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Yankees History: Herb Pennock and the trade that finally put the Bombers over the top

Tomorrow will be exactly 100 years since the trade that arguably put the Yankees over the top in their chase for their first championship.

American League Pitcher Herb Pennock Posing and Smiling

The 2023 season is set to the 100th anniversary of the Yankees’ first ever World Series championship in 1923. That Babe Ruth-led team finally broke through and won a title, kicking off a dynastic era that would help beget several more dynastic eras, with the team becoming the winningest in all of MLB.

I say “finally broke through” because the 1923 World Series was their first victory, but it wasn’t their first time making it to the Fall Classic. They had previously fallen short against the Giants in both the 1921 and ‘22 World Series. They avenged those demons by finally beating them in ‘23.

If you’re looking for differences in the roster between 1922 and ‘23, there aren’t that many to be found. There is one notable one, though. Tomorrow, January 30th, will mark exactly 100 years since the Yankees acquired pitcher Herb Pennock in a trade with the Red Sox. While Pennock wasn’t the best player on the 1923 Yankees, you could make the argument that his acquisition was what finally put the team over the top in their championship case.

Pennock had made his MLB debut as an 18-year old back in 1912 with the Philadelphia Athletics. He was seen as a pitcher full of potential, and helped the A’s to the 1913 title, although he did not appear in the World Series. After Philadelphia fell in the World Series the following year, Connie Mack dismantled the title-winning team, leading to Pennock getting thrust into the Opening Day starter role for 1915. While he showed promise, including taking a no-hitter through 8.2 innings in that Opening Day start, Pennock couldn’t find consistency, and Mack and the A’s got frustrated enough to release him in June of that year.

The Boston Red Sox picked him up, and Pennock would spend his next seven seasons there. His time there was often stop/start, and he wouldn’t make a full season’s worth of appearances until 1919, after making Red Sox manager Ed Barrow promise him that he would get regular starts. Pennock had his up and downs over the next four seasons, but was mostly solid. However, he was often the subject of Boston fans/media frustrations as he would seemingly start to struggle once the calendar turned to August. Eventually the team decided to move on and traded him to the Yankees on January 30, 1923, getting back Camp Skinner, Norm McMillan, George Murray, and money.

Pennock wouldn’t be the first or the last who would move from Boston to the Yankees around this era. He also wouldn’t be the first or last who then found himself and became a very nice player after crossing that divide from a struggling Sox franchise to a pennant-winning Yankees’ one.

Pennock’s Yankee debut came in the team’s fifth game of the season and came out of the bullpen. Three days later, Miller Huggins gave him his first start. Against the Senators, he allowed one run in a complete game victory. From there, he was off to the races.

In his first season with the Yankees, Pennock went 19-6, leading the league in winning percentage, while putting up a 3.13 ERA, which equated to a 126 ERA+. Pennock would also finish second on the team in Baseball Reference WAR, placing only behind that Babe Ruth guy. He mostly replaced Carl Mays — another former Red Sox pitcher — in the rotation, as Mays began to fall away. Mays had been a bit above average the year before, but fell off a cliff, with Pennock even bettering his 1922 production.

With Pennock adding to an otherwise already solid rotation, the Yankees went 98-54 and won the AL pennant by 16 games. They then proceeded to avenge their losses to the Giants in the World Series, defeating them in six games. Pennock was the winning pitcher in Game 2, allowing just two runs in a complete game, 4-2 victory. In Game 4, he came out of the bullpen to throw the last 1.1 innings, including getting out of a bases loaded situation with the Giants threatening in the eighth. He also went down as the winning pitcher in the clinching Game 6 win, but did allow four runs in seven innings. In total, Pennock put up a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings, the most of any Yankee pitcher in the series.

Pennock would help the Yankees to three more World Series titles before leaving the team after 1933, and would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Yankees teams of that era were too good not to breakthrough eventually, but you could argue that Pennock’s acquisition was the catalyst for the 1923 team finally getting over the top.