A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 4)
by Mike Whiteman
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.
(This section by Paul Semendinger)
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.
Mike Whiteman, worked on a more detailed history of the 1936-39 Yankees for a separate post on SSTN and then wrote this article for the series on how each Yankees team has been constructed.
Please Note: the sourcing of most of this article came from www.baseball-reference.com and biographies from the SABR Bioproject at www.sabr.org .
(By Mike Whiteman)
As I worked on an article profiling the 1936-1939 Yankees, a team widely considered among the best teams in baseball history, it made sense to see, as Paul has done with other historical Yankee squads, how this team was constructed and compare it as much as we can with the current Yankee team formation.
As we look at this, there’s a few systematic things to keep in mind. Back in the 1930s, there was no amateur draft like today - all amateur and semi-pro players were free agents, free to sign with the team of their choice. There was no major league free agency. The 1930s started the widespread team-owned minor league systems like today; but most minor league teams of the decade were independently owned. Many had agreements with major league teams to provide them with players upon being signed by the MLB team. Players on independent minor league teams could be sold to the highest MLB bidder – the Pacific Coast League was a significant provider of talent in this way.
When looking at the amounts paid for players from the PCL or for their bonus, for perspective keep in mind that from 1936-1939, Lou Gehrig earned the Yankees’ highest yearly salary, taking in $36,000 in 1939. Lou’s contract was the richest in all of baseball in 1939, $1000 more than Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg, fresh off of a 58 home run season.
So, wealth was a good thing to have, and not easy to come from during the difficult economic times of the 1930’s. As you’ll see, the Yanks were able to flex their financial muscles to put together this team for the ages.
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.
First Baseman: Lou Gehrig – The Iron Horse was signed off of the Columbia University campus by legendary Yankee Scout Paul Krichell.
Second Basemen: Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon – Lazzeri was purchased from Salt Lake City of the PCL in 1925 for $50,000, a significant sum at the time (Tony later signed a contract for $5000 salary for the 1926 season). Gordon was signed out of the University of Oregon.
Shortstop: Frank Crosetti – the longtime Yankee shortstop was purchased from San Francisco in the PCL for $75,000 and three players.
Third Baseman – Red Rolfe – Rolfe was signed by the Yanks upon graduation from Dartmouth. Scouts Paul Krichell and Bill Essick were proficient in finding talent, but when needed the Yanks didn’t hesitate to spend on players they wanted.
Outfield – Joe DiMaggio – The Yankee Clipper was purchased for $25,000 and five players, but was coming off of a knee injury in the 1934 season. After his knee proved solid in 1935, he arrived in New York in 1936.
Outfield – George Selkirk – Babe Ruth’s replacement was purchased by the Yanks from Jersey City of the International League.
Outfield – Tommy Heinrich – “Old Reliable” was originally Cleveland Indian property but was released by Commissioner Judge Landis, when Henrich appealed to him that he was being treated unfairly after not receiving a Spring Training invitation in 1937. The Yankees outbid the New York Giants for the outfielder’s services, offering him a $20,000 bonus.
Yankee money were crucial in bringing both DiMaggio and Heinrich to the Bronx. Ed Barrow’s willingness to take a risk on DiMaggio’s health was a franchise changing decision.
Red Ruffing: The longtime Yankee ace 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.
Lefty Gomez: Purchased from the San Francisco Seals for $35,000.
Monte Pearson: The Yankee World Series wonder (4-0, 1.01) who averaged 14-6, 3.83 during the 1936-1939 seasons (118 ERA+) was acquired in a trade for Johnny Allen.
Johnny Murphy: The Yankee relief ace was signed while a student at Fordham University.
Bump Hadley: The right hander averaged 12-6, 4.10 (110 ERA+) during the 1936-1939 seasons. He was acquired in a trade with Washington.
Atley Donald: The rookie star of the 1939 team was signed to a Class C contract and worked through the Yankee minor league system.
Interestingly enough, the Yanks relied more on trades when assembling their staff. As shown in the Ruffing deal, Ruppert’s money didn’t hurt in getting what the team needed.
Joe McCarthy – the Hall of Fame Skipper was signed by the Yanks when his contract was not renewed by the Chicago Cubs after the 1930 season. Interestingly enough, McCarthy’s shared a common history with Hall of Fame managers Miller Huggins, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre of being released from National League managing positions prior to success with New York.
Conclusion: The Yankee brain trust was among the best of the times, as the Yankees were clearly right more often than wrong in their player signings and trades. When needed, they didn’t hesitate to spend significantly to pick up MLB ready (or almost ready) players from the PCL. When Boston needed money as owner Bob Quinn was swimming in significant debt, the Yanks had plenty to offer in return for a future Hall of Famer.
As this and Paul’s analysis of the 1921-1923, 1926-28, and 1932 Yankees show, good baseball decisions backed by Yankee money just can’t be beat.