The Iron Horse
1938 found the Yankees in the middle of their first true dynastic run, winning four in a row from ’36-’39. And once again, Joe Dimaggio was in the midst of it. Except this was young Joe, and there was nothing lacking in his numbers.
He slashed .324/.386/.581 and knocked 32 balls out of the park. The man collected 140 hits while he walked 59 times and only struck out 21 times, in his 599 AB’s.
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Even in what was for him an off year, Dimaggio put up all-world numbers. But just like in 1952, ’38 was a year of transition, even during their championship run. Joe Gordon took over second base from one of the holdovers from Murderer’s Row, Tony Lazzeri.
Gordon’s average was only slightly better than Lazzeri’s (.255/.244), but his power numbers were a lot better. 33-year old Tony had slugged just .399 in 1937 with 14 home runs, whereas 23-year old Joe’s SLG was .502 with 25 homers in ’38.
And SS Frank Crosetti added 30 points to his average from one season to the next while 3B Red Rolfe added 35 points.
Great Baseball Nickname
And one of the most impactful changes was that Old Reliable, OF Tommy Henrich, was elevated from part-time player to full time. Tommy took Jake Powell’s playing time and improved the OBP from this outfield position from .314 to .391. Even with Dimaggio putting up subpar numbers for him, this team should have been one of the greatest teams of all time.
But it isn’t, and the reason is as tragic as that of Thurman Munson, some 40 years later. Lou contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig disease. This disease saps the energy and finally takes the life, from the victim.
Even though this article is pure speculation, it is still too much of a reach to posit a reality in which he had never gotten the disease. But what if he had contracted it just twelve months later?
If that had happened, Gehrig’s numbers would have been vastly different. Even though he must have already been suffering from ALS, he still slashed .295/.410/.523 in 1938. He walked 107 times, drove in 114 runs and hit 29 home runs. That is a career year for a lot of players but is far below his regular production.
In 1937, for instance, Lou slashed .351/.473/.643 with 37 home runs and 158 RBI’s. His OBP led the league for the fourth year in a row, as did his walks (127) for the third year; Joe also led the league for the third time in four years in both OPS (1.116) and OPSplus (176).
The Saddest two letter word is If
The dropoff is most evident in the postseason. By October the disease must have spread, and Joe hit only .286/.375/.286 in the 1938 postseason. And a man who had averaged just under 6 RBI’s in the previous six postseason—and who still holds the AL record for most RBI’s in a season at 184—produced zero in the 1938 WS. Most telling is that his OPS dropped from 1.102 in 1937 to .661 in 1938.
Had it taken just a few more months for Lou to contract ALS, he likely would have very similar production to 1937. And that would have made this already great team even better, perhaps on par with the ’39 or ’61 clubs.
But this all just speculation. The Yankees have already fielded some of the best teams of all time; asking for more is just greedy. Still, it is fun to think of what might have been with just a few changes. I can’t help but think of what it might take for the 2017 New York Yankees to be an all-time great team.
Is an entirely new pitching staff too much to ask for?