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Life after Ruth: The Iron Horse, Joe D and the late 1930s Yankees

It has been said that the hardest task in sports is to manage an aging superstar. No football coach wants to be there for the end of a great quarterback; no baseball manager wants to watch an old warhorse sputter out on the mound.

Sometimes, such things end gracefully. But not always. Frankly, it usually isn’t pretty.

The mid-1930s New York Yankees had to confront baseball mortality. Babe Ruth, the game’s defining superstar, was released in 1935. Age had come for the Sultan, and it didn’t miss. The Yankees weren’t finished, but how exactly does one prepare to wither the end of Babe Ruth? What’s the roadmap for replacing the game’s greatest player? (Ask the Chicago Bulls how easy this is.)

Lou Gehrig, the second head of the Yankee monster, had a magnificent season in 1935 (oh, you know, 176 OPS+), his age-32 year, and remained a foundational piece for these post-Ruthian Bombers. Alas, for the third year in a row, the Yanks failed to claim the pennant, despite Gehrig being Gehrig and Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing all on their way to the Hall of Fame.

The cupboard was hardly bare, but the team needed something.

That something arrived in 1936 with the debut of the next great Yankee, Joe DiMaggio. As it turns out, the best way to manage an aging superstar is to simply replace him with a younger star. (I believe this was what the Indianapolis Colts had in mind replacing Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck.) 

DiMaggio, 21, hit .323 with 29 home runs in 1936. Quite a debut. Gehrig and Dickey had ridiculous seasons (the Iron Horse won MVP, his second), George Selkirk shined and Red Ruffing threw 270 quality innings. The Yankees won the AL by an absurd 19.5 games, scored a whopping 1,065 runs and faced Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott and the New York Giants in the World Series. Ott, headed to Cooperstown, mashed a hearty 177 OPS+ while Hubbell, another Hall of Famer, brought his famous screwball to bear against the Iron Horse and company.

It’s always fun to look at past pitching matchups and ponder the excitement they must have conjured. Red Ruffing vs Carl Hubbell in Game 1 at the fabled Polo Grounds is a pretty good one, and the screwballer won, throwing a complete game in a 6-1 victory. The Yankees took the next three, including an 18-4 demolition in Game 2 and a defeat of Hubbell in Game 4. The Giants took Game 5 in extra innings before Lefty Gomez outpitched a struggling Freddie Fitzsimmons in Game 6, a 13-5 Yankee win to clinch the championship.

The ‘37 Yanks brought a three-headed offensive monster on the diamond. Gehrig and Dickey continued to be superstars, but the story was DiMaggio, who at 22 hit .346 and mashed 46 homers and 167 RBI. (Note that Gehrig had 158 RBI and Dickey 133. Good year to have Yanks on your fantasy team.) Lefty Gomez had the best year of his career — 9.2 WAR — and Ruffing continued to age gracefully in his early thirties. 

The Yanks won the AL by 13 games and again faced the Giants. Gomez beat Hubbell in Game 1 and all told, the Giants scored just three runs in the first three games of the series, all Yankee wins. Hubbell prevented a sweep in Game 4, but Gomez came back in Game 5 and pitched well at the Polo Grounds to clinch it. Yankees win.

Entering 1938, the Yankees were presented with an opportunity to do something the Ruth-led squads never did: win three in a row. The Yankees won 99 games, narrowly missing a chance to win more than 100 games four straight years.  Dickey more or less matched his ‘37 performance while DiMaggio lost a bit of power. Hall of Famer Joe Gordon debuted at second, too. Red Ruffing led the team in bWAR with 6.1.

Then there’s Gehrig. The Iron Horse had been just that, a staple of the Yankee teams for thousands and thousands of games, a wrecking ball in the middle of the lineup. Gehrig’s last tremendous season would prove to be 1937 — one among many in his legendary career. But, by 1938, fatigue from all those games and, of course, the illness that would come to bear his name began to take a toll. He didn’t have anywhere close to a bad season — except, perhaps, by his own lofty standards — but the end was near, both for his career and most tragically, for his life.  

That isn’t to sell the team short; the ’38 Yankees swept the Cubs in the World Series, their third in a row. Even for the Yankees, with all this history of dominance, that’s a big deal.

But, alas, 1939 had a bigger story to tell, one both heart-wrenching and triumphant. The Iron Horse took himself out of the lineup, and his teammates did him proud with a dominant season. 

We’ll cover that next week.