A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 3)
by Paul Semendinger, Ed.D.
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 Third Successful Period (or Year) - 1932
1932: First Place (107-47) 13.0 games over second place Philadelphia. Defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. (This was the year of the Babe’s Called Shot.)
From 1929 to 1935, the Yankees finished in first place once (1932) second place five times (1929, 1931, 1933-35), and in third place once (1930). Imagine, just imagine if there were expanded playoffs and Wild Cards back then… It’s tough saying that 1932 was their only “successful” year, but for this series, we’re just looking at the championship teams.
Catcher - Bill Dickey – The Hall of Famer was discovered playing semi-pro ball after graduation from high school by Little Rock (Southern Association) manager Lena Blackburne. Little Rock had a working agreement with the Chicago White Sox. As Dickey moved through the “system” he was inexplicably waived after the 1927 season, and the Yankees were right there to claim him. Dickey played in 108 games in 1932 batting .310/15/84.
First Base - In 1932, Lou Gehrig was in his prime. A Yankee through-and-through, possibly New York City’s greatest sports star, Gehrig hit .349/34/151 in 1932. Yeah, just a typical year for the Iron Horse.
Second Base - Future Hall-of-Famer Tony Lazzeri was also in his prime in 1932 putting up a .300/15/113 season. 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 installments 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 - Frank Crosetti (.241/5/57) was the Yankees’ shortstop in 1932. This was the rookie season for this life-long Yankee who played until 1948 and then was a Yankees coach…seemingly forever. As a player/coach, Frank Crosetti earned 17 World Series rings. Crosetti was purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for $75,000 and three players.
Third Base - Hall-of-Famer Joe Sewell closed out his fourteen year career with three seasons in the Bronx (1931-33). Known as a player who rarely struck out, Sewell hit .272/11/68 in 1932. (He struck out only three times in 503 at bats that year.) Sewell was released by the Cleveland Indians after the 1930 season. Four days later he signed with the Yankees as a free agent. Yup, a big free agent signing. Sewell was, after all, a lifetime .320 hitter at the time. Ok, truth be told, back then free agency wasn’t the same thing as it is today. In 1930, Joe Sewell earned $14,500 for Cleveland. He signed with the Yankees for $10,000.
Left Field - The primary left fielder in 1932 was Ben Chapman (although Earle Combs and Babe Ruth played there quite a bit as well). Chapman hit .299/10/107. This was the only season between 1930 and 1934 that he failed to hit .300. Chapman also led the league in stolen bases. Chapman was signed by the Yankees. He’d be considered a home grown player, without question.
Center Field - Earle Combs, the future Hall-of-Famer, patrolled center for this championship squad hitting .321/9/65. Combs began his career in 1924 and would spend the entirety of it with the Yankees (until 1935). Like others, he came from a minor league team, Louisville, in a trade for a player and, cash - $50,000.
Right Field - In a statistical quirk, Ben Chapman played more games than Babe Ruth in left field (83 to 44) AND right field (88 to 87), but for all intents and purposes, the right fielder was the Bambino. 1932 was George Herman Ruth’s last truly great season. He hit .341/41/137. He then called a shot (supposedly) in the 1932 World Series, but that’s a story for another day. We all know how Babe Ruth came to the Yankees…
Red Ruffing: The longtime Yankee ace and future Hall-of-Famer was acquired from Boston for journeyman outfielder Cedric Durst and $50,000, along with a $50,000 loan from Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert to the Red Sox. Ruffing pitched to a 18-7, 3.09 record in 1932.
Lefty Gomez: Also a future Hall-of-Famer, Lefty Gomez was purchased from the San Francisco Seals for $35,000. He was 24-7, 4.21 in 1932.
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 16-9, 4.19 in 1932.
Johnny Allen - Allen was a solid pitcher in 1932, his rookie season, going 17-3, 3.70. In his career, he would be one of the few players that would pitch for the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants. He is considered a home-grown Yankee.
Herb Pennock - The Knight of Kennett Square, whose Major League career began in 1912, was still pitching in 1932. This future Hall-of-Famer went 9-5, 4.60 in 21 starts in 1932. Pennock and Ruth were the only players present in all three of the Yankees first three championship eras. His last season with New York was 1933 and he ended his career with the Red Sox in 1934. Pennock came to the Yankees in 1923 from the Boston Red Sox in a trade for three lesser players and $50,000.
Conclusion - This squad had many more “home grown” players. The debatable question, I assume, would be how much the Yankees’ financial strength contributed to their success here. At least four players, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, Earle Combs, and Lefty Gomez came to the Yankees though large payments to their minor league franchises. All four were long time Yankees with three of them earning Hall-of-Fame recognition and the other accumulating more World Series appearances as a player and coach than any other player or coach in the sport’s history. How much did the Yankees’ financial strength help in securing these players?
Again, we’ll let the readers decide. It must also be noted that (for the last time in his career) Babe Ruth strengthened this team, the difference he made should not, even at this point in his career be underestimated. In addition, Red Ruffing, the ace of the pitching staff, came through a cash deal with the Red Sox as did George Pipgras and Herb Pennock. It seems, to this writer at least, that this team wouldn’t have been as dominant without the team’s decision makers and ownership being willing to spend big (those were big dollars in those days of the Great Depression) in order to win.