Following up on my prior post, I looked at teams with the most 40-WAR players (career), who were then 30 or younger and had at least 1.0 WAR that year.
Eight distinct teams had six such players (one of them had seven), totaling 12 such seasons. Three repeated, and one lasted a third year. Chronologically:
- Pirates, 1901 (1st, 90-49) and 1902 (1st, 103-36) (No World Series yet)
- Athletics, 1914 (1st, 99-53, lost WS 0-4)
- Red Sox, 1915 (1st, 101-50, won WS 4-1)
- Yankees, 1931 (2nd, 94-59), 1932 (1st, 107-47, swept WS) and 1933 (2nd, 91-59)
- Cubs, 1935 (1st, 100-54, lost WS 2-4)
- Athletics, 1971 (1st, 101-60, lost ALCS 0-3)
- Indians, 1996 (1st, 99-62, lost ALDS 1-3)
- Yankees, 1998 (1st, 114-48) and 1999 (1st, 98-64) (swept both WS)
Not surprisingly, these all were great teams — 10 first-place finishes (at least one for each franchise), at least a .605 winning percentage each season, and a combined .651 W% (akin to a 105-57 year). Oddly, the two second-place teams were the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees of 1931 and ’33, but they packed a 107-win rout and a World Series sweep in between those letdowns.
A couple of mild surprises:
- No intersection between these teams and those in the prior post (five 50-WAR players 30 or under). I thought a ’90s Braves team might turn up here, or the second A’s dynasty. But a 40-WAR player would be a big “add” for a team with five 50s, and then there’s the extra “1-WAR-this-year” criterion. As for these eight, only one had even four 50s.
- No representation on either list for the two teams to win at least 4 straight World Series, the Yanks of 1936-39 and 1949-53. Those weren’t especially young teams; only the ’53 squad had even four meeting these criteria.
- Where are the 1900s Cubs? Tinker, Evers and Chance qualified from 1903-07, Miner Brown with them from ’04-07, and Jimmy Sheckard makes five in ’06-07. But there’s no sixth — Ed Reulbach just missed (39.1 WAR/pitch and negative WAR/pos), while Steinfeldt, Schulte, Kling and Overall were well short of 40 WAR.
It’s a tough set of bars to clear, and only these eight teams made it. Covering all eight would make a post long even by my standards, so I’ll take them two at a time.
Each team table lists the six who met the criteria, and their group totals by year and career, followed by other notables. Italics and an asterisk by the name mark a player who was not a regular with that team. In the “HOF?” column, “BW” means chosen by the baseball writers; “VC” some form of veterans committee; “n/a” not yet eligible; “–” means off the writers’ ballot; and for those still on the ballot, I show their highest vote percentage to date. The last column, “Tenure,” shows total years with that club, and years as a regular (loosely defined as 250 PAs or 100 IP).
As in my prior post, those appearing with two teams in one year slipped through the search cracks for finding the teams. But for each found team, I’ll list such players whenever I notice them. And as before, listed WAR for pitchers is the higher of pitching WAR only, or pitching plus offensive WAR.
1901-02 Pirates: 2 pennants, no Series played, combined .694 W%
|PIT 1901: 1st, 90-49
PIT 1902: 1st, 103-36
|Career WAR||HOF?||1901 Age||1901 WAR||1902 Age||1902 WAR||Tenure:
|Honus Wagner, SS/OF||131.0||BW||27||7.1||28||7.3||21, 21|
|Fred Clarke, LF & Mgr.||67.8||VC||28||5.0||29||5.0||21, 18|
|Jesse Tannehill, SP||48.7||—||26||5.0||27||4.4||6, 6|
|Tommy Leach, 3B/OF||46.8||—||23||3.0||24||5.9||16, 12|
|Sam Leever, SP||41.8||—||29||1.3||30||3.0||13, 11|
|Jack Chesbro, SP||41.4||VC||27||5.6||28||5.5||4, 4|
|GROUP TOTALS||377.5||3||26.7||27.0||27.7||31.1||81, 72|
|Claude Ritchey, 2B||34.5||—||27||3.3||28||3.8||9, 9|
|Deacon Phillippe, SP||34.4||—||29||5.1||30||4.0||13, 11|
|Ginger Beaumont, CF||30.2||—||24||3.6||25||5.1||8, 8|
|*Rube Waddell, SP||61.0||VC||24||2.3||25||10.3||1, 0|
|*Terry Turner, SS||38.2||—||20||0.1||—||—||1, 0|
How were they formed? Before 1900, the NL trimmed from 12 clubs to eight. The folded Louisville franchise sent its talent to Pittsburgh, which shared ownership. Merging .500 teams won’t often forge a dynasty, but these two meshed just right. Louisville’s lineup stars Wagner, Clarke, Leach and Ritchey, plus rookie ace Phillippe, joined with Pittsburgh’s strong rotation of Tannehill, Leever and Chesbro, plus the .350-hitting rookies Beaumont and Jimmy Williams. (I treated the blended franchises as one in the “Tenure” column.)
The fortified 1900 Pirates leaped from a long stay in the second division up to 4.5 games behind, their closest approach to a pennant so far. Then came three straight league crowns, including a 1902 romp that began 30-5 and finished with a record 27.5-game margin of victory.
How did they win? You name it. Wagner was the superstar (best WAR in MLB for 1901-02 combined), but Clarke, Leach, Beaumont and Ritchey ranked from 3rd to 11th in the NL. Everyone but the catchers hit: The same seven regulars topped 100 OPS+ in both years, which no other NL team did even once. For the two years combined, Pittsburgh led the NL in almost every offensive measure, and their scoring edge over #2 was bigger than the gap from #2 to #6.
The rotation was likewise balanced, producing none of the NL’s top 12 WAR seasons in 1901-02, but three of the top 12 in combined WAR. And they went five deep after plucking Ed Doheny off the scrap heap late in 1901: Just 37-69 with an 88 ERA+ in six years with the Giants, Doheny went 38-14, 112 ERA+ in two-plus years in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were #1 in run prevention and defensive WAR both seasons.
How long did they last? The focus group shared just three years together, 1900-02, after which two jumped to the AL. But Wagner, Clarke and Leach all were regulars through 1911 (with Clarke also managing Louisville/Pittsburgh from 1897-1915), and Leever anchored the staff through 1910, along with Phillippe. From 1904-08, the Pirates played .606 ball, third-best in the majors, but the Giants and Cubs hogged those pennants. The core’s last hurrah was in 1909, copping the flag at 110-42 (making the 104-49 Cubs the best runner-up ever), then taking the Series in seven, to frustrate Ty Cobb for a third straight year.
What brought them down? Decline usually follows a 10-year run near the top. After abruptly waiving future HOFer Vic Willis (89-46 in four 20-win years), the Bucs began fading in 1910. They spent the next decade sinking out of the pennant race, finally hitting bottom in 1917, Wagner’s finale. Leever and Phillippe were done after 1910; Clarke retired as a player the next year, going out with a .324 BA and 147 OPS+ at age 38. Leach slumped in 1910-11 and was dealt to the Cubs the next year, only to bounce back with two fine campaigns while the players acquired fell flat. They did find three new long-term stars by 1912, HOF outfielder Max Carey (last prolific base-thief before expansion) and the pitchers Babe Adams (3-win rookie star of the ’09 Series) and Wilbur Cooper, who both fell just short of Hall-caliber. But there was too much decay elsewhere. While those three plus Wagner all topped 30 WAR from 1910-20, no other Pirates had even 10 WAR.
Honus Wagner, who led all Pirates in WAR each year from 1900-12, went into the Hall with its epic first class. Fred Clarke followed in 1945, through the Old-Timers Committee — a trivial distinction at the time, as the Hall had to process a backlog in its first decade. Clarke was voted in as a player, and deserved it; JAWS ranks him 12th among left fielders, Hall of Stats 11th. But his managerial work also was Hall-worthy: 19th in career wins, 6th in games over .500, 9th in W% out of the 60 with 1,000+ wins. There are HOF managers who could rate induction as players (Joe Torre, John McGraw), and a few HOF players who might have made it as skippers alone. (Frank Chance, probably. Joe Cronin? Hughie Jennings? Frankie Frisch, if he’d had a log-rolling pal on the V.C.) I think Clarke is the only modern HOFer who surely would have got in either way.
Commentary: This Pirates team clearly ranks with the best ever. They took four pennants in the Aughts, topped all teams with a .634 W% from 1901-10, and still hold the second- and third-best season marks in modern history (.741 in ’02, .724 in ’09). Yet they’re little remembered beyond Honus Wagner. Why?
- Their first two pennants predated the World Series.
- Wagner and Clarke are the only Hall of Famers strongly linked with those teams, and Clarke had a “Lou Whitaker” career, always good, rarely great.
- Their 4-man rotation of 1901-02 wound up with interchangeable stats, and thus no clear identity — wins from 189-198, W% of .600-plus, and WAR from 34-42. Chesbro made the Hall, but his signature season came elsewhere.
- They shared NL reign with the Cubs and Giants, who got more ink in their bigger markets.
- Chicago’s 116-36 mark came just four years after Pittsburgh’s 103-36, and they went on to better the Bucs’ brilliant 10-year tally. Both those Cubs records still stand.
- “Merkle’s Boner,” the decade’s most famous event, came in a Giants-Cubs game, leading to their one-game replay for the 1908 pennant. Pittsburgh became a footnote to that legend — but they actually led the race into their final game, in Chicago, and could have eliminated the Cubs. In that case, the Merkle replay would have been just a chance for the Giants to tie and force a playoff, while a Cubs win (which happened) would make the Bucs outright winners. (Think how much baseball history is tied in with those events. If the Cubs win just the ’07 Series, instead of two in a row after their upset loss in ’06, do Tinker, Evers & Chance make the Hall of Fame?)
- Great as they were, the Pirates might have gone down as the best ever, but for …
The stars that got away:
— Rube Waddell won the ERA crown with Pittsburgh in 1900, his first full year. But he was a wild child, and the Bucs were just stacked with pitching, so they sold him to the Cubs early in ’01. Jumping to the A’s, Rube exploded in ’02 with a 24-7 record and 9.7 WAR/pitch. For the rest of the decade, he ranked 3rd in pitching WAR, close behind Matty and Cy.
— Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill both jumped* to the New York Highlanders after a combined 48-12 mark in 1902, just before the leagues made peace. All teams lost jumpers during the AL-NL war, but this was a blow. Pittsburgh still three-peated in 1903, but they sure could have used these two (or Waddell) in that inaugural World Series. Instead, Phillippe went the distance in 5 out of 8 games over 13 days, winning three but losing the last two, as the upstart Americans proved their league worthy. In 1904, while the Bucs slumped from first to fourth, Waddell, Chesbro and Tannehill averaged 29-14 and 8.7 WAR. It would be five more years until the Bucs next reached the Series — but those three pitchers never appeared in one.**
— Infielder Jimmy Williams, whose 6.9-WAR debut in 1899 has been topped only by Ichiro, jumped in the AL’s first year, and wound up on the Highlanders with the next wave of Bucco defectors. He never reached that height again, but was a 3-4 WAR man for years to come.
— In 1901, they gave Cotton Turner a 2-game trial. He hit 3-for-7, but made two errors, and was promptly released. Turner emerged three years later as Nap Lajoie’s keystone mate in Cleveland, and in 1906 had one of the greatest fluke years: 9.4 WAR, from a career-high 124 OPS+ and runaway-league-best defensive stats. Turner lasted 15 years in Cleveland, and still holds the club record for games played. (Just for fun, suppose Turner had passed his Pittsburgh test: Wagner didn’t move to short full-time until 1903, playing mostly outfield in 1900-02. With a defensive wizard on hand, does Honus ever make the move? Maybe in ’08, when Turner’s injuries started, but Wagner was already 34 by then. Absent the snap judgment on Turner, the greatest shortstop of all time might have stayed in the outfield.)
— The trade of CF Ginger Beaumont and 2B Claude Ritchey after 1906 — key men in the 1901-03 pennants — might have cost Pittsburgh the 1908 flag. Beaumont hit .326 with a 126 OPS+ and 101 runs a year from his 1899 debut through 1905, but then a knee injury caused his first off year at age 29. He and Ritchey, a steady 3-to-4-WAR man, went to Boston for SS Ed Abbatichio, who shifted to second. The deal bombed right away: Abbatichio was no better than Ritchey, while Beaumont rebounded with two good years, and above all, the rookies given his job were disasters — the aptly named Goat Anderson in 1907 (his lone MLB season), and then Chief Wilson, long before his triples barrage. They lost the 1908 race by one game, with their every-day RF scoring -1.1 WAR.
* On the defection of Chesbro and Tannehill … You might recall a story retold in the Historical Abstract of a jumping plot among several Pirates, revealed accidentally by Tannehill while etherized for medical treatment. I had always taken this to mean Tannehill’s slip had thwarted the plan; otherwise, the story is pointless. But in fact, five Bucs did jump together after 1902, those mound stars joined by infielder Wid Conroy, who went on to a few good years in New York and Washington; outfielder Lefty Davis, who had hit .300 with 139 runs in 146 games with Pittsburgh; and scrub catcher Jack O’Connor. Gee, Bill….
** Chesbro and Tannehill didn’t quite meet their billing in their one shared year in New York, but they helped lift the Oriole shards from last place to respectability. Then Tannehill went to Boston for Long Tom Hughes, and helped them to a second straight pennant, secured on the last day by Chesbro’s famous wild pitch (a sour ending to his 41-12 season). But there was no World Series, thanks to John McGraw’s feud with Ban Johnson, and no more pennants to come for Tannehill, as Boston collapsed in the next two years. Chesbro never won a pennant after Pittsburgh. Waddell won one with the A’s, but missed that Series with an injury.
1914 Athletics: 99-53, lost World Series 0-4 to the Miracle Braves
|PHA 1914: 1st, 99-53||Career WAR||HOF?||1914 Age||1914 WAR||Tenure:
|Eddie Collins, 2B||123.9||BW||27||9.1||13, 8|
|Home Run Baker, 3B||62.8||VC||28||7.3||7, 6|
|Chief Bender, SP||49.5||VC||30||4.1||12, 12|
|Bob Shawkey, SP||46.7||—||23||2.6||3, 3|
|Herb Pennock, SP||45.0||BW||20||2.1||4, 1|
|Wally Schang, C||45.0||—||24||3.3||6, 5|
|GROUP TOTALS||372.9||4||25.3||28.5||45, 35|
|Eddie Plank, SP||89.9||VC||38||1.8||14, 14|
|Bullet Joe Bush, SP||37.7||—||21||1.4||7, 5|
|Stuffy McInnis, 1B||34.3||—||23||3.8||9, 7|
|Amos Strunk, CF||27.8||—||25||3.0||13, 7|
|Jack Barry, SS||25.9||—||27||4.3||8, 6|
|Rube Bressler, RP||20.2||—||19||4.2||3, 2|
|*Harry Davis, 1B||38.7||—||40||0.1||16, 10|
|*Jack Coombs, SP||28.9||—||31||0.0||9, 7|
How were they formed? It’s odd that the A’s make this list at the end of their five-year dynasty. The Mackmen were World Champs in 1910, ’11 and ’13, yet this focus group averaged 25.3 years old in 1914. Clearly, the A’s had more turnover than most dynasties: Three of the six focus players broke in after the first two titles. In 1914, three lineup regulars and five pitchers with 140+ IP were in their first or second full season.
The 1914 A’s were nearly all home-grown: 33 of their 39 players debuted with the A’s, including every regular pitcher and position player except LF Rube Oldring, taken in the Rule 5 draft after 8 games with New York. Other imports totaled 200 PAs and 9 innings pitched.
A full list of transitions during the dynasty (focus players in bold):
- First base, Harry Davis to Stuffy McInnis (1911)
- Two outfield spots, Danny Murphy and Bris Lord to Amos Strunk (1912) and Eddie Murphy (1913)
- Half the catcher’s job, Ira Thomas to Wally Schang (1913) (both sharing with Jack Lapp)
- On the mound, Cy Morgan aged out of the rotation (33-19 in 1910-11), Jack Coombs was hurt nearly all of 1913-14 (after going 80-31 in the prior three years), and young Harry Krause couldn’t build on his ERA title at age 20, and was done by 23. Reinforcements from 1912-14 were Herb Pennock and Bullet Joe Bush (both 20), Bob Shawkey (22), Boardwalk Brown and Weldon Wyckoff (23).
How did they win? 1st in scoring, 3rd in run prevention. Their offense, in a neutral park, towered over the rest of the league: 4.74 R/G, Tigers 2nd at 3.92, league average 3.65. The pitching and defense are hard to gauge from the stats: 7th in ERA+, 6th in WHIP, average in defensive WAR and efficiency — yet the A’s let in the fewest unearned runs by far, about 60 fewer than other teams averaged.
Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker were 2nd and 3rd in MLB WAR for 1914, but five other regulars scored 2.5 or better. Barry and McInnis, the other half of the “$100,000 Infield,” ranked 11th and 13th in the AL. Bill James rated this the best infield of all time, and that’s not including the backstop, where Schang and Lapp combined for 4.7 WAR.
The dynasty wasn’t all about stars. Four different outfielders had at least one 3-WAR season from 1910-14, as did four different non-HOF pitchers. But in those five years, Collins, Baker, Chief Bender and Eddie Plank combined for almost half the club’s WAR.
How long did they last? Not even ’til the next snowfall.
What brought them down? Money. A recession cut A’s attendance by half from their 1909 high, and Mack couldn’t pay what his stars felt they deserved. Plank and Bender signed with the Federal League in early December 1914, and Collins was sold to the ChiSox a few days later. Baker held out all year, then was sold to the Yankees. The remaining good players were dispatched in stages:
- Coombs was released after those two injury years. He bounced back with Brooklyn in 1915-16, going 28-18, 2.61, and bagged their only win in the ’16 Series (plus an RBI hit in that 4-3 triumph) — which ran his WS record to a sweet 5-0 in 6 starts, and 8-for-24 with 4 RBI. (Who’s Bob Gibson?)
- Pennock, who debuted 3 months after his 18th birthday in 1912, was waived during 1915. “The Squire of Kennett Square” would experience all the highs and lows of the era en route to his Cooperstown berth: A tiny role in Boston’s 1915-16 championships; military service in 1918; left behind after another dynasty’s fire sale; rejoining Babe Ruth on the ’23 Yankees and winning his two World Series starts, clinching the club’s first title; two more wins in the ’26 Series putting the Yanks on the hill, only to see them drop the last two (his relief work kept the finale close for Ruth’s anticlimactic caught stealing); 1st in wins and 2nd in WAR for the years 1923-28; the rise of Mack’s second dynasty making New York also-rans from 1929-31; two saves in the ’32 Series sweep, ending his Fall Classic record with wins in all five starts, plus 3 saves and a 1.95 RA/9; and a final turn back in Boston, where he joined Lefty Grove from the second A’s breakup. Pennock’s WAR is low for a Hall of Famer, but he’s all over the annals of that age.
- Barry also went to Boston in 1915 and shared in those two championships, which gave him five rings in seven years, and made him the first to play in four winning Series. But he faded quickly: After getting MVP votes each year from age 24-27, he was done as a regular by age 30.
- Shawkey was sold for a pittance in 1915. He’d win 20+ four times in the next seven years with the Yankees, placing 8th in wins and WAR for that span bridging offensive eras. In 1917 he yielded just 2 HRs in 236 IP, with a 2.44 ERA; in ’23 he led the majors with 17 HRs allowed and had a 3.51 ERA, but the same ERA+.
- Bullet Joe Bush was dealt to the BoSox after 1917 (along with Schang and Strunk), having suffered three cellar seasons with a 31-56 record despite a 2.88 ERA. After sharing in Boston’s 1918 title, their 4th in 7 years, Bush (like Pennock) outlasted the initial sell-off, finally joined the Yanks in ’22, and promptly went 26-7, which tipped his career mark into the black for the first time in years.
What if … Would the A’s have won more titles if Mack hadn’t pulled the plug after Plank and Bender jumped to the Federal League? It’s hard to tell. The lineup still would have been strong. In AL WAR/pos from 1915-19, five former A’s ranked in the top 25: Collins 3rd, Baker 13th, Strunk 15th, Schang 16th and McInnis 22nd. Only one AL team had even four position players at 11+ WAR in that span — the White Sox had five, led by Collins. But the pitching would have been problematic. The staff would have been thin in 1915, with no holdover producing even 3 WAR. Shawkey missed 1918 in the Navy, and Bush had a sore arm in 1919. Pennock didn’t blossom until 1919, and the bulk of his career value was in 1923-28. Further on, the balance flipped: From 1920-24, Shawkey, Pennock and Bush ranked 7th, 8th and 10th in AL WAR/pitch, but only Collins and Schang remained good from the ’14 lineup.
Here’s the trouble with this guessing game: The A’s produced no lasting new stars until ’24 (Al Simmons), because Mack had no money. But the financial picture might have changed if he’d held the line after Bender and Plank left. The Feds folded a year later; AL attendance rose, salaries tumbled, and pennants were within reach: AL champs from 1915-24 averaged 96 wins per 154 games, five wins less than the A’s dynasty. All we know for sure is that, without new blood, the A’s would not have been great after 1914.
Boston-bound: I hadn’t noticed before just how many from Mack’s dynasty went straight to the Red Sox: Pennock, Bush, Barry, Schang, Strunk, McInnis, even Wyckoff and Jimmy Walsh — eight of the 22 men who played 10+ games for the champion 1913 A’s, also won a title with Boston. And three of those (Schang, Pennock, Bush), plus Shawkey, would comprise most of the battery for the first Yankee champs, in ’23. Red Sox fans anguished by the bulk transfer of stars to the Yanks no doubt missed the obvious irony.
5-man pioneers: The 1922-23 Yankees were the first to make regular use of a balanced 5-man rotation, with five men starting 25+ games. Only seven other clubs had such a year before expansion, two of those during WWII. Those Yanks were the first to win a pennant or WS title that way (next were the ’77 Dodgers and ’85 Royals, respectively), and the first to do it back-to-back (followed by the 1972-73 Dodgers). Pennock, Bush and Shawkey — three-fifths of the balanced rotation in that 1923 championship — also pitched for the 1913-14 A’s, until ’23 the only pennant winners with no one at 245+ innings. Also, the ’23 Yanks were the second WS champ to use five different starters in the first 5 games — a sharp contrast to the A’s 1910 title, when Coombs and Bender combined for all 46 innings in 5 games over 7 days.
Get ’em young: You know that Connie Mack tried out many youngsters after dissolving the dynasty: From 1915-24, fifteen teenagers played for the A’s, more than any two other clubs combined. It might seem like necessity, but that’s just how he operated. Even while posting the AL’s best record from 1901-14, the A’s employed 18 teenagers, five more than the next team. Many of the dynasty stars debuted before age 20: Collins, Bender, Pennock, Bush, McInnis, Strunk, Krause, Bressler, and Andy Coakley (18-8 in the ’05 pennant run). Jimmie Foxx was one of five teenage A’s from 1925-31, tied for the most in that span. The A’s debuted 7 of the 37 teenagers who went on to 25 career WAR/pos or 20 WAR/pitch from 1901-50, two more than the next team.
Switcheroo: Rube Bressler at 19 was a lefty swingman for the 1914 A’s, especially brilliant in relief: His 67 IP with a 1.75 RA/9 is one of the best known relief splits before expansion. His arm went bad soon afterward, but he made a successful switch to the outfield. As a regular from 1924-30, he hit .319 with a .395 OBP. Of all modern players with 100 games pitched and 500 PAs, Bressler trails only Ruth in BA and OBP (.301/.378), along with nearly all counting stats, including WAR/pos.
1915 Red Sox — The Babe’s first full year, and The Grey Eagle’s Boston swan song.
The Yankees of 1931-33 — The ’33 Yanks were the only team with seven players meeting these criteria. An all-world lineup and good bench generated 6.1 runs per game, easily best in the majors. The 4-man rotation was average (103 ERA+). Teams like that have won dozens of pennants, so why did the ’33 Yanks finish 7 games behind Washington?