Over the past couple weeks, we here at Pinstripe Alley have been profiling the Yankees’ 27 World Series-winning teams as part of our Champions Series. The posts have been a nice reminder of how lucky we’ve been to root for this team, and what a deep and rich history the franchise has established. We’ve also even taken a look at some “Nearly Teams,” or seasons when the Yankees came close to adding to that 27, but came up short.
However, it’s important to stay grounded. Not every season in Yankees history was a great one. In fact, some are straight-up, genuinely terrible. To give some balance to the Champions Series, here is a look at the five worst teams according to winning percentage in Yankees’ history.
For the first couple years of the then-Highlanders’ existence in New York, they were managed by Clark Griffith. While they contended and came up narrowly short in a couple seasons, the Highlanders were mostly cellar dwellers in those early years.
After another poor start to the 1908 season, Griffith decided to resign, and went on to do other things, such as own the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins and be the father of noted racist Calvin Griffith. To replace him, the Highlanders made shortstop Kid Elberfeld a player/manager.
Elberfeld, called the “Tobasco Kid,” was known for having a bit of a temper and getting into scraps on the field. Shockingly, that personality didn’t exactly work as a manager. His tenure started with a 3-15 run. After staying somewhat in the AL pennant race through early June, by the time that run was over, they were 17 games back. One unnamed player was reported to say that they were “playing under the direction of a crazy man.”
New York went a dismal 27-71 after Elberfeld took over, and he wasn’t given a second year in charge. His .276 winning percentage is the worst of any manager in Highlanders/Yankees’ history.
By winning percentage, 1912 is the worst season in franchise history. At .329, the Highlanders’ 50-102-1 record is also the lowest win total other than the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
For a longer look at what happened with this nightmare of a team, you can read this piece, but exactly what happened boiled down to a couple things. For one, rain massively affected their spring training, meaning the Highlanders went into the year severely undercooked. There was also the matter of their “star,” Hal Chase, being a less than savory character and accused of throwing games. Rookie major league manager Harry Wolverton went into the season expecting good things, but that possibility quickly went down the drain, as did his career as Highlanders skipper. He somehow survived the season, but he never managed in the majors again.
The 55 games out of first place they finished is the most in franchise history, by a pretty wide margin. I suppose that’s better than the 2018 Orioles, but not by much.
The now-Yankees did improve following the 1912 season. They won seven more games and improved by 17 games in the standings, finishing 38 games back of first in the AL. The problem is, that was still only good enough for a 57-94-2 record, and a .377 winning percentage, the third-worst in franchise history.
After moving on from Wolverton, the Yankees brought in Frank Chance, a two-time World Series-winning manager with the Cubs. Unfortunately for him, the infamous Chase was still with the team, and often spent time mocking the partially deaf Chance behind his back. After a poor start and Chance and Chase clashing, the Yankees got rid of their former star, trading Chase.
That didn’t exactly turn the team’s fortunes around. Other than a couple solid pitchers, the Yankees didn’t exactly have much to offer and still finished near the bottom of the American League. Chance was given another try in 1914, and while the team was at least a little better (60-74), he resigned midseason.
A couple years after 1913, the Yankees acquired some guy named Babe Ruth and then spent most of the next several decades winning or, at least, competing for pennants and World Series titles. It took until 1990 for the franchise to put up another season that came close to having as bad a winning percentage as 1909, 1912, and 1913.
The Yankees famously played in just one World Series despite winning the most games of any team in the 1980s. Much of that is typically attributed to George Steinbrenner’s constant meddling. However, much of that meddling in the ‘80s typically resulted in a decent team that was above .500 but not good enough to reach. By 1990, all of the meddling seemed to finally fully catch up with the Yankees.
With Don Mattingly dealing with back problems for much of the season and few other hitters having anything approaching a good season, the team bottomed out and put up a 67-95 season. Meanwhile, just two pitchers who started a game had an above-average ERA+. Those two were Dave Eiland and Jeff Robinson, who made nine combined starts, with Robinson mostly a reliever. This would also be the season where the Yankees lost a game that starter Andy Hawkins threw a “no-hitter” in, and they also got beloved Yankee Bucky Dent fired as manager.
During the 1990 season, Steinbrenner would also get banned from management after it was revealed that he had hired a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. It was fun times all around in the Bronx.
As it turned out, with Steinbrenner banned and Gene Michael at the helm as GM, 1991 would lay down some foundation for the eventual turnaround. However, the team wasn’t remotely close to being good yet, putting up the fifth-worst winning percentage in team history under veteran minor league skipper Stump Merrill.
They got some improvements across the board and saw the debut of a young outfielder named Bernie Williams. Unfortunately, all that only added four wins, as the team went 71-91 behind a pitching staff that intimidated absolutely no one. The only silver lining in this season was that it led to the sixth overall pick of the 1992 Draft. He turned out OK.