A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 2)
by Paul Semendinger, Ed.D.
June 29, 2022
NOTE - As part of the move to a new website design and host, we will be bringing back articles from the past as a way to archive them on the new site. This was a popular series in 2019.
I contend that throughout their history, when the Yankees have been successful it is because they have used their great financial strength to acquire the necessary talent in order to build the best teams possible. I also contend that has been the Yankees way from the very start of their success and it had defined their successful periods right up until the present day.
I decided to look at this in summary form to test my theory. In this new series, I will examine the various successful periods in Yankees history. I will look at the team’s starting players and find out how they were acquired to see if my perspective is correct.
We’ll begin with their first championship era: 1921-1923. The statistics I will share in this exercise are the typical counting stats of the time - batting average/home runs/runs batted in (and for pitchers, wins, losses, ERA). These will serve as a quick guide to see how that player performed over those years.
Please note that this is not an exhaustive study, it is only a start. More and deeper research is welcome.
The Second Successful Period - 1926-1928
1926: First Place (91-63) 3.0 games over second place Cleveland, Lost World Series to St. Louis Cardinals.
1927: First Place (110-44) 10.0 games over second place Philadelphia. Defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.
1928: First Place (101-53) 2.5 games over second place Philadelphia. Defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in World Series.
Catcher - The Yankees of this period were actually rather mediocre at catcher. They used a host of players there with Pat Collins being the player who started in 1926 and 1927 and manned the position in more games (220) than any other. Collins batted .269/20/85 in that period. After playing in the Majors from 1919-1924, Collins found himself with a minor league team in St. Paul. The Yankees purchased Collins for $25,000 and a player to be named later (Pee Wee Wanninger). Johnny Grabowski was on the 1927 and 1928 teams (.257/1/46). He was the starting catcher in 1928. Grabowski played for the White Sox from 1924-26 and was traded with one other player to the Yankees for Aaron Ward before the 1927 season.
First Base - Henry Louis Gehrig. Basically, that’s enough said. He was a Yankee property from the moment he became a professional, signed off the campus of Columbia University. Lou Gehrig might be the best “homegrown” Yankee ever. He is one of the greatest players ever, of course. He was a Yankee throughout his legendary career. In this three year period, the first three full seasons (Gehrig actually started playing regularly in June 1925) of his career, Lou Gehrig sluged .353/90/429. Amazing.
Second Base - At second base, the Yankees had another young star, also playing his first seasons (Gehrig actually became a regular in June 1925, but 1926 was this player’s rookie year), the future Hall-of-Famer Tony Lazzeri who batted .302/46/301 over these three seasons. Lazzeri was purchased by the Yankees from the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League for the rights to two players and $50,000. Other teams had been interested in Lazzeri, but his medical history (Lazzeri has epilepsy) scared some away. Still, the $50,000 price was huge in those days. This could be considered the equivalent of a free agent signing today, or not. I am going to let the reader decide. As noted in the first installment of this series, times were different in regard to acquiring players in this time and the minor leagues were not operated as they are today. (We will see a similar dynamic with Joe DiMaggio in a later installment.) It is fair to say that it was the huge expenditure by the club that brought Tony Lazzeri to the Yankees.
Shortstop - The Yankees’ shortstop in this period was Mark Koenig. In 402 games over the three seasons, he batted .291/12/190. The Yankees acquired Koenig in the same way they acquired Lazzeri in a trade with a minor league team, St. Paul, for two players and $50,000.
Third Base - The third baseman was Joe Dugan for this entire period. We examined Joe Dugan in the first installment of this series. The 1926-28 seasons were his last in New York with the Yankees. In that time he hit .278/9/138. Dugan had been acquired by the Yankees from the Red Sox. At the time, the particulars of the deal were highly criticized by some, especially other clubs, because it seemed like the Yankees swindled the competition (and also paid $50,000 to the Red Sox) to get him.
Left Field - By this time Bob Meusel became the everyday left fielder, but not really until 1927. In 1926, Babe Ruth still played in more games in left than Meusel. Bob Meusel had big years from 1926-28 putting up an impressive total of .317/31/294. Meusel, as we saw previously, was what we’d consider a homegrown Yankee.
Center Field - Future Hall-of-Famer Earle Combs was the center fielder for these years and into the 1930’s. Combs totaled .322/21/175 over the three years. Combs spent his whole career with the Yankees beginning in 1924. Like others, he came from a minor league team, Louisville, in a trade for a player and, you guessed it, $50,000.
Right Field - George Herman “Babe” Ruth put up a .349/161/464 line in this three-year period. He was, of course, purchased from the Red Sox in 1920.
Herb Pennock - We discussed Pennock in the first installment of this series. Pennock, a future Hall-of-Famer, came to the Yankees in 1923 from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for three lesser players and $50,000 (a popular dollar amount, it seems). In the 1926-28 period, Pennock appeared in 103 games (starting 83) and amassed an overall record of 59-25, 3.10.
Urban Shocker - (Quick plug for an excellent book- Urban Schocker: Silent Hero of Baseball’s Golden Age. I read this last year and was completely impressed. It was outstanding.) Shocker’s story is a fascinating one. He was acquired by the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft (yes, it’s that old, who knew?) in 1915. He pitched for the Yankees in 1916 and 1917 before being sent to the St. Louis Browns. Shocker won 20 games in four consecutive seasons for the Browns (1920-23). The Yankees re-acquired him in 1925 in a three person trade. In 1926-27, he pitched in 72 games, making 59 starts, and going 37-17, 3.14. Shocker had heart problems and died in 1928.
Waite Hoyt - Also discussed in this series’ first installment, Hoyt went 61-26, 3.25 in 118 games (91 starts) between 1926 and 1928. This future Hall-of-Famer, came to the Yankees from the Red Sox in the same deal that brought Wally Schang, and others, to the Bronx.
Sad Sam Jones - Jones was also a member of the 1922-23 teams. He came to the Yankees, from the Red Sox (among others) in the Everett Scott trade that also included $100,000 going to the Red Sox. Jones was still a Yankee in 1926. He made 23 starts that year going 9-8, 4.98. He was traded to the St. Louis Browns before the 1927 season.
George Pipgras - Although Pipgras spent his first 8+ Major League seasons in the Bronx (1923-24, 1927-33), he was originally acquired in a trade with the Red Sox that involved cash going from the Yankees to Boston. Pipgras went 34-16, 3.64 over the 1927-28 seasons.
Dutch Ruether - This veteran pitcher began his big league career in 1917 and pitched mostly in the National League for Chicago, Cincinnati, and Brooklyn. He eventually went to the Washington Senators (in the American League) and was traded to the Yankees in August 1926. 1927 was his only full season in New York. In 1927, Ruether’s last in the Major Leagues, he went 13-6, 3.38 in 26 starts.
Conclusion - While there were more “home grown” Yankees on these squads, including the great Lou Gehrig, it is again seemingly clear that it was the Yankees financial muscle, their smarts, and the ever willing Red Sox that built the foundation of this team’s success. Except for Urban Shocker (who they needed to re-acquire) every main pitcher came in a trade or cash deal (or both) - none was originally signed by the Yankees. These teams would not be nearly the same without Babe Ruth, who, of course, came to New York because Jacob Ruppert has the cash to get him.
The Yankees went to six World Series in the 1920’s, winning three of them. In that time, they established the framework and the model of success that would serve them extremely well throughout their entire history. These teams used their financial muscle to acquire the necessary talent in order to succeed on the grandest scale. It was in the 1920’s that the Yankees became The Yankees, the most dominant team baseball would ever know. They did this by spending and spending big.