With the All-Star Game approaching, and with the birth of my first grandchild—a boy—my thoughts have been turning lately to my other obsession: Baseball. As my mind has wondered, I’ve thought a lot about the teams I’ve followed over the years, and those that I consider my “favorite” teams. Then, inevitably, I’ve thought a lot about that timeless question that all die-hard Baseball fans eventually argue over—which team was the “best team of all time”? If you’re not interested in contemplating this question, I’d find another post to read.
One of the few hobbies I’ve enjoyed over the years has been my love of Baseball, including the study of its history and statistics, which my late father loved and taught me to love, and which I hope to pass down to my grandson. As part of this study, I think I’ve consumed virtually every book there is on the “best team” question, and how different “experts” have answered it. And, I’ve come to these conclusions: the answer is not objectively knowable; and it depends on how you approach the question.
To objective fans, I think my first conclusion should be obvious—the more you learn about Baseball history and statistics, the more you realize that you will never be able to control for all the variables in order to arrive at an objectively provable answer. So every potential answer to this question ends up being subjective.
What I mean by my second conclusion is simply this—identifying the best team depends on the criteria you look at to determine the “best” team. I have often found that those late-night or afternoon arguments usually lead to no resolution because we each define “best” differently. That is, when we are looking for the “best team,” some of us look for the team that, if it took the field against any other team that has played Major League Baseball since the Modern Era began in 1901, it would win; others look for the team that most dominated the era in which it played, or for the team that most dominated the year in which it played, or for other, completely different attributes? Then, based on how we define “best,” we focus on different statistical and historical information to prove our case.
A few years back, two authors—Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein—tried to answer the question relying upon one key statistic: the sum of the standard deviations between a team’s runs scored and runs allowed versus the performance of the other teams in the league in that season. They then applied their analysis to teams that performed at a high level over more than one season. What they came up with was a list of 15 teams since 1901 that virtually all Baseball fans could agree with:
1. The 1906-10 Cubs;
2. The 1910-13 Athletics;
3. The 1911-13 Giants;
4. The 1926-32 Yankees;
5. The 1926-32 Athletics;
6. The 1936-43 Yankees;
7. The 1942-44 Cardinals;
8. The 1951-53 Yankees;
9. The 1953-55 Dodgers;
10. The 1961-63 Yankees;
11. The 1969-71 Orioles;
12. The 1972-74 Athletics;
13. The 1970-76 Reds;
14. The 1986-88 Mets; and
15. The 1997-99 Yankees;
(They also addressed many of the following “honorable mentions”: 1901-03 Pirates; 1912-18 Red Sox; 1917-20 White Sox; 1921-24 Giants; 1920-23 Yankees; 1924-25 Senators; 1925-26 Pirates; 1929-35 Cubs; 1930-33 Senators; 1930-34 Cardinals; 1934-40 Tigers; 1936-37 Giants; 1939-49 Red Sox; 1949-52 Dodgers; 1950s Giants; 1950s Indians; 1950s White Sox; 1956-59 Braves; 1960s Cardinals; 1960s Dodgers; 1968 Tigers; 1976-78 Yankees; 1984 Tigers; 1988-90 Athletics; 1990s Braves; 1990s Indians; and the 2001 Mariners. You can probably think of more teams you would add to this list, and it is way too early to really assess how good the teams of the last decade have been relative to the history of the game).
Other experts, including, most notably, Bill James (who is considered by many to be the greatest Baseball statistician and historian of the last generation—if not ever), believe that all Neyer and Epstein’s new analysis does is confirm the obvious, but it doesn’t actually help answer the question. Specifically, James and others believe that the Standard Deviation only confirms that the 15 teams dominated their eras, but tells us nothing about the overall competitiveness of those eras and how the teams would perform in other eras, or against each other. Personally, I agree with James—the Standard Deviation approach doesn’t control for eras when competition was skewed because hitting dominated pitching (as it did from the late 1920s until World War II); pitching dominated hitting (as it did from at least 1965-68), or the competition was diluted because of wars (World Wars I, II and the Korean War impacted the level of competition during those years by taking players away from the game) or expansion.
This problem is highlighted by Neyer’s and Epstein’s conclusion that the best team of all time was the 1939 Yankees (a conclusion that other experts currently hold, too). Although this team is certainly one of, if not the most, dominate teams relative to the year in which it played (as evidenced by the fact that it scored 400 more runs than it allowed), it is hard to look at the overall statistics from the teams that it played against in the American League in 1939 and come to the conclusion that it played in a highly-competitive environment—especially as to the pitching and defense it faced (though, curiously, it did lose its season series of games to the Boston Red Sox). In fact, one can make a strong, if not stronger argument that the either the 1937, 1938, or 1941Yankees were actually better teams, due to the level of competition they faced in the American League during those seasons.
So, having come to the conclusion that there is no one, right answer to this question, here is how I answer the question: I’ve broken it down by a few categories, looked at the statistics and history, and come up with the a handful of teams, and one subjective answer.
First, I looked at which team was arguably “greater than the sum of its parts”—that is, the team that consistently performed at or above the talent of the players that formed the team. An objective analysis of the data leads to virtually only one answer to this question: the 1947-64 Yankees (including the 1951-53 and 1961-63 “great” teams), which shared one player—Yogi Berra. In fact, Berra exemplifies this team throughout the entire era. Although Hall of Famers Berra, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Ford would play for the Yankees during this period, the team was held together by players like Billy Martin, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Gil McDougald, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard, Hector Lopez, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Roger Maris, Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone, as well as the managing of Casey Stengel, Ralph Houk and Berra, who each seemed to know exactly when and how to make the right moves to stay one step ahead of the Indians, the White Sox, the Tigers, the Orioles and the Twins throughout those years. Few of the players who made the Yankees win day-in and day-out would have flourished—or did flourish—playing for other teams. This truly was a great “team” in the aggregate sense of that term.
Second, I looked at which team’s “sum of its parts was greater than its whole”—that is, the team that arguably amassed the greatest assortment of “great” players. This evaluation was much harder, and more subjective, than the first one, but my conclusion was the 1926-1932 Athletics. The core of this team was built around five players—Al Simmons, Robert “Lefty” Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmy Foxx, and Jimmy Dykes—all of whom would not only star on this team, but they would go on to star on, or manage other teams over the next several decades, including the Tigers of 1934-38 and the Red Sox of 1939-46. In addition, other stars would play for this team who had starred on, or would help build, other great teams, including Ty Cobb (Tigers), Eddie Collins (Athletics, White Sox and Red Sox), Zack Wheat (Dodgers), and Tris Speaker (Red Sox and Indians). The team was single-handedly assembled by the only person to manage two of the 15 greatest teams—Connie Mack.
Third, I looked at the most dominate team of an era. In this I have to agree with Neyer and Epstein—the 1936 to 1943 Yankees were the greatest team over a multi-year era, winning seven pennants in eight years, and six World Series championships. The team was built around Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Tommy Heinrich, George Selkirk, Frankie Crosetti, Red Rolfe and Red Ruffing, but would also share in the early years Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Lefty Gomez, and in the later years Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, and Phil Rizzuto. No team ever dominated not just the standings, but the day-to-day play of the game like this team for such an extended period of time; and they did it in a highly-competitive offensive era that included explosive offenses on the Tigers, Red Sox and Cardinals. Although I question the choice of 1939 as the “best” of these teams—especially considering the overall lack of competitiveness of the American League of that year, that Gehrig stopped playing at the beginning of this season and was replaced by a very mediocre young player, and that DiMaggio was injured for an extended period of the season—I think there is little objective argument that the Yankee teams of this era formed the finest “team” the Yankees ever assembled over the course of a multi-year period (and that’s saying a lot).
Having said all of this, the single-season team I believe is the best of all time may surprise you—not because you’ve not heard of them before, but because it is so obvious you’ll think that I’ve given this question no real thought—the 1927 Yankees. In fact, I’ve tried every way I know how to conclude that another team deserves this title, but the facts always point back to this team. Why? Well, because—because it is the most historically significant team of the Modern Era, because it was the most balanced and successful of the great Yankee teams, and because it decisively beat another one of the 15 great teams in the only sustained head-to-head competition among such teams.
The 1927 Yankees not only changed the way Baseball would be played and teams would be assembled, it changed the way Baseball would be perceived by the public—no other team before or since had this impact on the game. Reading about the mis-match between the Yankees and the Pirates in the World Series of 1927 reminds one of watching the films of the German tanks invading Poland in 1939 and being met by the Polish cavalry on horseback—the Pirates were a very good team (and won the World Series in 1925), but they were assembled for an earlier era, while the Yankees were the “new technology” for a new age. The 1927 Yankees created the prototype for the modern offensive line-up, and dictated the type of talent that general managers have looked for ever since. That team’s success, and the celebrity status of its stars, also changed the way the public would view professional sports and athletes, and its expectations about how Baseball should be played.
The 1927 Yankees won 110 games with incredibly balanced pitching and hitting—especially for the era in which it played. Its team batting average was a remarkable .307, and its runs-per-game of 6.3 is among the highest ever recorded (and about 1.4 runs per game above the league average). Meanwhile its team Earned-Run Average for its pitching staff was a relatively low 3.20 against a very good hitting league (the American League batting average was .286), and was almost a full run-per-game below the league average.
Finally, this Yankee team played 22 games against one of the other 15 great teams (the Athletics), and, over the course of its great years from 1926 to 1932, played exactly 154 games (a complete season of games) against that team—and it beat the Athletics in 1927 in the head-to-head match-up by 6 games (14-8), split the seven season match-ups 3-3-1, and ended the 154-game rivalry with an aggregate 10-game advantage (82-72). In fact, during the three great seasons for the Athletics from 1929 through 1931, the Yankees essentially split the head-to-head series during the last two of those seasons, (10-12 in 1930, and 11-11 in 1931). Although some of the other great teams would meet in one or more World Series, there is really no other statistically significant head-to-head comparison to evaluate. The Yankees were clearly better than the great Athletics of this period, which is the best circumstantial evidence we have of how the Yankees would fare in head-to-head competition with any of the other “great” teams of the Modern Era.
One last thought—an asterisk, if you will. There is one other team that could qualify as the “best team” but for the facts that it played before 1909, and it did not win the World Series—the 1906 Cubs. In fact, it is very hard to tell just how good this team really was even though it won 116 games while only losing 36 games. These Cubs won 116 games with not only good hitting and phenomenal pitching, but also with remarkable fielding in an era—before 1909—when players did not uniformly use fielding gloves and most catchers did not use any protective gear, which led to a disproportionate number of errors and unearned runs compared against other eras. It is just impossible to know how good this team really was, especially when they could not beat one of the worst offensive teams (except for, possibly, the St. Louis Browns of 1944) to ever make the World Series.
Well, there you have my mid-summer thoughts. Who do you think is the “best team of all time,” and why?