A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 5)
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.
The 1941 Yankees
1941: First Place (101-53) 17.0 games over second place Boston. Defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.
Of course, after the season, on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. Many of the Yankees stars went off to war.
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. In 1941, Dickey played in only 109 games batting .284/7/71. He would play in fewer than 100 games over the next two seasons before heading into the military and missing the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Dickey did return for a brief cameo in 1946.
First Base - Johnny Sturm’s Major League career lasted for one full season, 1941. He batted .239/3/36 in his only big league season, playing in 124 games as the starting Yankees’ first baseman. The Yankees brought Sturm up from their Kansas City farm club after selling Babe Dahlgren to Boston of the National League before the season.
Second Base - Joe Gordon was signed out of the University of Oregon. The future Hall-of-Famer hit .276/24/87 in 1941.
Shortstop - Phil Rizzuto was the Yankees’ shortstop in 1941. This was also his rookie year. He hit .307/3/46 in establishing himself as the Yankees new shortstop. Rizzuto was also brought up from the Kansas City farm team.
Third Base - Red Rolfe – Rolfe was signed by the Yanks upon graduation from Dartmouth. In 1941, he batted .264/8/42. 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.
Left Field - The primary left fielder in 1941 was Charlie Keller and he had a big year, .298/33/122. Keller was signed as an amateur free agent before the 1937 season and, after spending time in the minors with the legendary 1937 Newark Bears, he reached the bigs in 1939.
Center Field - 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. Joe DiMaggio was the American League MVP in 1941 with a .357/30/125 mark. In 1941, DiMaggio also hit in 56 consecutive games.
Right Field - Tommy Henrich – “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. Henrich hit .277/31/85 rounding out a spectacular Yankees outfield.
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. The rest of the starting players were Yankees’ property signed to their minor league teams before arriving in the Bronx.
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 15-6, 3.54 record.
Lefty Gomez: Also a future Hall-of-Famer, Lefty Gomez was purchased from the San Francisco Seals for $35,000. He was 15-5, 3.74 in 1941. He played all but one of his 368 Major League games as a Yankee (pitching one game for the Senators in 1943.
Spud Chandler: In 1941, Spud Chandler went 10-4, 3.19. Chandler had come up in 1937. He spent his entire eleven year career with the Yankees pitching through the war years. He came to the Yankees from the University of Georgia where he starred in baseball and football.
Marius Russo: He was signed off the campus of Long Island University for $750.00. It was said that Lou Gehrig helped to scout him in 1937. In 1941, Russo went 14-10, 3.09. This was his second consecutive 14-win season, but also his last. He served in Hawaii during WWII and finished his career with the Yankees in 1946.
Atley Donald: The rookie star of the 1939 team was signed to a Class C contract and worked through the Yankee minor league system. He went 9-5, 3.57 in 1941. Donald spent his entire career as a Yankee.
Marv Breuer: Another player who spent his entire career as a Yankee. He went 9-7, 4.09 in 1941. It seems he was also originally signed by the Yankees and came up through their system.
Interestingly enough, the Yanks relied more on trades when assembling their pitching staff. As shown in the Ruffing deal, Ruppert’s money didn’t hurt in getting what the team needed.
Conclusion - This was a very unique Yankees team, and a rarity for any baseball club of any era. Each of the starting eight position players came to the Yankees directly from the minor leagues and began their careers as Yankees. Six of them: Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Dickey, Tommy Henrich, Red Rolfe, and Johnny Sturm played their entire careers as Yankees. At the end of his career, Charlie Keller played as a part-timer for two seasons (1950 and 1951) with the Tigers before returning to the Yankees in 1952 for two games to end his career. Of these players, only Joe Gordon, who was traded to the Indians (for Allie Reynolds) played a significant amount of time (four seasons) with another franchise.
This same dynamic also holds for the pitching staff listed above. Except for Red Ruffing, the rest of the staff were all lifetime Yankees (if we forgive Gomez’s one game in Washington).
It would be difficult to claim that this Yankees team was one purchased, although, it was the team’s willingness to assume risks and spend big that brought them Joe DiMaggio. Two of their star pitchers, Ruffing and Gomez, also came in big cash deals. Would this team have been as great without those three future Hall-of-Famers? I’ll leave that to the readers to decide.
In conclusion, if there ever was a team that disproves my theory that the Yankees used their financial muscle to win each of their World Championships, this team would be it.