There’s been a story--some call it a myth--floating around baseball since 1927…
The New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates were facing each other that year in the World Series. Prior to Game 1 on October 5, the Pirate players supposedly watched in awe as “Murderers’ Row” Yankee sluggers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel put on a clinic by crushing ball after ball to the far reaches of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field during batting practice. The Yankees then swept the timid Pirates by scores of 5-4, 6-2, 8-1, and 4-3.
But were the Pirates really deflated prior to the first game? Probably not. They were an excellent team in their own right, with plenty of stars, having won the World Series in 1925. Besides, it was the Yankee pitching staff that dominated the 1927 post-season, not so much the hitting of Ruth, Gehrig, and the boys. Interestingly enough, Ruth hit two homers, the only homers in the entire four-game set.
So, what really happened?
Many historians consider the 1927 New York Yankees as the best team ever. They were first in American League attendance, attracting 1.1 million fans, a high figure for its day. Managed by Miller Huggins, they had it all. Five members are in the Hall of Fame: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Waite Hoyt, and Herb Pennock. What made them so great? First off, finishing 19 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Athletics in the American League race, the Yanks won 110 games against only 44 losses for a .714 winning percentage. Hitting, they scored 975 runs, while giving up only 599, a difference of 376 runs: all lead-leading totals, along with 103 triples, 158 homers, .307 batting average, and .489 slugging average. Their 291 doubles were second in the circuit. Pitching, they led the AL in shutouts (11), fewest walks (409), and lowest ERA (3.20), almost 100 points better than the eight-team league average.
Individually, Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri finished 1-2-3 in the league homer title with 60 (a record that stood until 1961), 47, and 18, respectively. The outfield--the best in the majors--consisted of leadoff hitter Earl Combs in center field, who crushed a majors-best 23 triples while hitting .356 thanks to his league-best 231 hits; Ruth in right also hitting .356 along with 164 RBIs (second-best in the league); and Bob Meusel, the rocket arm in left field who batted fifth and hit .337 with 103 RBIs. Steady Tony Lazzeri at second base contributed with a .309 average and 102 RBIs, one of four Yankees to clear 100 RBIs. Cleanup hitter Lou Gehrig, the defensive rock at first base, had 218 hits, a .373 batting average, and led the majors with both 52 doubles and 175 RBIs. He also had the AL second-best mark of 18 triples, all hitting behind Babe Ruth in the third spot.
Blessed with an outstanding starting rotation, the Yankee pitchers dominated opposition hitters. Waite Hoyt won 22 games, tied for the league-best, while his 2.64 ERA was second-best. With his seven losses, he led the league with a .759 winning percentage. The others were Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00 ERA), Urban Shocker (18-6, 2.84 ERA), Dutch Reuther (13-6, 3.38 ERA), George Pipgras (10-3, 4.11), and rookie reliever and spot starter Wilcy Moore (19-7, 13 saves, and league-best 2.28 ERA).
How did this team come about in the first place?
Known as the Highlanders upon league entrance in 1903, they changed their name to the Yankees in 1913. After some up-and-down years with no pennants, the New York franchise did not become a force until around the time that Miller Huggins became their manager in 1918. By 1919, they finished third, eight games off the pace, helped along by the purchase of some Boston Red Sox pitchers of note: Carl Mays and Ernie Shore. Boston’s owner Harry Frazee didn’t stop there. He needed cash and fast. So, in the off-season, he sold pitcher-outfielder star Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the biggest pro sports deal up to that time.
In 1920, the Yankees finished third again, with 95-59, only three games from the top of the heap. Shortly after the season ended, Red Sox manager Ed Barrow saw the writing on the wall for the sixth-place team and left, where he became the New York Yankees’ business manager, an earlier term for GM. For the next few years, he brought more Red Sox players over in the midst of Frazee’s fire sale, until the joke around the majors was that the Yankees were the transplanted Red Sox. Boston was awful for many years afterwards and didn’t win another pennant until 1946. On the other hand, the Yankees became the best team in baseball, a powerhouse for the next 40 years until 1964, spearheaded by the shrewd Ed Barrow. It all began with AL pennants flying high in 1921, 1922, 1923, 1926, and again in 1927, with two of those world championships.
How did the starting players of the 1927 team become Yankee property? Here’s the list and the deals made, everyone ratified by Barrow--except for Babe Ruth--during his stint with the team. Then again, Barrow may have approved the Ruth deal, too, knowing that he would soon be joining the Yankees after it had gone through.
First baseman Lou Gehrig was signed out of Columbia University in 1923 where he played on the baseball team. There on a football scholarship, he was studying to be an engineer. Second baseman Tony Lazzeri was purchased from the Double A Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League in 1925 for two minor leaguers and $50,000 cash. Two National League teams passed on him due to his bouts of epilepsy. Third baseman Joe Dugan became a Yankee mid-season 1922 via the Red Sox in a six-player deal plus $50,000 heading to the cash-strapped Frazee. Shortstop Mark Koenig was spotted by scouts in 1925 playing for the St Paul Saints of the Double A American Association. Incidentally, Koenig’s first pro team was the Moose Jaw Millers of the Class B Western Canada League in 1921.
The January 1920 deal that brought right fielder Babe Ruth to New York consisted of the Yankees giving up $125,000 cash and a $300,000 loan to Frazee, a transaction that secured his home field as collateral. In other words, for a few years, the Yankees actually held the mortgage to Fenway Park. Left fielder Bob Meusel had been Yankee property as far back as the winter of 1920-1921, signing with them upon leaving the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. The Yankees bought center fielder Earl Combs for $50,000 in 1924, following a fierce bidding war for his rights. Catcher Pat Collins found his way to New York from the St Paul Saints of the American Association in 1925 for three players and $25,000 cash.
Three left the floundering Red Sox: Waite Hoyt, part of a seven-player deal in December 1920; southpaw Herb Pennock in January 1923 for three players and $50,000; and George Pipgras in January 1923 for a player and an undisclosed amount of cash. In 1926, Wilcy Moore was bought for a mere $3,000 from the Greenville Spinners of the Class B South Atlantic League. Urban Shocker was traded from the St Louis Browns in December 1924 for four players. The other regular southpaw on the staff, Dutch Reuther, came to the Yankees from the Washington Senators in August 1926 for two players.
The most underrated player on the 1927 squad had to be sinkerball pitcher Wilcy Moore, an easygoing country boy from Oklahoma, who, from 1922-1925 had knocked around the minors until he caught a break, no pun intended. You see, with Greenville in 1925, his pitching arm was fractured by a hit ball. Returning to the team later in the year, he found it too painful throwing his sinker out-pitch in his usual overhand motion. So, he changed to sidearm. In 1926, he won 17 straight and finished 30-4 with a 2.86 ERA in 305 innings. His success got back to Ed Barrow in New York and he signed Moore, despite scouts saying he’d be too old at 30 by the time the season would start in 1927. Moore proved everybody--except Barrow--wrong by appearing in 50 games for 213 innings (12 starts, six complete games) and 13-3, 1.95 ERA mark while in the bullpen, where he especially excelled as one of the first relief pitchers in MLB history. He was the missing piece that anchored the pitching staff.
No matter how one looks at the 1927 Yankees, it will always be known as the team of sluggers Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, two stars as different as night and day. They did have two things in common, however: they both hit left and threw left. Ruth was loud and boisterous, always the center of attention on the field or off. His home runs were crushed high and long. He looked good even striking out. Playing in the shadow of Ruth, Gehrig was quiet and deathly shy, preferring to keep a low profile wherever he went. On the field, he hit missiles to every section of the park, whether they were singles, doubles or triples. And his line-drive homers found the seats in a flash, often scattering the startled fans.
Summing it up, the 1927 New York Yankees were worthy of the “Murderers’ Row” tag. But, they could pitch, too. They had it all.