June 13, 1999

Eight Men Great
by Steve Lombardi

Due to their record breaking SEASON in 1998, the New York Yankees brought cause for renewal of that age-old argument "Who was the best team ever?" In fact, many consider the ’98 Yankee squad to be among the best TEAMS ever.

Notice that the words "SEASON" and "TEAM" are emphasized for a reason. A "season" is a solitary measuring unit used to capture the success (or failure) of a "team." It’s the best snapshot for measuring the "Best Season." After all, a season IS a season. And, there are many excellent ways to determine "Best Season" - such as Wins, Winning Percentage, Games Ahead (as either "straight" numbers or adjusted for relative competition).

Nevertheless, ONE season is an insufficient gauge to determine "Best Team."

In order to determine "Best Team," you need a definition for "Team." According to most dictionaries, a "team" is a "group of players in a game" or a "group organized to work together." Sounds easy enough, no?

Today, in Major League Baseball, a team consists of 25 players. This is also referred to as a "roster." From season to season, rosters usually vary. However, within these variations, successful teams have a nucleus or a "cadre" of individuals to whom most of their collective achievements can be attributed. The cadre is also an excellent focal point to utilize in establishing continuity for a team from season to season. Yeah Baby, taxonomy(1). For argument’s sake, allow the supposition that at least 60% of a roster (15 players) constitutes a team’s cadre.

Now that we have a basis for identifying a "team," a qualifier for "best" is necessary. Clearly, a World Championship is the pinnacle of success in Major League Baseball. Each year, the World Series winner is considered as the "best team" in baseball. Since there is no greater label of prosperity, this will also serve as the qualifier of "best" in this discussion.

Labor strife aside, there is a World Champion crowned in Major League Baseball each individual season. Often, a different franchise wins each year. Still, there have been instances where a "team" has won two or more championships in a relative short time period. These multiple championships are more revered than isolated trophy winners. Repeat champions represent sustained excellence.

The aforementioned theories beg the question: "Has there ever been a group of 15 players (or more) that played together for three consecutive years (or more) and won at least two World Championships?" If "yes," these teams are proper candidates deserving scrutiny for the title "Best Team Ever."

In truth, during the long history of Major League Baseball, a group of 15 players (or more) have played together for three consecutive seasons (or more) and have won at least two World Championships a total of TWENTY ONE times. They are as follows:

Team: 1906-08 Chicago Cubs
Cadre: Three Finger Brown, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfiester, Carl Lundgren, Orval Overall, Johnny Kling, Pat Moran, Frank Chance, Solly Hofman, Johnny Evers, Harry Steinfeldt, Joe Tinker, Jimmy Sheckard, Wildfire Schulte, Jimmy Slagle
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1910-12 Philadelphia Athletics
Cadre: Jack Coombs, Eddie Plank, Cy Morgan, Chief Bender, Harry Krause, Lefty Russell, Jack Lapp, Ira Thomas, Eddie Collins, Stuffy McInnis, Home Run Baker, Jack Barry, Claud Derrick, Danny Murphy, Rube Oldring, Bris Lord, Amos Stunk
Accomplishments: 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1929-31 Philadelphia Athletics
Cadre: George Earnshaw, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, Bill Shores, Eddie Rommel, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Max Bishop, Jimmy Dykes, Joe Boley, Eric McNair, Bing Miller, Al Simmons, Mule Haas, Doc Cramer
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1972-74 Oakland Athletics
Cadre: Rollie Fingers, Darold Knowles, Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, Dave Hamilton, Gene Tenace, Larry Haney, Ted Kubiak, Dal Maxvill, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson
Accomplishments: 3 Division Titles, 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1974-76 Cincinnati Reds
Cadre: Will McEnaney, Pedro Borbon, Rawly Eastwick, Jack Billingham, Pat Darcy, Don Gullet, Johnny Bench, Bill Plummer, Tony Perez, Dan Driessen, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, George Foster, Ken Griffey Sr.
Accomplishments: 2 Division Titles, 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1926-28 New York Yankees
Cadre: Urban Shocker, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Myles Thomas, Pat Collins, Benny Bengough, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Dugan, Mike Gazella, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, Ben Paschal
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1936-38 New York Yankees
Cadre: Monte Pearson, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Bump Hadley, Johnny Murphy, Kemp Wicker, Bill Dickey, Joe Glenn, Art Jorgens, Lou Gehrig, Red Rolfe, Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, George Selkirk, Jake Powell, Myril Hoag
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1937-39 New York Yankees
Cadre: Johnny Murphy, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Bump Hadley, Monte Pearson, Spud Chandler, Bill Dickey, Art Jorgens, Lou Gehrig, Red Rolfe, Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, Jake Powell, George Selkirk, Tommy Henrich
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1938-40 New York Yankees
Cadre: Lefty Gomez, Johnny Murphy, Red Ruffing, Bump Hadley, Monte Pearson, Steve Sundra, Spud Chandler, Atley Donald, Bill Dickey, Babe Dahlgren, Joe Gordon, Bill Knickerbocker, Red Rolfe, Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, George Selkirk, Jake Powell
Accomplishments: 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1939-42 New York Yankees (2)
Cadre: Johnny Murphy, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Atley Donald, Marius Russo, Spud Chandler, Marv Breuer, Bill Dickey, Buddy Rosar, Tommy Henrich, Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Frank Crosetti, George Selkirk, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1947-49 New York Yankees
Cadre: Joe Page, Allie Reynolds, Spec Shea, Vic Raschi, Tommy Byrne, Yogi Berra, Ralph Houk, Jack Phillips, Tommy Henrich, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Bill Johnson, Bobby Brown, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Lindell, Charlie Keller
Accomplishments: 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1948-50 New York Yankees
Cadre: Joe Page, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, Tommy Byrne, Yogi Berra, Ralph Houk, Charlie Silvera, Tommy Henrich, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Bobby Brown, Bill Johnson, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Lindell, Cliff Mapes, Hank Bauer
Accomplishments: 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1949-51 New York Yankees
Cadre: Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Tommy Byrne, Ed Lopat, Fred Sanford, Bob Porterfield, Yogi Berra, Charlie Silvera, Ralph Houk, Bill Johnson, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, Phil Rizzuto, Cliff Mapes, Hank Bauer, Joe DiMaggio, Gene Woodling
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1950-52 New York Yankees
Cadre: Ed Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Yogi Berra, Charlie Silvera, Ralph Houk, Joe Collins, Johnny Mize, Johnny Hopp, Jerry Coleman, Billy Martin, Bobby Brown, Phil Rizzuto, Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Jackie Jensen
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1951-53 New York Yankees
Cadre: Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, Bob Kuzava, Art Schallock, Johnny Sain, Yogi Berra, Charlie Silvera, Ralph Houk, Joe Collins, Johnny Mize, Jerry Coleman, Gil McDougald, Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto, Jim Brideweser, Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 3 World Championships

Team: 1952-54 New York Yankees
Cadre: Allie Reynolds, Johnny Sain, Bob Kuzava, Jim McDonald, Bill Miller, Ed Lopat, Tom Gorman, Art Schallock, Yogi Berra, Charlie Silvera, Joe Collins, Gil McDougald, Jerry Coleman, Andy Carey, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Irv Noren
Accomplishments: 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1956-58 New York Yankees
Cadre: Don Larsen, Johnny Kucks, Tom Sturdivant, Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Bob Grim, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, Gil McDougald, Bobby Richardson, Andy Carey, Jerry Lumpe, Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1960-62 New York Yankees
Cadre: Jim Coates, Ralph Terry, Bob Turley, Whitey Ford, Luis Arroyo, Bill Stafford, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, Johnny Blanchard, Bill Skowron, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Hector Lopez
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1961-63 New York Yankees
Cadre: Luis Arroyo, Whitey Ford, Bill Stafford, Ralph Terry, Hal Reniff, Bud Daley, Al Downing, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Tom Tresh, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Hector Lopez, Jack Reed
Accomplishments: 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1976-78 New York Yankees
Cadre: Sparky Lyle, Dick Tidrow, Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, Ken Holtzman, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Fran Healy, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, Fred Stanley, Roy White, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella
Accomplishments: 3 Division Titles, 3 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Team: 1996-98 New York Yankees
Cadre: Jeff Nelson, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Graeme Lloyd, Ramiro Mendoza, David Cone, Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Luis Sojo, Derek Jeter, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill
Accomplishments: 1 Wild Card, 2 Division Titles, 2 Pennants, 2 World Championships

Honorable Mention: 1921-23 New York Giants (who would have made the list if one more player from the 1921-22 group had played in 1923) and the 1941-43 New York Yankees (who had many of the 1941-42 players not available in 1943 due to the war).

Of these 21 great teams, which are the cream of the crop? As you can ascertain, of the twenty one above, only SIX of these squads have won THREE World Championships in a consecutive three-year period. They are:

1972-74 Oakland Athletics
1936-38 New York Yankees
1937-39 New York Yankees
1949-51 New York Yankees
1950-52 New York Yankees
1951-53 New York Yankees

Only six times in the history of baseball - exemplary exclusion, indeed. Based on their accomplishments, these half-dozen majestic casts are the finalists most worthy for consideration in "Best Team Ever" debate.

The 1972-74 Oakland Athletics were basically over after their three year run - the victim of Charlie Finley taking a match to his franchise. As such, the focus should be on the former Yankee Champions.

Closely examining the great Yankee teams, one may hypothesize that the 1936-42 and 1951-58 New York Yankee clubs may be the true target to consider (as most of the Yankee groups stated in our six finalists seem to overlap). Further, since the Yankees also won the Series in 1949 and 1950, many would assume that the 1949-58 Yankee clubs should be considered the best team ever.

While the 1936-42 Yankees have a strong and continuous cadre (and they would have carried into 1943 if it had not been for WWII), the 1949-58 Yankees were really three different staffs.

The Yankees from 1949-50 were the last of the "DiMaggio" Yankees - with players like Tommy Byrne, Bill Johnson, Johnny Lindell, Tommy Henrich and Cliff Mapes on the team. In 1951 through 1952, the Yankees were in a transition mode - migrating from the DiMaggio to the Mantle regime. It was those "Mantle" Yankees that ruled from 1953 from 1958 (winning three World Series.) To further drive the point home, only four players from the 1951 Yankees also played for the 1958 Yankees (Berra, McDougald, Bauer and Mantle).

This realization shifts the attention back to the 1936-42 Yankees. This team remained virtually unchanged from 1936 to 38 (16 players continuously represented), from 1937 to 1939 (15 players carried over each year), from 1938 to 1940 (18 repeating players), and from 1939 to 1942 (16 common players). Again, as previously stated, if not for the war, this may have carried into 1943 as well.

Just how good were the Yankees from 1936 to 1942? In that seven year period, they won six pennants and five World Championships. Not too shabby. Actually, it’s unparalleled. The natural second question is: "How many players were carried over from 1936 to 1942?" The answer is eight - being Ruffing, Gomez, Murphy, Dickey, Rolfe, Crosetti, DiMaggio and Selkirk. If eight sounds small, it’s not. From 1936 to 1942, roughly 28 men played for the Yankees each year. Do the math. Eight players represented over one-quarter of a yearly roster during 1936-42.

Additionally, these eight were not scrubs. Two aces, the heart of the pen, the starting catcher, third baseman, shortstop and two outfielders. They were regulars who played together for seven straight years and were crowned as the best team in baseball in five of those years. (Also, they never had to play seven games to win any of those series - four were won in five games or less.)

Some may protest that it is unfair to consider pre-integration baseball for any particular study. Others start the clock of "seriousness" from the institution of the divisional format. Modern day radicals cite the dawn of the fully functional and heavily employed bullpen as ground zero for any contemplative analysis.

Such assertions are poppycock - as these are all lines drawn in the sand. Why not use the first night game as an axis? Or, perhaps one should start counting only once the first West Coast road trip was traveled? How about using the day players stopped leaving their gloves on the field as a point of origination? The truth is, using any other period than "all of baseball" would be arbitrary. So, in the vernacular of these modern and most civilized times, "Don’t go there girlfriend."

The evidence is irrefutable. Best Team Ever? The answer is: The 1936-42 New York Yankees - led by mainstays DiMaggio, Dickey, Ruffing, Gomez, Murphy, Rolfe, Crosetti and Selkirk. Given the structure of baseball today, with an emphasis on player mobility and intentional attempts to ensure parity, we may never see a seven year run such as this group accomplished. They are the extraordinary eight.

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(1) Taxonomy is the science of classification based on common characteristics.
(2) Yes, they played together for four years.