No nine better than Murderers' Row
Led by Gehrig and Ruth, the 1927 Yankees dominated
There's great temptation to say that the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, The Big Red Machine, had the best starting nine in baseball history. Do it and back up your reasons, I keep telling myself.
After all, I covered many of the Reds' games that year, including their dramatic, seven-game World Series victory over the Red Sox, and know so many of those great players well.
With four Hall of Fame-caliber players -- Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez are already in, and we know why Pete Rose isn't -- the Reds had one of baseball's great lineups.
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But in clear conscience, I cannot say that the '75 Reds were better than Murderers' Row, the feared 1927 Yankees. That team holds a place in baseball history I suspect will never be equaled or surpassed.
So it has to be the 1927 Yankees.
This was a lineup powered by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, half of a Murderers' Row that also included Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel, the latter the only member not in Cooperstown.
This was the core, with batting average, homers and RBIs: Pat Collins, catcher (.274, 7, 36), Gehrig, first base (.373, 47, 175), Lazzeri, second base (.309, 18. 102), Mark Koenig, shortstop (.285, 3, 62), Joe Dugan, third base (.229, 2, 43), Meusel, left field (.337, 8, 103), Earle Combs, center field (.356, 8, 56), Ruth (.356, 60, 164). The pitching staff was anchored by RHP Waite Hoyt (22-7, 2.63 ERA) and LHP Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00 ERA )
I learned about the '27 Yankees in 1958 during a Phillies charter flight to California, where the Dodgers and Giants had relocated that season. The flight, onboard a prop-driven Boeing DC6, seemed to last an eternity, but as I look back, I was lucky to sit with the affable Benny Bengough, a Phillies coach who was a catcher on the '27 Yankees.
Benny was so entertaining and enlightening, he became my first column of the trip.
"There probably will never be such a potent lineup," Bengough told me. "The opposing pitchers didn't have a chance. We won 110 games and only lost 44. And don't forget, that was the year the Babe hit his 60 home runs. He drove in 164 runs that summer, but Gehrig knocked in 175."
Benny said the Babe really came into his own in 1927.
"What a lot of people don't remember is that in '27, even though the Babe blasted 60, it was Gehrig who was MVP, mostly because he drove in more runs than Ruth and had a better batting average, .373 to .356 -- and hit 47 dingers."
A key achievement of that 1927 team was how it performed in the World Series.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, with Pie Traynor, Paul Waner and Lloyd Waner, won the National League pennant and were considered a tough hurdle for the Yankees.
The Yankees swept the Pirates in four games, outscoring them 23 to 10, and batting .279 to Pittsburgh's .223. Ruth batted .400, hit two homers and drove in seven runs.
When you think of some of the game's great hitters, how much protection they get in the batting order is vital.
In the '27 Yankees order, Combs, also in the Hall of Fame, led off, followed by Koenig. Then came Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel and Lazzeri. Talk about protection.
Combs, who had an on-base percentage of .414, had 62 walks and led the AL with 231 hits and 23 triples.
Bengough, who caught 31 games, said that manager Miller Huggins didn't have to use his bench much but never hesitated because of the talent he had on it. Johnny Grabowski, another backup catcher and a pinch-hitter, batted .277 and drove in 25 runs.
"Huggins refused to let anyone sitting on the bench clown around," said Bengough. "He ordered all of us to concentrate on nothing but the game and be ready when he wanted us."
The '27 Yankees, who finished first by 19 games ahead of the Philadelphia Athletics, had a team batting average of .307, with a .498 slugging percentage -- an all-time record. They hit 158 home runs -- 102 more than the second-place AL team.
And consider this: They led the AL in every offensive category with the exception of doubles and stolen bases.
As stated, Combs, Gehrig, Ruth and Lazzeri are in the Hall of Fame. From that pitching staff, Hoyt and Pennock are also in Cooperstown.
One of the most forgotten and underrated pitchers was Wilcey Moore, a 30-year-old rookie who had finally made it to the Major Leagues. Moore won 19 of 26 decisions, and his 2.28 ERA led the AL. He also had 13 saves when relief pitching was not emphasized as it is today.
Baseball fans know all about Murderers' Row, but during that 1958 flight, Bengough introduced me to something called "5 o'clock lightning."
He explained that most games started at 3:30 p.m. in those days and usually were over by about 6 p.m., because there was no such thing as night baseball.
"We used to really come at our opponents in the late innings," he told me. "We used to tell the opponents to be aware of our 5 o'clock lightning, because it was bound to strike."
Oh, and one other thing about this greatest of teams: Babe Ruth was paid "just" $70,000 that season after signing a three-year deal at the beginning of Spring Training.
Too bad we didn't have the TV and media coverage in 1927 that's present today. What happened that season may never happen again, and it would be exciting to relive it.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.