The Babe vs. Bernie: You decide
by Robert W. Creamer
Posted: Fri September 25, 1998
The 1998 New York Yankees aren't quite as overwhelming as the 1927 Yankees, the team often called the greatest of all time. But despite a late-season slump the '98 Yanks won more games than any club in more than 90 years. Like the 1927 team they grabbed first place in April, opened a huge lead and were never challenged. Just how good are they? How do they compare to the legendary heroes of 1927, who won 110 games and swept four straight from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series?
First of all, not all the players on the 1927 team were legendary heroes. Three men (Pat Collins, Johnny Grabowski and Benny Bengough) shared the catching duties, and none was ever a true first-stringer in the big leagues. Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada make the '98 team much better behind the plate. Scott Brosius is having a far better year at third base than Joe Dugan had in '27. The famous Jumping Joe missed 44 games with injuries and wasn't all that productive when he did play (.269, 43 RBIs). Shortstop Mark Koenig also was hurt a lot, missing 33 games. Koenig had moments of brilliance, but he was not the ballplayer Derek Jeter is.
Both clubs had superb pitching, if we overlook this year's September sag, but the 1927 staff relied on six men for almost 90% of the innings pitched. Waite Hoyt (22-7), Herb Pennock (19-8), Urban Shocker (18-6), Dutch Ruether (13-6) and George Pipgras (10-3) were all used frequently in relief, and Wilcy Moore, a 30-year-old rookie who was primarily a relief pitcher, started 12 games. Moore made 38 relief appearances, had 13 saves and an astonishing record of 19-7.
Only three other men were on the staff all season (not counting one guy who appeared in one game for one inning) and there was no shuttling players back and forth from the minor leagues. Not that they were needed. The 1927 staff had the three lowest earned-run averages in the league, with Moore (2.28), Hoyt (2.63), and Shocker (2.84), and four of the top seven; and by far the best team ERA at 3.20, .75 ahead of Philadelphia.
Other than pitchers, the four key players in 1927 were the right fielder, the first baseman, the second baseman and the center fielder, and therein lies the difference between the two clubs. Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch and Bernie Williams are outstanding players, but their counterparts in 1927Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Earle Combswere simply dynamite.
Ruth led the league in home runs (60), runs scored (158) and slugging percentage (.772). Gehrig was a close second in home runs (47), runs (149) and slugging (.765), and he ranked first in doubles (52), extra-base hits (117), total bases (447) and runs batted in (175). Ruth had only 29 doubles but was second to Gehrig in extra-base hits (97), total bases (417) and RBIs (164).
Lazzeri, a fine fielder who moved from second base to play 38 games at shortstop when Koenig wasn't available, finished third in the league behind Ruth and Gehrig in homers (18) and drove in 102 runs. Combs, the leadoff hitter, had only 64 RBIs but he batted .356, led the league in hits (231) and triples (an astonishing 23!) and was third behind Ruth and Gehrig in runs scored (137).
Only eight players in the league reached 100 RBIs in 1927, and the Yanks had four of them. They batted .307 as a team, averaged 6.3 runs a game, set a new team high for home runs that was 37 better than the old record and were the first club in major-league history to reach triple figures in doubles, triples and home runs.
Great pitching, great hitting. It was truly an astonishing team. It's a tribute to this year's gang to say they're almost as good.
Two side notes:
1) As a group, the 1998 players are much bigger. Ruth at 6'2" and Meusel at 6'3" were the tallest in 1927, and only two of the 1927 pitchers stood higher than 6 feet. This year's team has a dozen men who are as tall or taller than Ruth, and only one 1998 pitcher is as short as 6 feet.
2) In 1927 the Yankees were far ahead of the rest of the American League in attendance, yet their total of 1,164,000 was barely 40% of this year's, which is far from the best in baseball.
Sports Illustrated special contributor Robert W. Creamer, who has watched the Yankees for more than 60 years, is the author of definitive biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel.
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