New York Yankees: Five Best Offensive Seasons in Franchise History
By Matthew Orso
Time has nearly frozen for most across the globe as we slowly await the end of this pandemic. We want life to return to normal as soon as possible, but until that time comes we must be patient. We must find ways to occupy our time. One of the things I’ve done is look back at Yankees history.
This is the first in a series of articles examining the lore of the pinstripes. In this piece, we’ll take a look at the five greatest offensive seasons in franchise history. In this list, a player can only appear once. Therefore, there will be just one season from “The Babe.” There will be just one season from Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and other Yankees legends.
#5: Don Mattingly in 1986: .352/.394/.573, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 161 OPS+ in 162 games
Mattingly was looking to improve from his AL MVP-winning year of 1985–and he did just that! He set a career-high with a .352 AVG and played in all 162 games. This marked the only time in Donnie Baseball’s career that he didn’t miss a game during a season. The Indiana native also set franchise records for hits (238) and doubles (53), which still stands to this day. The previous record holders were Earle Combs, who had 231 hits in 1927, and Lou Gehrig, who had 52 doubles also in 1927.
#4: Joe DiMaggio in 1939: .381/.448/.671, 30 HR, 126 RBI, 184 OPS+ in 120 games
The Yankee Clipper produced a plethora of powerful seasons during his time in pinstripes. However, it was a year in which he only played 120 games that saw DiMaggio at his best. Injuries limited him to just nine games prior to the start of June. However, upon his return, DiMaggio reminded fans why he was one of baseball’s best. He hit .440 with seven homers and 37 RBI in his first 35 games. What’s even more astounding is he struck out just three times over that span (151 plate appearances).
He would go on to lead the majors with a .381 AVG--the second-highest ever by a Yankee. Babe Ruth hit .393 during the Yankees’ first World Series-winning year back in 1923. DiMaggio also posted a career-high 1.119 OPS on his way to his first American League MVP award.
#3 Mickey Mantle in 1956: .353/.464/.705, 52 HR, 130 RBI, 210 OPS+ in 150 games
By the time 1956 rolled around, 24-year old Mickey Mantle was already an accomplished big leaguer. He was an AL All-Star in four of his first five seasons. He led the AL with 37 home runs the year prior and was already a three-time World Series champion. But 1956 elevated Mantle’s legacy to that of baseball’s greatest players.
Mantle led the majors–not just the AL–in batting average, home runs and RBI. Since RBI became an official statistic prior to the start of the 1920 season, only four players have led the majors in AVG, HR, and RBI in the same year–Rogers Hornsby (1925), Lou Gehrig (1934), Ted Williams (1942) and Mantle in 1956. So, not only is Mantle just the fourth player in MLB history to accomplish this feat, but he is also the most recent.
1956 was also the first of three instances Mantle would win the AL MVP award. He would later go on to win it again in 1957 and 1962.
#2: Lou Gehrig in 1927: .373/.474/.765, 47 HR, 173 RBI, 220 OPS+ in 155 games
1927 is often most remembered for Babe Ruth’s 60 home run season–a record that stood until 1961. That 60-home run campaign by Ruth often overshadows the arguably better season had by Lou Gehrig. The Bronx native was just 23 years old when 1927 began. He was coming off a solid 1926 season, having hit .313 with 16 home runs and 109 RBI. But Gehrig and the Yankees were hoping for more production come 1927.
Gehrig would deliver. He led the majors with 173 RBI and was second to Ruth in homers with 47. But, did you know entering play on September 6, Gehrig and Ruth were tied for the major league home run lead at 44 apiece. Ruth went on to hit 16 home runs in his final 24 games, while Gehrig hit just three more. However, the two sluggers were neck-and-neck as the 1927 campaign entered her final month.
Gehrig set a career-high with a 1.240 OPS and a then-team record 52 doubles. He also added 18 triples for good measure.
#1: Babe Ruth in 1920 : .376/.532/.847, 54 HR, 135 RBI, 255 OPS+ in 142 games
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You’re probably scratching your head while reading this (though I’m not sure if that’s sanitary or not). Yes, I’m aware of Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. Yes, I’m aware he hit a career-high .393 in 1923. Yes, I’m aware Ruth had 59 HR and 168 RBI in 1921. So, why did I choose 1920 as Ruth (and the Yankees) best offensive season?
First of all, this was Ruth’s first season as a Yankee. First doesn’t always mean best (sorry first-born children, of which I am), but in this case, it does. Prior to the 1920 season, the MLB record for most single-season home runs was 29, set the previous year by Ruth. Only two other players in the modern era (since the start of 1900) had reached 20+ homers for a season--Frank Schulte (21 for the 1911 Cubs) and Gavvy Cravath (24 for the 1915 Phillies).
Ruth–remember he was a pitcher–became a full-time hitter in 1919. Come 1920, he nearly doubled the single-season home run record. We can also look at this another way. There were 16 teams in the majors in 1920. The Yankees led the majors with 115 homers. The Phillies were second with 64, while the St. Louis Browns were third with 50. Ruth outhomered 14 of the 16 teams in the majors! To me, this is astounding.
Also, keep in mind, Ruth posted a career-high 1.379 OPS in 1920. That year marked the ultimate blend of “Babe.” He hit for average, power and drove in runs. His home run rate completely rewrote the rules for baseball and ushered in a new era of the long ball! More than anything, Ruth changed the game in 1920 and the dawn of pinstriped power rose upon the game.
Do you think I’m right? Is there a season I’m forgetting? Discuss in the comments below!