The Best Yankee Team You Never Heard Of
By Mike Whiteman December 21, 2022
We all know the great Yankee teams - 1927, 1939, 1961, 1998. There were other memorables as well such as 1977, 1956, and 1941. All in all, there are 27 World Series winners in Yankee history.
Of all those titles, I suspect the 1943 version is the least recognized of them all.
Life was very different eighty years ago. Humanity was consumed by World War II, and the United States was mobilizing for the victory effort. By the end of 1943, over seven million American men were inducted into the military. After the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, Judge Kenesaw Landis, the commissioner of baseball, asked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt if the sport should be suspended during the war. FDR responded with the famous "green light letter", saying that "there will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before." So, the games went on.
Now just because America's pastime was continuing, it didn't mean that the characters would be the same. During 1942-43, over 200 players with MLB experience lost at least one full season of service to their military obligation. Left behind were usually men with physical questions, support obligations at home, or those just lucky enough to not had been drafted yet.
The Yankees had won the World Series in 1941 and the American League pennant in 1942. The 1943 version looked very different due to the draft. Gone were 1942 All-Stars Tommy Heinrich, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio and Red Ruffing. They were fortunate that the numbers of Joe Gordon, Bill Dickey, Charlie Keller, ace starter Spud Chandler and all-star reliever Johnny Murphy had not been called yet, and the team was able to field a competitive core with these players. The emergence of rookies Billy Johnson and Charles Wensloff along with non-draftees Johnny Lindell, Tiny Bonham and Hank Borowy gave the team quality depth most teams lacked. Leading the team was future Hall-of-Fame manager Joe McCarthy, who had already guided the Yankees to six World Series titles. While the lineup looked different, the results were the same - the Yanks won five of their first six games of the season. They fell out of first place for a week in May, but took over the top spot after sweeping a doubleheader from Cleveland May 30. They would not relent the top spot in the standings the rest of the season.
The Yanks were led by Chandler, who had one of the great pitching seasons in club history. The right-hander went 20-4, 1.64 leading the league in wins, complete games (20) and shutouts (5). His ERA+ of 198 trails only Ron Guidry's 1978 season in the Yankee record book. The Yankee rotation was the class of the league, with Chandler, Bonham, Borowy and Wensloff combined for 62-32, 2.29. Chandler and Bonham were AL all-stars.
In addition to pacing the league on the mound, the Yanks led the league in runs scored and home runs, albeit with a deadened ball due to the materials needed for the war effort . Charlie Keller led the way with 31 home runs a league-leading .922 OPS. First baseman Nick Etten, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the season drove in 107 runs. While he dropped off a bit from his 1942 MVP season, future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon was still the best second baseman in the game, his 6.5 WAR leading all at the position.
The World Series was a rematch of the 1942 Fall Classic won by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yanks turned the table on the Cards this time, taking the series four games to one, with Chandler's magical season capped with an MVP-like performance of two wins and a 0.50 ERA. As Judge Landis alluded to in his letter, baseball continued to be quite popular, with the three Series games at Yankee Stadium each attracting over 68,000 spectators. With the winds of war continuing to rage, in 1944 the Yankees fielded a team much changed from even the 1943 squad, with Etten and Lindell the only returning position player starters. With the conclusion of the war in 1945, players started coming back into the fold, and the team regained their foothold as the premier team in baseball in 1947.