Baseball's greatest nine may be from 1939
Triumph and tragedy mark Yanks squad with talent, character
When the discussion centers on the greatest baseball lineup ever, the best nine of all time, the traditional, reflexive response is "the '27 Yankees."
And that is never a bad answer. But there are other lineups that can legitimately be allowed into the argument. One of those should always be another Yankees team, this one from 1939.
These Yankees were impressive for both tangible and intangible reasons. They were absolutely dominant on the field, and they had to overcome an ongoing personal tragedy, as the "Iron Horse," the seemingly indestructible Lou Gehrig, was struck down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This club was loaded with both talent and character.
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For a wonderfully detailed summary of the 1939 Yankees and the evolution of their season, the book "A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939" by Richard J. Tofel can be highly recommended. Tofel's reporting is impressive, and this work reinforces the notion of this team's singular ability.
To the tangibles first: The '39 Yankees finished 106-45, 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox. Then they swept the Reds in the World Series.
But the numbers inside those achievements may be even better than the record suggests. The '39 Yankees outscored their opponents by 411 runs, the largest run differential in the history of the game. They had seven pitchers win 10 games or more; only two other teams have done that.
These Yankees had four Hall of Famers in the lineup apart from Gehrig -- catcher Bill Dickey, center fielder Joe DiMaggio, starting pitcher Red Ruffing and, much better late than never, second baseman Joe Gordon. There were future Hall of Famers all over the place with this group -- manager Joe McCarthy and general manager and club president Ed Barrow were also elected to the Hall.
Six Yankees hit over .300 in 1939. Eight were in double digits in home runs. This was a great team, so great that its greatness was immediately recognizable.
Nine Yankees were named to the 1939 American League All-Star team, six of them starters. The balloting in 1939 was by managers, so this wasn't a popularity contest to see which team had the largest fan base.
Locally, The New York Times said that the '39 squad was "beyond question the most amazing club in the 100-year history of baseball." Nationally, Time magazine called it "the greatest team in Major League history."
These Yankees were great collectively, but that sort of greatness also means a lot of individual greatness added together. Let's look at the starting lineup for Game 1 of the 1939 World Series.
1. Frankie Crosetti, shortstop: By all accounts, Crosetti was a tremendous defensive player, and he could run. He was not a great hitter, and there remains some question about why McCarthy insisted on placing him at the top of the lineup. But he was on base often enough to score 109 runs in 1939.
2. Red Rolfe, third base: Rolfe had a sensational season, leading the Majors with 213 hits and 139 runs, hitting .329 with an on-base percentage of .404. He also led the AL in doubles, with 46.
3. Charlie Keller, right field: Anybody whose nickname was "King Kong" did something impressively. Keller was just a 23-year-old rookie in '39, but he won the right field job and hit .334 with a .447 on-base percentage.
4. DiMaggio: One of the greatest in the game, he requires no introduction. But even by his lofty standards, 1939 was an extraordinary season. The Yankee Clipper hit .381. In the 70 years since, no right-handed hitter has done as well. Due to an early-season injury, he played in only 120 games in '39, but he still drove in 126 runs and hit 30 homers. His .448 on-base percentage was the second best of his career, as was his .671 slugging percentage.
5. Dickey: This was the Yankees' fourth consecutive World Series championship, and Dickey was an integral part of each one. In fact, he played on eight World Series teams, seven of which won. A superior player in all phases of the game while playing a demanding position with leadership required, in 1939 he was typically over .300 in batting average, over .400 in on-base percentage and over .500 in slugging percentage. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 105, the fourth consecutive season he had more than 100 RBIs.
6. George Selkirk, left field: An All-Star, Selkirk had a very productive season, hitting .304 with 21 home runs and 101 RBIs. But the most impressive part of his work in 1939 may have been his 103 walks, leading to a .452 on-base percentage.
7. Gordon: That's how impressive this lineup was -- a future Hall of Famer hit seventh. Gordon should have been elected to the Hall of Fame much earlier than this year, but at least he was finally recognized. The nine-time All-Star combined superb defense with hitting that was far above the norm for a second baseman of his era. In 1939 he had 28 home runs and 111 RBIs.
8. Babe Dahlgren, first base: Nobody could replace Gehrig, but Dahlgren put together a decent career. In 1944, with Pittsburgh, he had 101 RBIs, but he was the closest thing to average that this Yankees team had. He had 15 homers and 89 RBIs in 1939.
9. Ruffing: The ace of this staff, Ruffing was 21-7 in '39. This was the fourth consecutive season in which he won 20 or more games. But in the context of this lineup, he was something else: one more legitimate hitter. He had a .269 lifetime average and 36 career home runs, and he was better than that in 1939, with a .305 average and 20 RBIs over 144 at-bats.
As for the bench, with the way McCarthy managed, most of the reserves weren't much of a factor. Outfielder Tommy Henrich, however, appeared in 99 games and was better than respectable in all categories. Henrich went on to a fine career with the Yankees, even though, like so many, he lost years to World War II.
These players and these achievements make their own arguments for greatness. Judged objectively, this had to be one of the greatest nines of all time. But the other factor that sets this team apart was the tragedy that befell its most prominent player and, subsequently, the way the rest of the Yankees reacted.
It was painfully apparent in Spring Training and early in the season that something was seriously wrong with Gehrig. As both his play and his condition deteriorated, McCarthy determined, with Gehrig's consent, that the magnificent streak of 2,130 games played had to end.
That occurred on May 2 in Detroit. How did the rest of the Yankees react? They won the ensuing game, 22-2. As Tofel wrote in his history of that season, May was a month in which Gehrig stopped playing and DiMaggio was out with an injury, and yet the Yankees went 28-4. That tells you something about the depth of talent on this team and about the depth of will.
Gehrig remained on the roster and on the Yankees' bench for the rest of the season. He carried the lineup card to home plate, until, by the end of the season, he was unable to do even that. On July 4, "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" at Yankee Stadium, he gave what turned out to be the most famous address in the history of baseball:
"Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
There was considerable emotion surrounding Gehrig's plight, both on that day and for the rest of his life. It was not just the other seven AL clubs that the Yankees were dealing with in 1939, but they had the ability and the individual and collective determination to create one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. In the debate over of the greatest nine of all times, the 1939 Yankees should always be at least a major part of the discussion.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.