A Brief Look At How The Yankees Championship Teams Were Built (Pt. 6)
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.
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 1943 Yankees
1943: First Place (98-56) 13.5 games over second place Washington. Defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
This season took place during the years of World War II so it is fair to say that no team was operating as normal.
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 1943, Dickey, now 36 years old, played in only 85 games batting .351/4/33. He would head into the military and miss the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Dickey did return for a brief cameo in 1946.
First Base - Nick Etten was the Yankees’ first baseman during the war years. He started at that position from 1943 through the 1946 (after the war, obviously) seasons. Etten was acquired by the Yankees in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1943 season. In 1943, Etten hit .271/14/107.
Second Base - Joe Gordon was signed out of the University of Oregon. The future Hall-of-Famer played in 152 games in 1943 hitting .249/17/69. Gordon had been the MVP in 1942.
Shortstop - After two seasons in the Major Leagues, Phil Rizzuto was serving in the Navy in 1943. He wouldn’t return to the Yankees until the 1946 season. With Rizzuto serving his country, the 32 year old Frank Crosetti took over shortstop. Crosetti was a lifetime Yankee. In 95 games in 1943, Crosetti batted .233/2/20.
Third Base - Bill “The Bull” Johnson was signed by the Yankees organization back in 1936. He slowly made his way to the Major Leagues arriving in 1943, but then not returning again until after the war in 1946. In 1943, Billy, nicknamed “The Bull,” batted .280/5/94.
Left Field - The left fielder in 1943 was Charlie Keller. He had a big year batting .271/31/86. He also walked 106 times that year. An All-Star, Keller did get some MVP consideration after the season. Charlie 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 big leagues in 1939. He would serve with the Merchant Marines in 1944 and return to the Major Leagues in 1945.
Center Field - In 1943, the great DiMaggio was serving in the military. In his absence, two players manned center for the Yankees in 1943. Roy Weatherly, a left-handed hitter, played 68 games in center field in 1943 (.264/7/28). Johnny Lindell, a right-handed batter, held the position down in 55 other games (.245/4/51).
Weatherly (to that point, a lifetime .288 hitter) came to the Yankees from the Cleveland Indians (where he had played seven seasons) along with infielder Oscar Grimes in a trade for Roy Cullenbine and Buddy Rosar.
Johnny Lindell was signed by the Yankees off the campus of the University of Southern California. He was originally a pitcher and he did appear as a pitcher in 23 games for the Yankees in 1942. Still, he never quite made it as a successful big league pitcher and was converted to an outfielder where he would play until 1950. Lindell then resumed pitching in the Pacific Coast League, winning the MVP of that league in 1952 and making it back to the Major Leagues in 1953, as a pitcher, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lindell’s is a story worth looking at closer one day.
Right Field - With Tommy Henrich off to war, Bed Metheny was the right fielder in 1943. In 103 games he hit .261/9/36. Metheny was a Yankee from the start signed off the campus of the College of William and Mary.
Spud Chandler: In 1943 was the American League MVP going 20-4, 1.64. 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.
Ernie “Tiny” Bonham: Another product of the Yankee farm system, Bonham was in his fourth Major League season in 1943 after winning 21 games in 1942. This season, 1943, was not as good, but he pitched to a solid 15-8, 2.27 ERA (the same ERA as the previous season). Bonham also made the All-Star team in 1943.
Butch Wensloff: In 1943, Wensloff’s only full season in the Major Leagues, he went 13-11, 2.54. He was signed to play with the Yankees organization while in the minor leagues.
Hank Borowy: A New Jersey kid who graduated from Fordham University, Borowy was signed by the Yankees out of college and became one of the big pitching stars of the 1940’s. As a Yankee from 1942-1945, he went 56-30, 2.74. In 1945, he was sold to the Chicago Cubs during the season where he helped them win the National League pennant.
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 1943, Russo went 5-10, 3.72. 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 6-4, 4.60 in 1943. Donald spent his entire career as a Yankee.
Johnny Murphy: Murphy was one of baseball’s first relief aces, a true “fireman” in the days before the save was an official statistic. 1943 was Murphy’s eleventh as a Yankee. He went 12-4, 2.51 and in later record keeping would be credited with 8 saves. All 37 of his appearances in 1943 came as a relief pitcher. He was signed by the Yankees off the campus of Fordham University. In 1944 and 1945, Murphy would serve in the military. Later in life, Murphy was the General Manager of the 1969 World Champion New York Mets.
Conclusion - This team, like the one before it, was primarily home grown. This was definitely an era when the Yankees found great young talent and brought those players into their system where they’d go on to help the big club. In fact, instead of buying their Major League talent, one player on this team, their ace pitcher Hank Borowy, was actually sold off to the Chicago Cubs, in a big cash deal ($97,500) to help that team to the World Series - the exact opposite of a typical Yankees “buying the pennant” move.