One Reason the Yankees Lost the Pennant in 1935
by Lincoln Mitchell
January 20, 2021
From 1930 through 1937, Lou Gehrig had an OPS+ of 188, the best in all of baseball. During that stretch, his worst year was 1935 when he “slumped” to .329/.466/.583 for an OPS+ of 175. It was also the only year of his career when he was not playing alongside either Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Those 1935 Yankees were still pretty good. In addition to Gehrig, future Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri and Bill Dickey were part of a very strong lineup. Red Ruffing won 16 games to lead a very strong pitching staff. The team ended up winning 89 games and losing 60.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, the Tigers, led by Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer and Goose Goslin, were better and won 93 games and the American League pennant. The Tigers ended up winning the pennant by three games, but it didn’t seem quite that close. With two weeks left in the season, the Tigers were 8.5 games ahead of the Yankees, but then Detroit stumbled losing eight of their last 11 games as the Yankees finished won eight of their remaining ten games.
That Yankees team was solid, but had some real weaknesses. Perhaps the biggest was in left field where a 28 year old rookie named Jesse Hill and a 36 year old Earle Combs, in his last big league season, split time. Hill hit a respectable .293/.362/.390 while Combs managed an unproductive .282/.359/.362. The former had an OPS+ of 99, the latter of 91. They combined for seven home runs. The rest of the outfield was similarly punchless. Centerfielder Ben Chapman hit only eight home runs while rightfielder George Selkirk’s 11 home runs were third on the team behind Gehrig and Lazzeri. This was a very good team, but another big power hitter who could play a bit in the outfield and pinch hit might have made a difference.
Finding one more power hitter is not always so easy, particularly for a team that played 85 years ago, but the Yankees could have done this. In 1934, the Yankees had a player who hit .288/.488/.537, good enough for the sixth best OPS+ in the league. That outfielder also accumulated an impressive 4.5 WAR. Those two measures were not around back then, but even his more conventional statistics a .288 batting average, 22 home runs and 84 RBIs were respectable. Nonetheless, the Yankees decided that player, who had put up better years in the past, was done and that they were better off with a 28 year old rookie in the outfield. The player in question, in case you haven’t guessed yet, was Babe Ruth.
The story that most of us learned about the Babe is that he was done after 1934 and that the Yankees needed to move on, but the data tells us something very different. Ruth, while no longer in his prime, was still a very good player in 1934. We all know the rest of the story. Ruth ended up with the Boston Braves, had one last great game in which he hit three home runs, but retired at the end of May having played only 28 games for the year.
Ruth’s decline was acute in 1935 as the 40 year old hit a very paltry .181, but again there is more to this story than that. Ruth’s OBP was .359, the same as Combs and a tick behind Hill. In only 92 plate appearances, he hit six home runs, only one fewer than Hill and Combs combined. His 119 OPS+ was significantly better than either Hill or Combs. Ruth hit three of those six home runs in one game against the Pirates on May 25th of 1935. The narrative about that game was that it was one last great moment from a player who had reached the end of the line. That is, in some respects, true because Ruth only played five more games. However, based on his numbers in 1934 and the first part of 1935, it is equally likely the great slugger still could hit, but had gotten off to a slow start.
There is no way to know whether Ruth could have made the difference in that 1935 pennant race, but it is certainly possible. Ruth’s ability to help the Yankees would have been limited. He had slowed down a lot and could no longer play the outfield regularly, but over the course of a season, mixing in games in the outfield with pinch hitting as needed, Ruth could have contributed a lot to the Yankees-maybe even enough to pick up three more wins.