Best Ten-Year Performers

This article was written by Scott Nelson

This article was published in 2003 Baseball Research Journal

Lou Gehrig, born 101 seasons ago, would never have made the claim, but let’s credit him with the best 10-season batting record in major league history if you don’t mind.

It happened from 1927 through 1936 when baseball offense had a heyday. In a compilation of the finest 10-season performers from 1901 through 2003, Gehrig places in seven of 10 position player areas and is first in three of them.

Searching for consistency at a high level, the study considered those who played for 10 seasons in the American and/or National leagues within the period listed. Years missed were mostly due to military service. The focus was on the top 10 players rather than performances where, for instance, Babe Ruth holds the 12 best slugging percentages over 10-year periods: 1920-29, 1919-28, etc.

But back to Gehrig’s stunning decade. He compiled 10-year bests in runs, runs batted in, and total bases during the period. His slugging percentage is third-best for a player in ten years of play, and he’s sixth on the hit list and ninth in both home runs and doubles.

During the period the New York Yankee first baseman hit 20 of his career record 23 grand slams. In 1932 he was the first major leaguer of the 20th century to hit four home runs in a game. Only in doubles did he not have his best 10-year stretch in 1927-36.

Imagine averaging more than 141 runs scored, 152 RBI, and 381 total bases for 10 consecutive years of play. In addition, Gehrig batted .350 (12th best ever) and averaged 202 hits, 40 doubles, and 39 home runs, and posted a .662 slugging mark. And as if all that weren’t enough, Larrupin’ Lou had 117 triples and 80 stolen bases over the decade.

Gehrig began and ended that 1927-36 frame with a pair of American League Most Valuable Player awards, and he won the Triple Crown in 1934. Amazingly, Gehrig accomplished much of this while following one of history’s greatest base cleaners in the lineup, Babe Ruth. Gehrig’s remarkable RBI average for 1927-36 — 152 plus — would have won the American League crown every year from 1949-1997. From 1941 through 1996 only Jim Rice (1977-78) and Don Mattingly (1986) won AL total base titles with more than Gehrig’s 381 average. And since 1949 just one AL run-scoring leader — Rickey Henderson (146 in 1985) — has exceeded Gehrig’s 141.7 average from 1927 to 1936.

Twenty-four times the record book shows Gehrig’s numbers in bold type as the AL leader in some sta­tistical category during the period. He led in RBI five times; runs, four times; home runs, three times; doubles and slugging, twice; and even batting once. He also once had a record-tying three triples in a game that was rained out before it became an official contest and thus wasn’t recorded. For his career, Gehrig aver­aged the most runs and RBI per game of any 20th­ century player.

Gehrig was only 33 years old when his remark­ able decade ended in 1936. Seemingly, he would have at least a few more years of stardom. He had a good 1937 season, but in 1938 his batting average fell below .300 for the first time since 1925, and it was clear that something physical was wrong. He lacked his usual strength, and pitches he would have murdered were only flyouts.

After a feeble start in 1939, Gehrig, the Yankees’ captain, presented the lineup card to the umpires for the ninth game of the season, but his own name wasn’t on it. His streak of 2,130 consecutive games had ended, and shortly thereafter he was diagnosed as having a very rare degenerative disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease). He would never play baseball again.

New York honored Gehrig with a day on July 4, 1939, and his teary words of thanks have become part of baseball lore. Less than two years later, just days before his 38th birthday, Gehrig died

The Iron Horse’s marks and most of the others from the first 60 years of the past century are more notable, too, in light of baseball’s switch from 154-game to 162-game schedules in 1962. In a 10-year period, the difference adds up to 80 games, nearly half of a cur­rent season.

Ruth Did Okay, Too

Teammate Babe Ruth, listed six times, has the best 10-season mark in slugging (.740), but was surpassed on the home run list by Sammy Sosa in 2003, 469 to 467. Sosa, a Chicago Cub the past 12 seasons, and Rogers Hornsby are the only batting leaders on these lists who played most of their games in the National League. And Hornsby exceeded Ruth in making seven of 10 hitter classifications, including a first in hits with 2,085 for four different teams in 1920-29. Jimmie Foxx made it in five and Ty Cobb, Al Simmons, and Stan Musial in four, while Paul Waner, Willie Mays, and Sosa do it in three areas.

Sosa, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Rafael Palmeiro give active home run hitters their best showing in any batting category. Twenty-four entries have been made in the new century. Not surprisingly, six of the 10-year leaders are also career record holders: Cobb (batting average), Tris Speaker (doubles), Sam Crawford (triples), Ruth (slugging), Henderson (stolen bases), and Walter Johnson (earned run average).

However, Hank Aaron, the career record holder in total bases, RBI, and home runs, is only sixth, 11th, and 12th, respectively, among 10-year performers.

A pair of Johnsons and Christy Mathewson are pitching leaders in the study. Randy Johnson leads in winning percentage and strikeouts, while yesterday’s Walter Johnson and Matty appear on three of five pitcher lists. Mathewson averaged nearly 28 wins a year from 1903 through 1912, with Walter not far behind

With his 24-5 record in 2002, Randy Johnson leaped way out front with the best winning percentage among hurlers having at least 100 victories in a 10-season period. Dennis Eckersley holds the saves record.

When Randy Johnson passed Nolan Ryan on the 10-year strikeout list in 2002, it meant only Walter Johnson in this compilation is a career or season record holder in the same category among pitchers

Eleven players active in 2003 are on the 10-season lists, led by leaders Henderson and Randy Johnson. Henderson’s 838 stolen bases in 1980-89 give him a 20% edge over the next best record, the largest margin in our study. Henderson and Hank Aaron are the only players holding three major league career records — his are in stolen bases, runs, and walks. 

Nearly half of those listed played their entire career with one club. In contrast, Henderson in his 25-year career has played for nine different teams, including Oakland (four times) and San Diego (twice). Because of the more recent focus on home run hitters and relief pitchers and the dearth of low ERAs since 1920, the study includes an extra list in each of those categories.


Batting Average — Tony Gwynn only entry in Top 10 since Ted Williams 50 years ago.

Hits — Kirby Puckett is the last entrant, 10 years ago. Puckett fell four short of 2,000 when the 1994-5 strike wiped out 67 Twins games.

Doubles — Wade Boggs (1983-92) and Pete Rose (1971-80) are most recent entries. Rose is 10th and missed 400 by one.

Triples — Sam Crawford’s 185 (1906-15) leads by a wide margin and is the oldest leader record among bat­ters in the study. Paul Waner was last to make the list in 1935 in an all-but-forgotten hitting category.

Home Runs — Though Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and Mickey Mantle each hit more than 500 and are in the top 11 career-wise, none make the list in a 10-summer stretch. 

Total Bases — Only 29 times has a batter totaled 400 or more, and Lou Gehrig did it on five occasions. No one else more than three.

Runs — Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb are one-two career leaders, but neither one, in his 10 best years, crossed the plate enough for this list.

RBI — Though he had just 103 in the last season of his injury-shortened career (2000), Albert Belle is ninth among the best 10-year performers. Until Belle and Sosa came along, Aaron was last to qualify in 1966.

Slugging Average — Stan Musial missed .600 by the narrowest of margins with a .5995 average (1948-57).

Stolen Bases — Only two of the leaders made their mark before 1969.

Wins — Christy Mathewson won 278 games in 1903-1912, and that’s held up as the oldest 10-year best. Nobody’s made the Top 10 since Juan Marichal 33 years ago.

Percentage — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Greg Maddux made the 10 best in this century. Mathewson is the lone entry on this list with more than 200 wins in a 10-year period.

ERA — How baseball has changed: Reliever Hoyt Wilhelm is the sole hurler listed since 1920. So, we also listed the best 10-year ERAs since then.

Saves — All made the list since 1992.

Strikeouts — All but Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax reached their 10-season peak in the last 32 years.

SCOTT NELSON, when not working on sports or familt history publications, can be found filming progress on the log home a daughter and husband are building next to the family lake home in Northern Minnesota.


(Click images to enlarge)



Big League Baseball Electronic Encyclopedia, by Franklin Electronic Publishers.

McConnell, Bob and David Vincent, eds. SABR Presents The Home Run Encyclopedia; New York, NY, Macmillan Publishing, 1996.

The Sporting News Complete Baseball Record Book. 2003, St. Louis,  MO., Sporting News Publishing, 2003.

STATS Inc. All-time Major League Sourcebook. James, Dewan, Zminda, Callis, Munro, Stats Publishing, 1999.

Thorn, John and Pete Palmer, eds. Total Baseball; New York, NY, HarperCollins, 1993.