Being the best Yankee team ever is like being the shiniest diamond at Tiffany’s. The company around you is pretty slick. And while you might quibble about the 1939 New York Yankees as the best the franchise ever assembled, it’s hard not to appreciate the audacity of it all. How many other franchises have weathered the retirement of not one, but two all-time greats — I’m talking top-15 players ever — and saw the run of success continue?
The Yankees did. With Babe Ruth retired and Lou Gehrig playing only 8 games in ’39, the Yankees officially moved beyond the duo that set the franchise apart. But, as we covered last week, Joe DiMaggio entered the scene as the team’s next defining star, right on schedule. DiMaggio would go on to be an absolute American icon — at least in part due to his glamorous social life, of course — and one of the game’s best hitters ever. DiMaggio was unreal.
His 1939 season jumps off the page. He hit .381 — yes, .381 — and slugged .671, with 30 homers and 32 doubles. He struck out twenty times.
He struck out twenty times. DiMaggio wasn’t a bruising slugger with no regard for punchouts; he was a meticulous hitting machine who would try and teach hitters in later decades how to avoid striking out. He took this seriously. There are stories of DiMaggio imploring young batters to level out their swing path.
Five hitters produced an OPS+ over 130 for the ’39 Yankees: DiMaggio at 184; George Selkirk at 148; Charlie Keller at 143; Red Rolfe at 130 and Bill Dickey at 133. Not too shabby. As a team, the Yankees produce an OPS+ of 111, a full 11 points higher than the second-best hitting team in the American League, the Boston Red Sox. The ’39 Yankees were a hammer and American League pitching was the nail.
Hilariously — well, to us Yankee fans anyway — the pitching was somehow better. As a team, the Yankees pitched to a 132 ERA+, 18 points north of the Detroit Tigers. That’s flat-out ridiculous, and the credit lies with a starting rotation led by Red Ruffing. Ruffing threw 233 innings with a 148 ERA+; Bump Hadley (Bump freaking Hadley) threw 154 innings and had a 146 ERA+; Lefty Gomez threw 198 innings with a 128 ERA+. You get the idea.
One should also note that Steve Sundra and Marius Russo were excellent out of the bullpen, combining for nearly 240 innings with an ERA neatly below 2.75.
The Bombers won the American League by 17 games with a 106-45 record. For what it’s worth, the team’s Pythagorean record was even better: 111-40. DiMaggio won the MVP — the first of three — with an 8.1 bWAR season and the Yankees squared up to face the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
On the line? A chance to win four straight, a feat to this point unachieved by anyone in the sport’s history. The Reds won 97 games and brought to bear an excellent season from ace Bucky Walters, who threw an astounding 319 innings with a 2.23 ERA. Walters and Paul Derringer formed an excellent one-two punch at the top of the Cincinnati rotation, certainly better than the years put up by Ruffing and Gomez. However, the Reds lineup was nowhere near as ferocious as what New York could send out, led by 1938 NL MVP and future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi. Outfielder Ival Goodman had a solid year, hitting .323 with a .401 on-base; third baseman Billy Werber got on-base at a solid clip and Frank McCormick and Lonny Frey hit for some power.
Ruffing and McCormick started Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. McCormick singled in Goodman to put the Reds on the board early, but the Yanks tied it one inning later on a Babe Dahlgren double. It was tight the rest of the way, but Charlie Keller tripled in the bottom of the ninth with one down. Wisely, the Reds walked DiMaggio, but Bill Dickey singled to center to end it.
The Reds needed to win the starts from Walters and Derringer to have a chance against the Yankee juggernaut. Oh for one.
Walters started Game 2 for the Reds against Monte Pearson, who wasn’t one of the stronger Yankee starters in ’39, throwing 146 innings at just under a 4.5 ERA. Alas, with that lineup …
The game was tied until the third. Dahlgren hit a ground-rule double, Pearson sacrificed him over and Frankie Crosetti got him in. 1-0. After a Rolfe single, Keller doubled, then DiMaggio singled to third. Things are tense here for the Reds, oh so very tense. With two on and two out in the third, Bill Dickey again drew blood, singling in Keller to put the Yankees up 3-0. Pearson, meanwhile, was astounding. He threw a shutout, walking one and striking out eight. The Bombers would tack on another run to win it 4-0.
The Reds sent Gene Thompson — who also had a strong year: 152 innings, 153 ERA+ — out in a critical Game 3 back at Crosley Field. The Yanks matched with Lefty Gomez, who had battled injury problems throughout the season. The story goes that Gomez convinced Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy to start him instead of Oral Hildebrand. Bad move. Gomez struggled through but one inning, and for one fleeting inning, the Reds had a lead on the Yankees, 3-2.
DiMaggio took care of that, smashing a homer after Keller’s two-out walk. The Yanks would add three more — 2-run shot from Keller and a solo blast from Dickey — to win 7-3. Bump Hadley got the win.
Only 27 outs from a championship, Game 4 was the most dramatic of the series. McCarthy went with Hildebrand, who clawed his way through 4 innings before the bullpen took over. The Reds went back to Derringer, and neither side got on the board until the seventh when the Reds starter tired.
Keller and Dickey both hit homers, but the Reds, showing quite a bit of fight, roared back to take the lead in the home-half of the inning, 3-2. Wally Berger, Willard Hershberger, and Billy Werber singled.
But, as these Yankees tended to do, they had a response. Even after being held down in the eighth and watching the Reds extend the lead to 4-2 to close the eighth, the Yankees struck.
Keller and DiMaggio opened the top of the ninth with singles. (Imagine the feeling at Crosley. Here we go … )
Dickey grounded into a fielder’s choice that produced an error, scoring Keller. 4-3. After a Selkirk flyout, Joe Gordon singled to third, scoring the ’39 AL MVP, tying the game and sending Dickey to second. Dahlgren and Johnny Murphy went down to send the game into extras.
Johnny Murphy escaped a two-out single to hold the Reds down in the bottom of the ninth. The Reds boldly turned to Bucky Walters, the team’s best pitcher in 1939, to deal with the Bombers in the tenth. He walked Frankie Crosetti to open the fame and watched him move to second on a sacrifice bunt from Rolfe.
This is what baseball is all about. Crosetti on second with Keller, DiMaggio, Dickey, and Selkirk coming up. This would be a little like Walker Buehler (or another great pitcher of the modern moment, take your pick) facing the heart of the Yankee lineup today, at home, with the World Series on the line.
Keller grounded to third, but the Reds misplayed it and left runners on the corners for Joe DiMaggio. Seizing the moment like so many Yankee greats before and after him would do, DiMaggio singled, scoring Crosetti and Keller. Now, there’s some controversy about how Keller scored. As the story goes — and such things become almost fables — Keller reached home plate at the same time as the ball, smashing into Lombardi and leaving him down. (Was he hit in the groin? Was he just lazy, as some papers evidently suggested? Don’t ask me.) With Lombardi unable to recover fast enough, DiMaggio scored as well.