In Red’s Book, Teams of Today Don’t Rate With All-Time Best
Just past the midpoint of a season in which the Dodgers are shakily defending a World Series championship, baseball’s best teams might be the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants.
But how do these two compare with the better champions of the century?
The answer is, they don’t--at least not yet--if you’re consulting Arthur E. (Red) Patterson, who has been following the game for about 65 years.
Most recently an Angel executive, Patterson, 80, began as a sportswriter for the old New York Herald-Tribune before moving to the New York Yankees and then the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“My test is continuity--the ability to repeat as a pennant winner,” he said, noting that there have been no repeaters in the decade since 1977-78, when the Dodgers and Yankees met in successive Octobers. “I think baseball is more interesting now than ever, and the clubs today are better balanced than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but there has only been one great team in the last quarter century.”
That, he said, was Charlie O. Finley’s 1972-73-74 A’s, who rank third in Patterson’s all-time top 10.
On top are two Yankee machines, the 1926-27-28 clubs with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and the multiple champions of the 1930s and early ‘40s, the players who won so many pennants and World Series that they inspired an American League war cry: “Break up the Yankees.”
In Patterson’s top 10--a collection of 10 champions that all meet his criteria--the first five are the 1927 Yankees, 1939 Yankees, 1974 A’s, 1951 Yankees and 1922 New York Giants.
His next five: the 1929 Philadelphia A’s, 1955 Dodgers, 1963 Dodgers, 1907 Chicago Cubs and 1916 Boston Red Sox.
“My biggest regret is that there isn’t room there for the St. Louis Gas House Gang,” he said, naming the 1934 Cardinals 11th and following with the 1913 A’s, 1931 Cardinals, 1940 Cincinnati Reds and 1936 Giants.
The overriding irony of baseball in this century, Patterson said, is the increasingly high quality of the modern game combined with the possibility that there won’t be another team to compare with those now in the top 10.
“Free agency and the draft have made it a new game,” he said, mentioning the revolutionary baseball changes that took root in the 1970s, tearing apart, among others, Finley’s Oakland champions. “These days, you can’t put together dynasty-type players and keep them together.
“The draft is the biggest change. In the great days of the Yankees in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, all they had to do was identify the nation’s outstanding young prospects--that is, scout them--and sign them.
“Now you have to scout them, draft them, and sign them. That makes an enormous difference.”
He noted Joe DiMaggio, a Hall of Famer who might have gone to a Yankee rival in a 1930s draft.
Or, Patterson said: “If there’d been free agency, someone would have picked him off, most likely, for a million a year.
“The way the game is now, if you think you win the pennant with one more proven player, you grab him as a free agent--and there goes somebody else’s dynasty.”
Patterson approves, nonetheless, of the modern way.
“The game is a fan’s delight today,” he said. “Baseball has never been so well played. The talk about the dilution of talent with so many teams is just plain wrong. Baseball could easily expand again.
“Pro basketball and football have siphoned off some players, of course. That never used to happen. And TV has knocked out some of the minor leagues. But despite all that, there’s so much talent now and such good coaching, in the colleges as well as the minors, that the game keeps getting better.
“It’s the superstars who are remembered from the past. Today, every baseball roster is stronger, down through the 23rd or 24th man, than they used to be.”
Patterson is an expert on what used to be. He’s been a close student of the big leagues since age 12, when an uncle took him to his first game, a Dodger-Giant game at the Polo Grounds.
In 1946 he joined the Yankees for eight years as road secretary, publicist and home run tape measurer. Then he spent 20 years with the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles before taking over as president of the Angels in 1975. He remains an Angel consultant.
Patterson, who went to night school at New York University when he was working days for the Herald-Tribune, was one of four sons of a New York area mill superintendent. He and his wife, residents of Fullerton, have five children, 15 grandchildren and a great grandchild, most of them baseball fans.
He said the 1907 Cubs and 1916 Red Sox are the only great teams of the century that he never personally scouted.
The top 10:
The quotes are Patterson’s:
“You can always get lucky once. So you’ve got to do it more than once to meet the test of greatness. Secondly, you can’t embarrass yourself in the World Series. Those are the two things I think about first.
“In the ‘20s, (Manager) Miller Huggins’ Yankees qualified in both respects, winning three straight pennants and then the World Series in ’27 and ’28.”
Along with most old-timers, Patterson ranks the 1927 Yankees as the century’s No. 1 ballclub, in large part because Ruth hit his 60 home runs that year, and Gehrig hit 47 and batted in 175 runs.
“In 1927, the Yankees won 110 games in a 154-game season. That’s dominance, that’s greatness.”
Ruth’s teammates in the 1927 outfield were Earle Combs, whose lifetime-best 231 hits led the league that season, and Bob Meusel, whose .337 batting average and .510 slugging average were also career bests.
For the second of many times, first baseman Gehrig played every game. Second baseman Tony Lazzeri hit .309.
Joe Dugan was at third for the 1927 Yankees, with Mark Koenig at shortstop, as Pat Collins caught 92 games, Benny Bengough 31.
Waite Hoyt was the ace of an old staff that put it together for one last season in 1927, which turned out to be the final year in the majors for Urban Shocker (18-3), Dutch Ruether (13-6) and Bob Shawkey (2-3). Shocker died at 38 a year later.
By contrast there was a rookie reliever, Wilcy Moore, who in his only big season in baseball had a 19-7 record with a 2.28 earned-run average in 50 appearances.
Hoyt, who began his 21-year career in the majors in 1918, led the league’s starters with 22-7 and 2.63.
Herb Pennock, the Knight of Kennett Square, who started his 22-year career in 1912, finished 19-8. He was never to win that many again.
Ruth came back to hit 54 home runs in 1928, when he and Gehrig led the league with 142 runs batted in apiece. That sort of reprise impresses Patterson.
“Gehrig was still a force on the club when the Yankees started another streak under (Manager) Joe McCarthy, and this time they won pennants in 1932, ’36, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’41, ’42 and ’43. That’s four straight in the ‘30s and three straight in the ‘40s.
“And in all those seasons, they lost only one World Series. The Cardinals beat them in 1942.
“Baseball had never seen such a dominant team. In the four World Series played from 1936 through 1939, the Yankees lost a total of only three games. They swept the Cubs in ’38 and the Reds in ’39.”
Halfway through McCarthy’s streak, the 1939 club was his best, in Patterson’s view.
DiMaggio led the league with a career-high .381 batting average in 1939, when a rookie outfielder, Charlie (King Kong) Keller, hit a career-high .324 and when the other outfielder, George Selkirk, hit .306.
At third base, Red Rolfe had his biggest year, batting .329 and leading the league in runs, hits and doubles. Joe Gordon was at second, Frankie Crosetti at short.
The Hall of Fame catcher, Bill Dickey, hit .302.
Red Ruffing (21-7) matched his peak season on a staff with four other pitchers who each won 12 or 13 games--Atley Donald, Lefty Gomez, Bump Hadley and Monte Pearson.
“The most poignant of baseball stories began one night in the spring of 1939 when Joe McCarthy walked in to talk to the writers in the dining room of the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.
“He told us: ‘I think I have a story for you fellows. Lou Gehrig has asked to come out of the lineup.’
“Lou had played in 2130 consecutive games. He never played again.
“At the time, nobody knew how ill he was, although we thought it was serious. When he carried the lineup card out to the plate that summer, he could hardly walk.
“This inspired the team. Even with Babe Dahlgren instead of Gehrig at first base, that became the greatest Yankee team of my time.
“That first game at Detroit was typical. Guys were crying as they walked out to bat. That day they would have beaten any team that ever played. They beat Detroit, 22-2.”
1974 OAKLAND A’s
“These days you can no longer build a ballclub the way Charlie Finley built the 1970s A’s--which was also the way the old Yankees were put together.
“Shrewd scouting was the main thing it took. You didn’t have to compete with other front offices in the draft. And you didn’t have to worry about losing a superstar to free agency.
“So the 1974 A’s were baseball’s last great team. Except for the A’s, there hasn’t been a great one since the 1963 Dodgers.”
Finley, who did much of the scouting himself, helped round up a group that won a record five straight division championships for Oakland starting in 1971. The string only ended in 1976 when the entrepreneurial era ended in baseball as the draft and free agency took hold, balancing up the teams.
“The (1972-73-74) A’s met the two tests for greatness we’ve been talking about. In successive years, they won more than one pennant, distancing themselves from the field. And they never disgraced themselves in the World Series.”
In fact they won pennants and three World Series in three consecutive years, in addition to winning five straight division titles.
The 1974 A’s, with Catfish Hunter pitching a league-leading 25 wins with a league-leading ERA, went on to blitz the Dodgers in a five-game Series.
Hunter, Ken Holtzman and John (Blue Moon) Odom won the last three straight that October, after which neither the A’s nor baseball was ever the same.
It was a pitchers’ team that Finley built. Hunter averaged more than 22 wins in 1972-73-74, while Holtzman averaged nearly 20. Vida Blue, after winning 24 as a rookie in 1971, slumped to 6-10 the next season after a long contract squabble with Finley, but came back to win 17 in 1973 and 20 in 1974.
Relief star Rollie Fingers appeared in a league-leading 76 games in 1974, and in three years averaged 20 saves.
In all three years, there was only one .300 hitter, outfielder Joe Rudi, who got up there only once in an era when .318 could lead the league.
The power came from Reggie Jackson, who averaged 29 home runs. Otherwise, Finley got a lot of mileage out of players such as Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Gene Tenace, Dick Green and catcher Ray Fosse.
The managers, who ran Finley’s errands, were Dick Williams in 1972-73 and Alvin Dark in 1974.
“In Casey Stengel’s first five years as manager, the Yankees won five pennants and five straight World Series in 1949, ’50, ’51, ’52 and ’53. No one has ever done that before or since.
“Then Casey came back in 1955, ’56, ’57, and ’58 and won four more pennants--that’s nine in 10 years--plus two more World Series in ’56 and ’58. Finally, after winning his 10th pennant, he lost the seventh game of the 1960 World Series when Bill Mazeroski hit that home run for Pittsburgh.
“Casey, I feel, has been under-appreciated as a baseball man. He wasn’t just the most colorful baseball character of the last 50 years, he lived the game 24 hours a day.
“This was appropriately recognized at his funeral service. I’ll never forget that instead of ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ they played ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ all the way through Casey’s funeral.
“When we came out of the chapel, it had been raining a bit, and there was a rainbow in the sky--a colorful rainbow in L.A., mind you. One of the other pall bearers saw it at the same time I did and whispered, ‘I see Casey’s at it already.’ ”
Of Stengel’s seven world champions, Patterson’s favorite was the 1951 team--DiMaggio’s last in the majors and Mickey Mantle’s first. And in retrospect, Stengel’s managing or his jesting, whatever, was at least as helpful as the contributions of his batsmen.
There wasn’t a .300 hitter in an outfield in which DiMaggio and Mantle both finished in the .260s. In fact, on a team with Yogi Berra catching and infielders such as Bobby Brown, Phil Rizzuto, and Johnny Mize, the only .300 hitter was a rookie infielder, Gil McDougald.
The club was carried by pitchers Ed Lopat (21-9), Vic Raschi (21-10), and the Superchief from Oklahoma, Allie Reynolds (17-8), who pitched two no-hitters that season--inducing Ted Williams to loft a foul ball to Yogi Berra for the last out in the second one after Berra, on a three and two count, dropped Williams’ first high foul.
In the 1951 World Series, camaraderie or team spirit--or Stengel--may have been decisive, along with the pitching.
“The Giants won the first game after beating the Dodgers in the playoff on Bobby Thomson’s home run. The Yankees won the second, and the third was supposed to be pivotal.
“That was the day when Eddie Stanky kicked the ball out of Phil Rizzuto’s glove, and the Giants went on to win, 6-2.
“On the fourth day it rained, and the papers were full of Stanky’s dropkick. The Yankees read and heard everything they could stand about that kick.”
When they came out for the fourth game, they came out in one group, like a football team.
“Usually, baseball players straggle out two or three at a time--but not those Yankees. Not for that fourth game at the Polo Grounds.
“They were all together when they came down the narrow stairway from the clubhouse way out (in center field), and together they walked all that long way in. That’s the only time I ever saw that.
“Some of the writers and, I’m sure, some Giant fans looked at each other and said, ‘It’s all over.’
“It was. In the last three games, the Yankees won three straight.”
The winning pitchers: Reynolds, Lopat and Raschi.
“Casey Stengel was a player in 1922, and a pretty good one, on one of (Manager) John McGraw’s best teams when the New York Giants swept the Yankees in the World Series.
“The Giants had won the Series the year before, and they (were to) win it again in 1923.
“McGraw won four straight 1920s pennants but lost the 1924 World Series to the boy manager, Bucky Harris, when Walter Johnson pitched all 12 innings for the Washington Senators in the seventh game.”
Most of the 1922 Giants had come over in trades from Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston or other National League teams, either that year or a few years earlier.
Stengel, a left-handed outfielder who came from Philadelphia in 1921, led the 1922 Giants with a career-high .368 batting average, though he only played in 84 games.
That was a season when every Giant starter hit .322 or better except third baseman Heine Groh, who trailed at .265.
Catcher Frank Snyder and third baseman Dave (Beauty) Bancroft joined Stengel with lifetime bests. The other infielders, Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash, and George (Highpockets) Kelly, weren’t far behind. Nor were the other outfielders, Irish Meusel, Bob’s brother, and Ross Youngs.
The pitching was hardly world class although Rosy Ryan (17-12) led the league with a 3.01 ERA. Steadier in the first World Series ever broadcast, Giant pitchers held Babe Ruth to a composite .118.
THE NEXT FIVE
1929 PHILADELPHIA A’S: Owner-Manager Connie Mack’s best team, with five Hall of Famers including catcher Mickey Cochrane in his prime, won the World Series in 1929 and 1930 from the Cubs and Cardinals, respectively, before losing to the Cardinals in 1931.
On Mack’s great 1929 club, which beat the Cubs in five games, left fielder Al Simmons hit .365 and led the league with 157 runs batted in. The other three Hall of Famers were pitcher Lefty Grove (20-6), and infielders Jimmie Foxx and Eddie Collins.
1955 DODGERS: After losing five World Series to the Yankees in ’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, and ’53, the Dodgers, then in Brooklyn, lost the first two games of the ’55 Series. But they fought on, and, in Brooklyn’s biggest day, finally won a seventh game from the Yankees as Johnny Podres pitched a 2-0 shutout. Jackie Robinson was at second base after playing three other positions as a regular in three previous World Series: first base, third and left field.
Catcher Roy Campanella became a three-time National League MVP as Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and rookie pitcher Roger Craig, a Series winner, also helped make that team memorable.
1963 DODGERS: Manager Walt Alston led the Dodgers to seven pennants in ’55, ’56, ’59, ’63, ’65, ’66 and ’74 and to four World Series victories in ’55, ’59, ’63 and ’65. The ’63 champions, who swept the Yankees in four games, were builder Walter O’Malley’s favorite team. The catcher was Johnny Roseboro. The inspiration came from shortstop Maury Wills.
Don Drysdale pitched a 1-0 shutout in the ’63 ‘Series, in which the Dodgers yielded but four runs in four games. Podres was a 4-1 winner. After Sandy Koufax won the first and fourth games, he was named MVP. “Why me?” he asked. “I gave up three of the four runs.”
1907 CHICAGO CUBS: Baseball’s first great team, with Manager Frank Chance, the Peerless Leader, at first base, won consecutive pennants and two World Series in 1906-07-08. Pitcher Mordecai Peter Centennial (Three Finger) Brown was 26-6, 20-6 and 29-9 in those three seasons.
On the 1907 team, a four-straight World Series winner, the answer to baseball’s most enduring trivia question was Harry Steinfeldt. The question: Who played third base on the team that immortalized the double play with (Joe) Tinker to (Johnny) Evers to Chance?
1916 BOSTON RED SOX: To win their second straight World Series, the Red Sox, managed by Bill Carrigan, needed a strong pitching performance in the second game--which went 14 innings, still the Series record. Happily, they had a left-hander on their staff who could do it.
He was Babe Ruth, who pitched all 14 innings. Ruth hit .272 in 1916, with three home runs. As a pitcher he was 23-12, the year before his career-high 24-13.