1939 New York Yankees
106 – 45 (0.702)
1939 promised to be an exciting year for New York, home of the World’s Fair, the All-Star Game, and the three-time defending champion Yankees. But the season began tragically for the Bronx Bombers. The death of long-time owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert was followed by the news that Lou Gehrig‘s streak of 2,130 consecutive games was coming to an end because of a terminal illness. Even worse, star centerfielder Joe DiMaggio was lost for a month after tearing muscles in his right leg a week into the season. But spurred on by the intensity of manager Joe McCarthy and DiMaggio’s unmatched production down the stretch, the Yankees overcame their early-season obstacles to win 106 games and sweep the Cincinnati Reds for their fourth consecutive World Series victory.
Much less celebrated than their 1927 counterparts, the 1939 Yankees dominated their league to an almost equal extent; during the year, sportswriters constantly referred to the rest of the league as “The Seven Dwarfs.” In every season from 1936 through 1939, the Yankees led the league in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed. So infuriated were opposing owners that they passed a rule after the season forbidding any American League team from trading with the previous season’s pennant winner. Within a year, the rule was appealed; after dropping to third place in 1940, the Yankees rebounded to win the pennant in 1941.
Joe McCarthy’s ’39 squad continued the Yankees’ proud tradition of excellence. The Yankees led the league in runs, home runs and slugging average; five regulars batted over .300 (not including pitcher Red Ruffing, who hit .307 and drove in twenty runs in 114 at bats). They made 41 fewer errors than any other team, while their pitchers’ 3.31 earned run average also topped the league; no other American League team had an ERA below four runs a game.
McCarthy’s regular lineup featured five players who hit over .300 and four who drove in over 100 runs, but the big star was indubitably Joe DiMaggio. In only his fourth big-league season, the “Yankee Clipper” hit 30 homers, drove in 126 runs, and flirted with .400 for most of the year. Were it not for a September eye ailment that lowered his batting average to a career-high .381, DiMaggio might well have beaten Ted Williams to the magic plateau.
The only challenge to the Bombers’ dominance came in early July. As Lou Gehrig stood in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd and pronounced himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth,” the Yankees were in the midst of an uncharacteristic slump, losing nine out of twelve, including a five-game sweep at the hands of the second-place Red Sox. But they regained their form after the All-Star break, winning 35 out of their next 49 games to knock Boston out of the pennant race for good. DiMaggio led the charge by hitting .405 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in the month of August alone.
A fine supporting cast surrounded the Yankees’ stellar centerfielder. Future Hall-of-Fame catcher Bill Dickey followed Joe D. in the Yanks lineup, hitting .302 with 24 homers and 105 RBI. All-Stars Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, George Selkirk, and Joe Gordon did their share of hitting as well, each having career years. Pinch-hitter Tommy Henrich, later dubbed “Old Reliable” for his penchant for getting big hits in key situations, found his way into 99 games and drove in 57 runs.
Twenty-one game winner Red Ruffing headed a Yankee pitching staff which featured some of the more consistent winners in the game. Ruffing, who was chosen to start the All-Star Game, hurled a league-best five shutouts before finishing the year with a respectable 2.94 ERA. Following Ruffing in the rotation was thirteen game-winner Atley Donald and twelve game-winners Monte Pearson, Bump Hadley and Lefty Gomez, who were just as tough. Playing in an era before specialized relief pitching became the norm, Johnny Murphy posted a league’s best nineteen saves, while sometimes relievers Steve Sundra and Oral Hildebrand earned eleven and ten victories, respectively.