SABR

Connie Mack’s Second Great Athletics Team: Eclipsed by the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, But Even Better

By Bryan Soderholm-Difatte

This article was published in the 2013 The National Pastime.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from the chapter on the 1926–32 Yankees and 1928–32 Athletics found on the author’s website, www.thebestbaseballteams.com.

In the annals of baseball history, the New York Yankees are often remembered as being most formidable when they had Babe Ruth batting third and Lou Gehrig right behind him in the cleanup slot. They were the heart of the 1927 Yankees—still mythologized by many as the greatest team ever there was. The 1927 Yankees finished every day of the season in first place, won 110 games, took the pennant by 19 games, outscored their opposition by 376 runs (that’s 2.4 runs a game more than the other team), and were said to so intimidate the Pirates during batting practice before Game 1 in Pittsburgh that their quick sweep in the World Series was a foregone conclusion—or any other words you might choose to connote inevitability. Ruth and Gehrig teamed together for 10 years, 1925–34, but despite power production unmatched in history by any other dynamic duo, they led the Yankees to only four pennants. The Ruth and Gehrig Yankees won three consecutive flags from 1926 to 1928, and a fourth in 1932.

The team that interrupted and short-changed the Ruth-Gehrig Yankee dynasty was the Philadelphia Athletics, who won three consecutive pennants of their own from 1929 to 1931—all in convincing fashion. One would be misguided to think that Ruth and Gehrig should have won more than the four pennants they did together, so great were they and their team, because the rival Philadelphians had their own luminescent stars in baseball’s historical firmament—notably muscular first baseman Jimmie Foxx, left fielder Al Simmons, catcher Mickey Cochrane, and pitching ace Lefty Grove. It was no disgrace for the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees not to win more often when those guys were their contemporaries on the Athletics.

And so the question to be addressed: Is it possible that the Foxx-Simmons-Cochrane-Grove Philadelphia Athletics were actually a better team than the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees? For comparative purposes, this analysis will not focus in on any one iconic year—such as 1927 for the Yankees—or even two (1932 is close to iconic for the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees). Ironically, while the Athletics were the first team in baseball history to have three consecutive 100-win seasons—the Ruth and Gehrig Yankees managed two in 1927 and 1928—their three straight blow-out pennants are anything but iconic; the 1929–31 Philadelphia Athletics are, in fact, largely forgotten in the broad arc of popularized baseball history, except perhaps in the collective historical memory of the City of Brotherly Love. The mark of a great team is its performance over time, and so this comparative analysis will focus on the seven years between 1926 and 1932, which mark the beginning and end of the pennant-winning collaboration of Ruth and Gehrig, but during which Philadelphia owner and manager Connie Mack restored the Athletics to their former measure of greatness. Let us begin with a brief history on how Mr. Mack rebuilt Philadelphia’s foundation for competing with the New York Yankees.

MACK’S ATHLETICS RETURN WITH A VENGEANCE

Connie Mack built one of the first great runs in American League history, winning four pennants in five years between 1910 and 1914, all by comfortable margins—14 1/2 games in 1910, 13 1/2 in 1911, 6 1/2 in 1913, and 8 1/2 in 1914—and the Athletics confirmed their dominance of the baseball world in the World Series by dispatching the Chicago Cubs in five games in 1910, the New York Giants in six in 1911, and the Giants again in five in 1913, before being ignominiously swept by the surprising National League champion Boston Braves in 1914. It is true that the Boston Red Sox intervened with a command performance to take the 1912 pennant by 14 games over Washington and 15 over 90-win Philadelphia, and that the 1914 World Series debacle spoiled the party, but the Athletics appeared primed to be the team to beat for at least the next several years, except that 1914 turned out to mark the end of Mack’s dynasty.

Although undoubtedly embarrassed by his team’s fold against the Braves, it was financial pressures from diminishing attendance and the challenge posed by the start-up Federal League that caused Mack, who was an owner as well as manager of the Philadelphia franchise, to begin disbanding his great team. Taking a page from the American League’s own book, the Federal League (which lasted only two years as a “third major league” in 1914 and 1915, before legal challenges forced its surrender) offered higher salaries to attract the major-league veterans needed to build credibility for the new league (and the Federal League is indeed recognized in baseball’s official records as having been one of the major leagues). This, in turn, contributed to demands for more money from players staying loyal to the American and National Leagues, dollars that Mr. Mack was unable or unwilling to pay.1

Meanwhile, in 1913 and 1914, the US economy was hit with its second recession in four years. Industrial production and real income declined, and in 1914 the number of civilians in the labor force who were unemployed nearly doubled from 1.7 to 3.1 million, according to statistics compiled by the National Bureau of Economic Research, representing about 12 percent of nonfarm workers. These tough economic times undoubtedly contributed to a dramatic 30 percent decline in attendance at major-league baseball games, excluding the Federal League. Notwithstanding the attraction of watching two of the best players of their era—Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker—and the fact that the Athletics won the American League pennant, Mack’s ledgers showed an even greater 39-percent drop in paying customers in 1914. They may have been by far the best team in major-league baseball, but the Philadelphia Athletics were only the fifth-best team in the American League in attendance, and seventh overall, including National League clubs.2 This was not helping Mr. Mack pay his $100,000 infield (whose members, of course, did not collectively earn nearly that much).

It would be wrong to say that Mack broke up the core of his first great team all at once. He did so over three years. But the heart was cut out in 1915. Veteran pitchers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender defected to the Federal League after having been preemptively placed on waivers by Mack, leaving a young pitching staff without experienced and savvy veterans; Collins was sold to the White Sox, and shortstop Jack Barry to the Red Sox.3 Mack did not move Home Run Baker in 1915, but his refusal to meet Baker’s salary demands caused his outstanding third baseman to sit out the season. Indicative of the importance of these players, particularly Collins and Baker, the Athletics plunged into the first of a disheartening wilderness of seven consecutive lastplace finishes, beginning in 1915.

By the early 1920s, Mack was patiently reconstructing another would-be dynasty. Although the Athletics finished dead last in 1920 for the sixth straight year with 106 losses, in 1922, they finally moved out of last place, finishing seventh with 89 losses, having added Bing Miller to the outfield. By 1924, Al Simmons was in the Philadelphia outfield, and the Athletics moved up to fifth place. In the 10 years after 1914, the Athletics had an abysmal .354 winning average (528–963), but with 71 victories in 1924 putting them within five wins of a .500 record, their future was looking bright.

The next year, 1925, proved pivotal as Cochrane, Grove, second baseman Max Bishop, and pitcher Rube Walberg became regulars. Their addition not only propelled the Athletics to their first winning season since 1914, but also landed Philadelphia in second place (second place!), 8 1/2 games behind Washington. The 1925 Athletics even held first place for nearly two full months in May and June, and for nearly another month between July 23 and August 19. But Mack’s budding great team was not yet ready. From August 14, when they led the league by two games, to September 7, the Athletics lost 17 of 20 games, including 12 straight at one point, to fall nine games back and out of contention.

The team lost ground in 1926—the year when Ruth and Gehrig teamed up for their first pennant together— by finishing third with five fewer wins, but ended up only six games behind the Yankees, whom they beat 13 times in 22 games. Any hopes Philadelphia had of closing that gap in 1927 were dashed with the Yankees having their first iconic season. While never in the pennant race, Mack’s men finished strong with 19 wins in their final 27 games, which did nothing more than secure second place, for whatever that honor was worth, 19 games behind New York. By 1928, right-hander George Earnshaw had joined Grove and Walberg in the starting rotation; Foxx was a rookie playing third base on his way to becoming one of the game’s greatest first basemen (moving across the infield the next year); Bing Miller, who had been traded away in 1926, was back in the outfield alongside Simmons; Mule Haas was new in the outfield; and with Cochrane behind the plate, Philadelphia was poised to challenge the Yankees—this time for real. At first it didn’t seem like it would be in 1928, but a surge of 40 wins in 52 games allowed the Athletics to overcome a 12 1/2-game deficit as late as July 18 and bring a half-game lead into Yankee Stadium for a doubleheader showdown with the Bronx Bombers on September 9. Alas, the Yankees swept the twin bill, beat Grove for good measure the next day, and the 1928 Athletics never saw the sunny side of first place again. But they had sent a message to New York, and the next three years were all Philadelphia’s.

ATHLETICS PENNANT WINNERS WERE ARGUABLY MORE DOMINANT

It perhaps comes as a surprise, given the Bronx Bombers’ headliners Ruth and Gehrig, but between 1926 and 1932 the Philadelphia Athletics’ achievements were comparable to those of the New York Yankees. Each won three consecutive pennants, although the Yankees won four American League titles in all. Philadelphia won two World Series, New York won three. The Yankees won 677 games and lost 400 over those seven years for a .629 winning percentage. The Athletics, playing 10 fewer games resulting in a decision (not including games that ended in a tie because of darkness or weather), had a slightly higher .636 winning percentage, with 679 victories against 388 losses. In the five years between 1928 and 1932, including three straight pennants sandwiched by runner-up status to New York, Philadelphia’s .662 winning percentage (505–258) is exceeded only by the 1906–10 Chicago Cubs (530–235, .693, four National League pennants and two World Series championships) for the highest over any five-year period in major-league baseball since 1901. No New York Yankees team over any five-year period— not with Ruth, not with Gehrig, not with DiMaggio, not with Mantle, not with Jeter—ever had as high a winning percentage as the 1928–32 Philadelphia Athletics.

The Athletics won more than 100 games in all three of their consecutive pennant seasons and were never challenged after mid-summer, winning decisively each year. In 1929, the Athletics blew open the pennant race early and inexorably built their lead from 9 1/2 games on July 4, to 10 1/2 games on August 1, to 12 1/2 games going into September, on their way to an 18-game final advantage (with 104 wins) that was nearly the equal of the 1927 Yankees’ 19-game pennant romp. The 1930 Athletics actually trailed the unsuspected Washington Nationals (officially the Nationals, but better known as the “Senators”) by a half-game on July 9 and 10, but were eight games in front by the end of the month and never looked back on their way to 102 wins and an eight-game margin of victory. And 1931 was 1929 all over again in Philadelphia’s complete dominance of the league—12 games up by the end of July and 15 1/2 by the end of August. They wound up taking the pennant by only 13 1/2 games, but with the most wins of any of Connie Mack’s 50 Philadelphia teams, including his great 1910–14 Athletics. Indeed, no team in franchise history—including after the A’s moved to Oakland, via Kansas City—won more games than the 1931 Philadelphia Athletics.

The 1926–32 Yankees also won at least 100 games three times—consecutively in 1927 and 1928, and again in 1932—but cruised to the pennant decisively only twice: in 1927 (by the aforementioned 19 games) when they won 110 games and in 1932 (by 13) over Philadelphia. Their 107 wins in 1932 would remain the second-highest total in the Yankees’ storied history until 1961. In their two other pennant-winning years, the Yankees finished first by just three games over secondplace Cleveland in 1926 and by only 2 1/2 over the latecharging Athletics in 1928, and in both those years, they allowed large leads to fade away.

In 1926, the Yankees had a 10-game lead on August 23, and led by eight as late as September 9, before holding on to win the pennant, possibly only by virtue of the big lead they built up early in the season. The 1926 Yankees had a losing record in the final two months of the season, going 25–29 in August and September. And in 1928, the Yankees were in command by 13 1/2 games on July 1, only to lose the entire lead and find themselves a half game behind Philadelphia on September 9, the start of a fourgame series against the Athletics. As already mentioned, the Yankees took the first three of those games to move into first place for good. And in the three following seasons, when Philadelphia cleaned up on the American League, the Yankees were playing catch up from far behind early on and never challenged for the pennant. In 1930, the Yankees didn’t even finish second; they came in third, behind second-place Washington.

POTENT PHILADELPHIA OFFENSE NO MATCH FOR YANKEES

With Cochrane, Simmons, and Foxx at the heart of the lineup, the Athletics were a dangerous club, particularly once Foxx became a regular in 1928. Thirty-five percent of their 505 victories during the five years from 1928 to 1932 were by blowout margins of five runs or more, but the Athletics did not once lead the league in scoring because, well, they were not the New York Yankees—the Bronx Bombers with their fabled Murderer’s Row. After scoring the second-fewest runs in 1926, Philadelphia was third in scoring the next year, second from 1928 to 1930, third behind New York and Cleveland in 1931—despite setting what remains the franchise record for wins—and second to the Yankees by only 21 runs in 1932.

With Ruth and Gehrig being, well, Ruth and Gehrig, the Yankees dominated all of baseball offensively between 1926 and 1932, leading not just the American League but both major leagues in scoring in six of the seven years.4 Even when the Yankees finished third in runs in 1929— the year Philadelphia displaced New York at the top of the American League—they scored only 27 fewer runs than the Tigers, who led the league despite finishing in sixth place, and only two fewer than the Athletics. In 1930, the Yankees resumed their place as the team scoring more runs than anybody else and, moreover, became the first team in modern baseball history (or the first since the Boston Beaneaters in 1897, if you prefer) to score more than 1,000 runs, when they touched the plate 1,062 times—the first of three consecutive 1,000-run seasons.

In the six years they led the league in scoring between 1926 and 1932, the Yankees did so by an average margin of 92 runs.

The Yankees completely dominated the American League in offensive wins above replacement (WAR), according to data available on Baseball-Reference.com, leading by a substantial margin all seven years between 1926 and 1932.

Appropriately for being the “Bronx Bombers,” the Yankees led the league in home runs every year of this run except 1932, when the Athletics hit 172 to their 160 (Interestingly, the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees from 1925 to 1934 were not perennial major-league leaders in home runs. The National League’s Giants in 1925, Phillies in 1929, and Cubs in 1930 all hit more home runs than the Yankees.) Indicative of their clout, from 1926 to 1932 the Yankees won 38 percent of their total 677 victories by blowout margins—including an astonishing 44 of their 94 victories (47 percent) in 1931, a year in which they finished 13 1/2 games behind the Athletics despite outscoring Philadelphia by 209 runs. And why would that be?

YANKEES PITCHING AND FIELDING NOT IN PHILADELPHIA’S CLASS

Because, the Athletics had far better pitching and fielding than the Yankees. Philadelphia led the league in fewest runs allowed four times (1926, 1928, 1929, and 1931), was second in 1930, third in 1927, and fourth in 1932, when the Athletics finished second in the standings, but far behind the Yankees. In five of those seasons (all except 1927 and 1932), Connie Mack’s pitching staff collectively had the highest WAR for pitchers in the American League. Philadelphia pitchers accounted for 21 percent of the league’s total pitchers’ value from 1926 to 1932, and in all but 1927, the park effects at Shibe Park— the Athletics’ home field—was not favorable for pitchers.5 With Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, who were first and second in the American League in strikeouts in each of their pennant-winning seasons, the Athletics were also the premier power-pitching team in baseball. The Athletics led the league in strikeouts for six straight years beginning in 1925, before finishing third in 1931 and second in 1932.

The Yankees pitching staff, meanwhile, was in transition from Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, their ace starters for three consecutive pennants from 1926 to 1928 and two of the best pitchers in the American League those three years, to Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, who were emerging by the pennant-winning year of 1932 as the foundation of what would prove to be an excellent staff later in the 1930s. In between those years—when the Athletics were winning their three straight—the collective WAR for the Yankee pitching staff was dead last in the league in 1929 and 1930, and next-to-last in 1931. The 1926–32 Yankees led the league in fewest runs allowed only once (in the mythologized year of 1927), surrendered the second fewest in 1928 and 1932, and the third fewest in 1926 and 1931. They were fourth in 1929 and seventh in 1930.

 

Table 1: Pitching Wins Above Replacement

  1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932
NYY 10.7 (4)* 17.0 (1)* 12.4 (5)* 2.1 (8) 1.3 (8) 7.4 (7) 14.3 (2)*
PHA 28.3 (1) 16.6 (1) 20.3 (1) 23.3 (1)* 18.0 (1)* 22.4 (1)* 13.6 (4)

(#) = pitching WAR ranking among the 8 AL teams
* = won AL pennant

 

Yankees pitchers had less solid fielding behind them than the Athletics. New York was never better than second in fielding percentage and led the league in defensive efficiency (making outs on balls put into play) only in their historic 1927 season. In five of the seven years—including when they won three of their four pennants—the Yankees were below replacement-level performance in defensive WAR. The Athletics, by contrast, were never worse than third in fielding percentage (only once, in 1928), had the best league’s fielding percentage during each of their three straight pennants and in 1932 besides, and led the league in defensive efficiency in three of the four years between 1928 and 1931 (they were third-best in 1930).

 

Table 2: Defensive Wins Above Replacement

  1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932
NYY -1.5 (6)* 4.1 (1)* -1.2 (6)* 1.9 (3) -3.3 (7) -0.4 (4) -1.9 (6)*
PHA 1.0 (3) 0.1 (4) 1.3 (2) 1.1 (5)* 1.4 (3)* 5.6 (1)* 2.6 (2)

(#) = defensive WAR ranking among the 8 AL teams
* = won AL pennant

 


Table 3: Defensive Efficiency Record

  1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932
NYY .691 (4)* .701 (1)* .689 (4)* .691 (4) .674 (5) .690 (3) .690 (5)*
PHA .692 (3) .687 (4) .700 (1) .703 (1)* .688 (3)* .708 (1)* .699 (2)

(#) = defensive efficiency ranking among the 8 AL teams
* = won AL pennant

 

Comparing the two teams specifically for the years 1928 to 1932, while the Yankees outscored the Athletics by an average of 81 runs per season, the strength of their pitching and fielding enabled Philadelphia to outpace the Bronx Bombers in outscoring their game opponents by an average of 232 runs annually to the Yankees’ 217-run annual margin. Throw in the 1926 and 1927 seasons, and the 1926–32 Yankees scored an average of 227 runs more than their game opponents, still not quite as productive as the Athletics from 1928 to 1932, but better than the A’s average of outscoring their opponents by 198 runs per season over the entire seven years. The 1928–32 Athletics’ superior defense gave them a better differential between runs scored and runs allowed than the 1926–32 Yankees.

PHILADELPHIA HAD AN ALL-AROUND STRONGER ROSTER

Our analysis so far shows the two teams comparable in terms of achievement between 1926 and 1932. The Yankees have an edge in winning four pennants to the Athletics’ three during those seven years, but Philadelphia had a higher overall winning percentage. Moreover, our analysis suggests the Athletics, especially in the five years from 1928 to 1932, were a marginally more dominant team than the 1926–32 Yankees—despite the Bronx Bombers’ overwhelmingly superior offensive WAR—because of their three blowout pennants and much better pitching and fielding. Nonetheless, while the names Ruth and Gehrig (and their long-ball exploits) have kept the Yankees of those years alive in historical memory, the Philadelphia Athletics—despite their own great players and string of championships—are largely a historical afterthought.

Taking account of the teams’ core players—position regulars, starting pitchers, or oft-relied upon relievers for at least four seasons between 1926 and 1932, or on either of the three-straight pennant winners for all three years—the Yankees would seem to have a huge advantage with seven of their own enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, compared to only four for the Athletics. And for the Yankees, that does not even include Hall of Fame pitchers Ruffing and Gomez. Red Ruffing did not don Yankee pinstripes until 1930, was on only one pennantwinner as a teammate of Gehrig and Ruth, and sealed his Hall of Fame legacy later in the decade with the Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio Yankees. Lefty Gomez made his debut with the Yankees in 1930, pitched badly and was sent to St. Paul in the second half of the season, then became a fixture on Manager Joe McCarthy’s pitching staff in 1931, winning 21 that year and 24 the next— accounting for exactly half of the four 20-win seasons he put together in his career.

Three core regulars of the 1926–32 Yankees were the best in the American League at their position during all or most of this seven-year run—Gehrig at first base, Tony Lazzeri (even better than Charlie Gehringer for most of these years) at second, and Ruth as one of three outfielders. And those three, plus center fielder Earle Combs, were among the AL’s 10 best position players between 1926 and 1932, based primarily on the WAR metric. In 1929, the Yankees introduced catcher Bill Dickey to the equation. While he immediately established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball, it would not be until the mid- 1930s that he supplanted Mickey Cochrane as the best catcher in the league.

The Athletics had four of their core regulars among the league’s 10 best position players during those years—Foxx, Simmons, Cochrane, and Bishop. In fact, Cochrane behind the plate and Simmons as one of three outfielders were the best at their positions for all or the majority of these seasons.6 Jimmie Foxx was such a great player in his own right, beginning in 1929, that it would be unreasonable not to consider him 1B to Gehrig’s 1A as the best first baseman in baseball during this time. Coincidentally, neither the Yankees nor the Athletics had a particularly strong left side of the infield.

Two Philadelphia pitchers—Grove and Walberg— count among the five best in the American League between 1926 and 1932, based primarily on the WAR metric for pitchers. From 1928 to 1932, Grove made a strong case for having the best five-year stretch of any pitcher ever by winning 128 games while losing only 33 (that’s a .795 winning percentage) and leading the league in earned run average the last four of those years, in strikeouts the first four, and this in the peak years of the hitters’ era.7 Grove also led the league in ERA in 1926 and in strikeouts for seven consecutive years— beginning in his rookie season of 1925—before the Yankees’ Red Ruffing took the K crown with two more than the Philadelphia Lefty in 1932. Walberg, another lefty, ever reliable, had his best seasons in 1929 (18–11) and 1931 (20–12). Earnshaw, meanwhile, was 67–28 in the Athletics’ three pennant-winning seasons (for a .705 winning percentage), before beginning a relatively quick burnout at age 32 in 1932 when he went 19–13. Although the concept of dedicated relief pitchers was in its infancy at the time, the Athletics had Eddie Rommel (himself a formidable starter for most of the 1920s) pitching very well, mostly in relief during these years, although it was ace-starter Lefty Grove who more often than not was the “closer”—a term still about a half-century away from being coined.

None of the Yankees pitchers were among the five best in the league for the majority of the seven years between 1926 and 1932, although both Hoyt and Pennock had been from the early 1920s through the three consecutive pennants New York won from 1926 to 1928. The southpaw Pennock was 23–11, 19–8, and 17–6 those three years, and right-hander Hoyt went 22–7 and 23–7 in 1927 and 1928. Those, however, were the last of the best seasons by either in a Yankee uniform.

 

Table 4: Core regulars on 1926-32 Yankees and Athletics

  New York Yankees   Philadelphia Athletics  
1B Lou Gehrig, 1926-32 HOF Jimmie Foxx, 1928-32 HOF
2B Tony Lazzeri, 1926-32 HOF Max Bishop, 1926-32  
SS Mark Koenig, 1926-29   Joe Boley, 1927-31  
3B Joe Dugan, 1926-28      
MPR     Jimmy Dykes, IF, 1926-32  
LF Bob Meusel, 1926-29   Al Simmons, 1926-32 HOF
CF Earle Combs, 1926-32 HOF Mule Haas, 1928-32  
RF Babe Ruth, 1926-32 HOF Bing Miller, 1928-32  
C Bill Dickey, 1929-32 HOF Mickey Cochrane, 1926-32 HOF
SP Herb Pennock,1926-32 HOF Lefty Grove, 1926-32 HOF
SP Waite Hoyt, 1926-29 HOF Rube Walberg, 1926-32  
SP George Pipgras, 1927-32   George Earnshaw, 1928-32  
SP     Roy Mahaffey, 1930-32  
SP-RP Hank Johnson, 1928-31   Jack Quinn, 1926-30  
RP     Eddie Rommel, 1926-31  

MPR = multi-position regular (no set position from one year to the next)
Note: Bold players were the AL’s best at their position for the majority of these years or among the AL’s 10 best position players, five best starting pitchers, or best dedicated reliever between 1926 and 1932, based on the wins above replacement (WAR) metric and playing at least four years.


 

All told, while the Yankees were a very impressive team, Ruth and Gehrig were the only players who had historically great years between 1926 and 1932. The Philadelphia Athletics, by contrast, had four core players in their prime with historically great years—Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane—even if none of the four measured up to Ruth and Gehrig.8 It may seem a heretical notion because the 1927 Yankees are an iconic team, but with four such all-time greats at the peak of their career and accomplishing what they did—three straight pennants, all by decisive margins—against the Bronx Bombers as their principal rival, the Philadelphia Athletics from 1926 to 1932 were probably the better team in context, notwithstanding Ruth and Gehrig (not to mention Lazzeri, Combs, and Dickey).

 

Table 5: Best players in the American League, 1926-32

10 BEST POSITION PLAYERS 5 BEST PITCHERS
Babe Ruth, 1926-32 Goose Goslin, 1926-32 Lefty Grove, 1926-32
Lou Gehrig, 1926-32 Earle Combs, 1926-32 Wes Ferrell, 1929-32
Jimmie Foxx, 1928-32 Tony Lazzeri, 1926-32 Ted Lyons, 1926-32
Al Simmons, 1926-32 Charlie Gehringer, 1926-32 Alvin Crowder, 1926-32
Mickey Cochrane, 1926-32 Max Bishop, 1926-32 Rube Walberg, 1926-32

Based on average annual wins above replacement (WAR) value, consistency from year to year, and playing at least four years.

 

BREAKING UP THE COMPETITION: THE END OF THE ATHLETICS IN PHILADELPHIA

Just as he dismantled the 1910–14 Philadelphia Athletics for economic reasons in the midst of a grave recession, so did the Great Depression compel Connie Mack to break up his even better 1926–32 team in what would be the beginning of a very long end—more than two decades—for American League baseball in the City of Brotherly Love. This time, however, the breakup was less precipitous, and also less immediately calamitous. Of the four Hall of Famers who were the centerpiece of th team, Simmons was gone by 1933, Cochrane and Grove by 1934, and Foxx remained three more years before leaving Philadelphia in 1936. Of the other core regulars, Jimmy Dykes and Mule Haas were gone by 1933; Bishop, Earnshaw, and Walberg by 1934; and Bing Miller by 1935. (Bishop and Walberg were part of the deal that sent Grove to Boston). Philadelphia dropped to third in 1933 and fifth in 1934 before finding a home in the American League basement for seven of the next nine years.

Unlike the core players of the 1910–14 Athletics, most whom were still in their prime, the foundation players on Philadelphia’s last great American League team were all on, or very close to, the downside of their career when Connie Mack said to them good-bye and good luck. Grove and Foxx played for eight and six years with the Boston Red Sox after they were traded away for bit players and (primarily) big money, and both had some excellent years with their new team, but no stretch of five consecutive seasons that would have given them the historical legacies (and Hall of Fame credentials) they earned in their time with the Philadelphia Athletics.

The New York Yankees, meanwhile, were financially on a more sound footing throughout the Depression years, shedding only those players they no longer needed or wanted. By 1935, that included the Babe himself, despite his iconic status in New York City. With excellent scouts, one of baseball’s premier minor-league systems, and a trademark commitment to excellence, the Yankees were on the threshold of being the best they ever were. And when the team that still had Gehrig, Lazzeri, Dickey, Ruffing, and Gomez in pinstripes added Joe DiMaggio in 1936, it wasn’t long before the New York Yankees— winning six pennants and five World Series in seven years from 1936 to 1942, before World War II claimed Mr. DiMaggio for the service, and another pennant and World Series without him in 1943—would eclipse the 1928–32 Philadelphia Athletics, with three straight pennants in the middle of those five years, as the best team in American League history through the first half of the twentieth century.

This time, unlike after he dismantled his first great team, Connie Mack did not invest in trying to rebuild a championship-caliber club. The ultimate question, of course, is: Could he have, if he wanted to, as the Great Depression ran its course? At the time, Philadelphia was one of five American cities with two major-league teams, one in each league. Of the five cities, only New York (which actually had three teams, if you include Brooklyn) and Chicago historically were consistently able to support two major-league teams with strong attendance for each relative to other teams in their league. In Philadelphia, on the other hand (as well as in Boston and St. Louis), attendance in most years was typically heavily skewed in favor of the city’s more successful team at the time, with the other team at or near the bottom of its league’s attendance and usually in financial straits. But at least until the Depression, the return on investment for putting together a competitive team—much easier said than done, of course—could turn around a financially troubled franchise, even with in-market competition from the other franchise, and all three cities had years where both teams had good attendance records.9

With 16 teams in 10 cities, an equal distribution of attendance per team would have been slightly more than 6 percent of the major-league total. For the five cities with two big-league teams, drawing a combined 10 percent of total attendance would seem to have been a reasonable threshold below which the city’s capacity to support two teams would have to be considered problematic. For most of the first third of the twentieth century, this was never a problem for New York City and Chicago, and it wasn’t for Philadelphia either. Except for the first half of the 1920s, when both the Athletics and the Phillies were in the dumps with very bad teams, the two franchises in most years combined for about 12 percent, and sometimes as much as 15 percent, of total major-league attendance, equaling or exceeding a notional equal distribution for two teams. The good citizens of Philadelphia might flock overwhelmingly to the ballpark of the better team, but the City of Brotherly Love was a large enough market for both when both the Athletics and Phillies had competitive teams.

With the Great Depression, the dynamic in Philadelphia changed for the worse. Most years from 1933 until 1945, the two Philadelphia teams combined for only about 7 percent of total attendance—barely above what one team alone should have drawn if attendance was equally distributed among the 16 teams. This clearly was not sufficient for a two-team market. And after the war ended and major-league attendance nearly doubled between 1945 and 1948, Philadelphia’s combined share remained below 10 percent, hovering between 8–9 percent. The Athletics and Phillies were nearly an equal draw in 1947 and 1949, but it probably seemed apparent to owner Connie Mack that Philadelphia was not a sustainable market for two major-league teams in the long run.

BRYAN SODERHOLM-DIFATTE is devoted to the study of baseball history. He is author of the online manuscript, www.thebestbaseballteams.com, which identifies the best teams of the twentieth century in each league using a structured methodological approach for analysis, and writes the baseball historical insight blog at brysholm.blogspot.com. Bryan is also a frequent contributor to "The Baseball Research Journal."

  • 1. Norman L. Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 650–670.
  • 2. Attendance figures from www.baseball-reference.com.
  • 3. Macht, 650-652. In his comprehensive biography of Connie Mack, Norman L. Macht states that, economic issues aside, Mack was not inclined to stick with Plank and Bender because both were aging veteran pitchers whose best years he assessed were behind them.
  • 4. The Yankees also led the league in scoring in 1933, although they finished second in the standings to Washington, seven games off the pace. Third-place Philadelphia was second in scoring.
  • 5. Park factor values are included annually for each team’s home ballpark at www.baseball-reference.com.
  • 6. The author’s identification of the American League’s 10 best position players and five best pitchers between 1926 and 1932, based on playing at least four of those years, are derived from the wins above replacement (WAR) metric used by www.baseball-reference.com, but are not determined by highest cumulative or average annual WAR. The author instead rated players according to consistency of high-level performance. Heinie Manush, for example, had a higher cumulative and average WAR for 1926–32, but with two seasons (1927 and 1931) with a player value of 1.6 wins above replacement, he did not maintain as high a level of consistency as Max Bishop, who had only one season (1929, with credited with 1.7 wins above replacement), with such a low player value.
  • 7. The pitcher most often compared to Grove for best five-year stretch was Sandy Koufax, who from 1962 to 1966 won 111 and lost 34 for a .766 winning percentage, led the National League in ERA all five years, in strikeouts three of the five years— failing to do so in 1962 and 1964 when arm problems limited him to 26 and 28 starts—and averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, with 1,444 strikeouts in 1,377 innings pitched.
  • 8. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001), baseball historian and godfather of sabermetric analysis, Bill James, ranked Grove (number 19), Foxx (29), Simmons (71), and Cochrane (72) in the top 100 players of all-time based on his win shares methodology. Ruth (number 1) and Gehrig (14) were the only players on the Yankees between 1926 and 1932 who made James’s best 100 list.
  • 9. As Connie Mack steadily improved his team during the 1920s, average per-game attendance at Shibe Park soared from among the worst in the AL to consistently second behind the Yankees beginning in 1925 (when the Athletics actually led the league). Winning the 1929 pennant resulted in a 22 percent increase in home attendance for the Athletics, but the beginning years of the Depression resulted in a 14 percent decline when Philadelphia repeated as AL champions in 1930, another 13 percent drop when Mack’s men won their three-peat in 1931, and a far more precipitate 35 percent decline in 1932 (third-best in the league), when the Athletics were still a baseball power but could not keep pace with the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees. Perhaps more to the point, pergame home attendance decreased from about 38 percent of Shibe Park’s capacity in 1929 to only 16 percent of capacity in 1932—the Athletics’ lowest level since 1919, when Mack’s last-place team with its atrocious 36–104 record was the worst draw in the American League. (Data on attendance capacity at Shibe Park can be found in “Shibe Park Historical Analysis” on www.baseball-almanac.com. Annual and per-game attendance figures can be found for each team, each year in www.baseball-reference.com.)
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