best in the league. Similar to Keller’s situation, Rolfe’s production made him one of the AL’s elite hitters of 1939, but only the fifth-best on his own team, finishing behind DiMaggio, Selkirk, Keller, and Dickey in OPS+.
The guys on the mound weren’t exactly carried by the position players. In 1939, 42 pitchers made a minimum of 15 starts in the American League – Yankee Lefty Gomez had the 11th-best ERA+ among those pitchers. That’s an excellent season – unless you were on the Yankees, who had three pitchers with a better ERA+ than Gomez in Ruffing, Bump Hadley, and Oral Hildebrand.
That’s what made the 1939 Yankees a great team. They had an all-time legend in DiMaggio, and future Hall of Famers in Ruffing, Gomez, Dickey, and Gordon. They had players who had solid, underrated careers playing at or near the top of their game in 1939 in Keller, Rolfe, Hadley, Hildebrand, Selkirk, and Tommy Henrich. They also had players who were simply very good in 1939 despite not being remembered by fans 80-something years later, such as pitchers Steve Sundra (120 IP, 158 ERA+) and Marius Russo (116 IP, 181 ERA+).
The 1939 Yankees are clearly not only one of the best Yankee teams of all but one of the best baseball teams of all time. The book Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time ranks the ’39 Yankees as the best baseball team of all time. Nate Silver’s 538 rated the 1939 Yankees as the best team of all time in any sport, predominantly based upon the performance gap between them and their competition.
Of course, the question has to be asked, “How did that level of dominance go unheralded?” As you would imagine, the answer is multifactorial.
The 1927 Yankee team played during the “Roaring Twenties” in our society and nothing championed roaring excess more than the Yankees. The Deadball Era was gone, and Babe Rut’s big home runs in a big new stadium drew big crowds (and media attention). One national Great Depression later, the situation had changed, as many eyes turned away from the news cycles for a while. By 1939, baseball and attendance were improving but were still relatively low (about 50 percent lower in ’39 versus ’27) as was the coverage thereof.
Also in April of 1939, Lou Gehrig’s health became a serious issue forcing his retirement. Concerns about his status, his health, and his retirement culminating in Lou Gehrig Day, all combined to take a little shine off minutia such as games. Gehrig’s health was a national story, but obviously affected the Yankees team and the media coverage to a great extent. They persevered regardless, even with their captain ailing.
Unlike the prior era with Ruth and the following era with Mickey Mantle, the ‘39 group predominantly led by DiMaggio, Dickey, and Ruffing had an (outwardly anyway) “businesslike, don’t draw attention to yourself, just get the job done” approach to the game — one that was encouraged by their Hall of Fame manager, Joe McCarthy. The dynasties of Ruth and Mantle often were as entertaining for non-baseball reasons to the media and many fans as they were for their baseball talent.
Obviously, recency bias plays a part in the 1939 team flying under the radar. The overwhelming majority of fans reading this witnessed the 1998 juggernaut in real-time. I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of fans reading this don’t recall the 1939 group quite as well. (But if you are one of the lucky ones who did see them play, please leave a note in the comments section!)
Where they are placed on the all-time best team list is up to each one of us individually to decide, as there are no right or wrong answers. We all have our preferences and idiosyncrasies when discussions like this arise, and we all have to apply our own contextual framework. For example, I can’t finish here without mentioning the elephant in the room, which is the fact the 1939 Yankees did not have to play the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs, which is an enormous contextual caveat.
Yet records are records, and the 1939 Yankees’ performance is as impressive as any team’s. They certainly were the most quietly dominant team in history.