By The Common Man
Finally, The Common Man should note that 1994 teams are only eligible if they would not have made the playoffs on the day the season ended. Ditto for 1904 teams, since there was no World Series. And now, on with the show, Casey Cassem style. Remember, second place is first loser.
40) 1904 New York Highlanders (92-59, .602)
39) 1952 Cleveland Indians (93-61, .604)From 1950-1955, the Indians won 92 or 93 games four times, a remarkably consistent run that netted them four 2nd place finishes. They would take the American League with a historic 111 win campaign in 1954. The ’52 squad, however, was the best of the also-rans by an eyelash, finishing just 2 games back of the Yankees and 12 games up on their nearest competitor. The team was built around Al Rosen and Larry Doby, a pair of 28 year old sluggers who combined power and patience, and every position player in their starting lineup (with the exception of catcher Jim Hegan) had an OPS+ above 100. The team’s rotation was also incredibly strong, with Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn all winning at least, and leading the league in complete games. The immortal Bob Feller had a down year but was the team’s 4th starter. When Bob Feller’s your #4 starter, you’re doing ok. In all, the club boasted four Hall of Famers (Lemon, Feller, Wynn, and Doby).
38) 1985 New York Yankees (97-64, .602)Yogi Berra was famously fired by George Steinbrenner after starting 6-10, and replaced with Billy Martin (who else?), who led the club to a 91-54 mark the rest of the way. The Yankees finished just 2 games back of a terrific Blue Jays team, and 15 up on the Tigers for 2nd place. Rickey Henderson, who had been acquired in an off-season trade, proved to be the catalyst the Bombers were hoping for, hitting .314/.419/.516 (157 OPS+) with 80 stolen bases (at an 89% clip) and 146 runs scored. According to BR.com, he led the league in WAR, and was worth 10 wins above replacement by himself. Not coincidentally, Don Mattingly knocked in 145 runs in an excellent season of his own (.324/.371/.567). The starting rotation, led by Ron Guidry, wasn’t exceptional, but the bullpen was outstanding. The club’s top four relievers (Dave Righetti, Bob Shirley, Brian Fisher and Rich Bordi) combined to throw 412.1 innings and had an ERA of 2.75. Three Hall of Famers (Henderson, Dave Winfield, and Phil Niekro) played on the roster, and stars Guidry, Mattingly, Righetti, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey Sr., and Don Baylor also played large roles.
37) 1985 New York Mets (98-64, .605)This must have been an amazingly frustrating summer in New York, as the Go Go Cardinals sent the other NYC team home for October. The Mets were terrific, anchored by a couple babies in 20 year old Doc Gooden (24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks in 276.2 IP, with 16 CG and 8 shutouts) and 23 year old Darryl Strawberry (.277/.389/.557). Gary Carter (.281/.365/.488, 32 HR, 100 RBI) and Keith Hernandez (.309/.384/.430) also supplied a bunch of offense, while Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Rick Aguilera looked to form a promising young rotation. In the bullpen, Davey Johnson mixed and matched with Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco at the end of games. In reality, though, this young club was not quite ready for prime time. Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, Wally Backman, and Bob Ojeda would contribute hugely in ’86 and propel the Mets to 108 wins and a World Series Title.
35) (tied) 1977 Boston Red Sox (97-64, .602) and Baltimore Orioles (97-64, .602)The Red Sox and Orioles ended up tied for second in the AL East in 1977, 2.5 games back of the Yankees. The Sox were reaping the benefits of their patience with Jim Rice, as he had his first big season, hitting .320/.376/.593, and leading the AL in homers. George Scott and Butch Hobson also each hit 30 bombs, and Carl Yastrzemski hit 28 in his last great season (.296/.372/.505). The Sox finished the year second in the AL in overall offense. The starting rotation was pretty pedestrian, but the bullpen was amazing. Bill Campbell, Bob Stanley, and Mike Paxson combined to throw 399 innings, and Campbell had 13 wins, 31 saves, and a 2.96 ERA in 140 innings.
The Orioles went the other way, finishing near the top of the pack in pitching, while featuring a mediocre offense. Jim Palmer (20-11, 2.91 in 319 innings, and 22 complete games) was dominant, and backed by solid seasons from Rudy May and Mike Flanagan. Eddie Murray won Rookie of the Year honors and Ken Singleton showed off the underlying talent that made him one of the most underrated and frustrating players of the 1970s, hitting .328/.438/.507.
Each team featured three Hall of Famers. Rice, Yaz, and Fergie Jenkins suited up for the Sox. Meanwhile, the O’s had Murray and Palmer, and a 40 year old Brooks Robinson.
34) 1954 Chicago White Sox (94-60, .610)The Sox won 94 games, and came nowhere near the incredible Cleveland Indians, who won 111. The Sox also finished behind the ’54 Yankees (also on this list), who finished with 103 wins. The Sox were pretty terrific in their own right though. Their pitching was outstanding, sporting an ERA+ of 122, while the offense boasted strong seasons by almost everyone, especially Minnie Minoso, who had his best year. Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and George Kell played for the club.
32) 1912 Pittsburgh Pirates (93-58, .616)The Pirates were terrific, but had nothing on the New York Giants, who won the NL by 10 games. This was really the last great season of Honus Wagner’s career. The Flying Dutchman had an .891 OPS and 144 OPS+, but he was nowhere near the height of his powers. Fortunately, he was supported by Chief Wilson, who came out of nowhere to hit 36 triples, which still stands as the single-season record and the best pitching staff in the National League. The pitching was led by 23 year old Claude Hendrix (24-9, 2.59) and veteran Howie Camnitz (22-12, 2.83). But really, this was Wagner’s team. And as he declined, so did they. The Pirates wouldn’t be competitive again until after he retired. Wagner was the sole HOFer who played for the Bucs in ’12, but manager Fred Clarke also made the Hall, but chose not to deploy himself for the first time.
27) 1921 Cleveland Indians (94-60, .610)The 1920 Indians had won the World Series, but the team regressed slightly in ’21 while the Yankees surged. There were several reasons for the falloff. The offense roughly held steady, but could have used another super-human year from Tris Speaker, but had to settle for The Grey Eagle just being ridiculously good (.362/.439/.538, 146 OPS+). The pitching regressed significantly, probably suffering from a heavy workload the year before. Jim Bagby pitched his way into the bullpen, dropping from 31 wins and a 2.89 ERA in 339 innings to 14 wins and a 4.70 ERA in 192 IP. Ray Caldwell dropped from 20 wins and a 3.86 mark to 6-6 with a 4.90 ERA. Neither was ever effective again. Their rotation replacements George Uhle and Duster Mails were solid enough, but couldn’t match their predecessors production. The club finished 4.5 games behind the Ruth-led Yankees, and 13 games ahead of their closest rival. The team would decline further in 1922 and 1923, before falling into the second division for much of the rest of the decade. The club had three Hall of Famers (Stan Coveleski, Joe Sewell, and Speaker).
26) 1942 Boston Red Sox (93-59, .612)
25) 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers (96-60, .615)For the first time ever, two teams, the Dodgers and the Cardinals, ended the regular season tied, which forced a best-of-three playoff series. To that point, the Dodgers were actually 96-58-1, because on September 11, they played a 19-inning, scoreless contest against the Cincinnati Reds that was declared a tie (though it’s unclear why. Ebbets Field hosted the first ever night game in 1938, but it’s also unclear when the lights necessary to make that happen were made a permanent addition to the ballpark. It could have been called on account of darkness (if the lights were not available) or lateness (if there was some rule about not starting innings past a certain time. Officially, the game lasted 4:40.)). The Reds starter, Johnny VanderMeer shut out the Dodgers for 15 of those innings, allowing just 7 hits and striking out 14, and Dodgers outfielders Pete Reiser and Dixie Walker each threw out runners at the plate. If Brooklyn had pushed even a single run across the plate, the playoff would not have been necessary.
During World War II, the Cardinals made the World Series four times in five years. This was the only year they didn’t make it, and the only year in which they didn’t win at least 98 games. So what happened? Even as they were winning pennant after pennant, the Cardinals attendance stayed low, and with a war on the Cardinals felt a further pinch at the box office. And with Stan Musial, Walker Cooper, and Danny Litwhiler away in the military, the Cards essentially decided to punt in ’45. Over the next year, Mort Cooper was dealt to the Braves for Red Barrett (who, it should be noted, did go 21-9, 3.00 for the Cards) and $60,000. His brother Walker was traded to New York while he was still in the military. They traded Johnny Hopp to the Braves for Eddie Joost (who they never used and eventually sold to the A’s for $10,000) and $40,000. The money kept the Cardinals in business until 1946, when Musial and Enos Slaughter each came back and propelled the Cards to another World Championship. With the stars off at war, rookie Red Schoendist is the only Cardinal from ’45 who made the Hall of Fame.
23) 1948 and 1949 Boston Red Sox (96-59 and 96-58)Ted Williams and his merry men had back to back seasons where they just couldn’t topple the Yankees, losing each season by a game. The Sox brought back virtually the same squad both years, and predictably got the same result. As such, The Common Man is counting them as one team.
22) 1909 Philadelphia A’s (95-58, .621)Consider the ’09 A’s as the staging area for Connie Mack’s dynasty from 1910-1914. Home Run Baker was a rookie, acquired from Reading in the Tri-State League, and replacing Jimmy Collins. Catcher Ossie Schreckengost was jettisoned to make way for the Cerberus-like team of Ira Thomas, Paddy Livingston, and Jack Lapp. Simon Nicholls gave way to slick-fielding Jack Barry at SS. Cy Morgan (who would win 51 games over the next three seasons, was acquired from the Red Sox, and solidified the best pitching staff in the American League. The team still had some dead weight, in particular OF Bob Ganley (.197/.272/.226) got 338 PAs while superior options Topsy Hartsel and Heinie Heituller sat. Replacing Ganley full time might have actually allowed the A’s to catch the Tigers, who finished 3.5 games up. The ’09 A’s were flush with Hall of Famers. Baker teamed with Eddie Collins in the infield, while Eddie Plank and Chief Bender led the pitching staff. A 19 year old Joe Jackson got 18 plate appearances, but was sent to the Cleveland Indians a year later for The Human Eyeball, Bris Lord.
21) 1980 Baltimore Orioles (100-62, .617)Baltimore had the best pitching in the American League in 1980, even with Jim Palmer on the way down. Scott McGregor and Cy Young winner Steve Stone proved more than adequate, however, and won 20 and 25 games respectively. The bullpen was also strong, anchored by Tim Stoddard and Tippy Martinez. Eddie Murray (.300/.354/.519, 32 HR) led the offensive attack, and the O’s featured a very deap bench filled with strong and versatile hitters. Alas, 100 wins just wasn’t enough to overcome the Yankees, whose lead was never really in jeopardy.
20) 1981 Cincinnati Reds (66-42, .611)The Reds were the best team in the National League in 1981 (or at least had the best record), but thanks to the player’s strike, the season was split into two halves, with the winner of each half getting to advance to a divisional playoff series. The Reds finished second in both halves (by just a half game in the 1st), behind the Dodgers and the Astros, but finished four games ahead of LA in the overall standings. For this, they got to watch the playoffs from home, as LA went on to win the World Series. The Reds got terrific pitching from Tom Seaver (14-2, 2.54) and great hitting from George Foster(.295/.373/.519, 22 homers, 150 OPS+) and Johnny Bench (.309/.369/.489, 141 OPS+).
19) New York Giants (87-53, .621)
In game 1 of the playoffs, Walter Alston started Sandy Koufax, but the Giants had his number, and hit two homers off him in just over an inning of work. While the Dodger bullpen proved ineffective, the Giants’ Billy Pierce shut their offense out entirely on just three hits. In game 2, the Dodgers won in dramatic fashion, with a sacrifice fly by Ron Fairly in the bottom of the 9th, which scored Maury Wills. In game 3, the Dodgers bullpen bent again, allowing four runs in relief of Johnny Podres and the season was over. Koufax, Drysdale, and Duke Snider were inducted into the HOF from this squad.
17) 1920 New York Yankees (95-59, .617)Babe Ruth’s presence (and 54 homers) catapulted the New York Yankees from 80 wins to 95, and announced the Yankees’ arrival as a perennial contender for the next 40 years or so. Ruth wasn’t enough to get them all the way there, however, and they finished three back of the Cleveland Indians for the league title. The season of both the Yankees and the Indians, of course, was marred by the death of Ray Chapman, who was hit by a Carl Mays fastball on August 16. It didn’t hurt Mays’ performance much, as the Yanks’ ace would go 8-2 down the stretch with a 2.07 ERA to finish 26-11, 3.05. The proto-Bombers led as late as September 14, but the Indians finished 14-4 to rip the title away. Ruth pitched a single game, as did another star outfielder, Lefty O’Doul, who played for the Yanks as a 23 year old, long before he’d establish himself as a star at the age of 31.
16) 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers (97-60, .618)The third Dodger team in this list that had to go to a three-game playoff to go to the World Series. The ’51 Dodgers were famously victimized by Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Instead of this, however, let’s point out that these Dodgers were absolutely loaded in ’51. They led the league in runs, hits, doubles, homers, stolen bases, batting average, OBP, SLG, and total bases. Their starting lineup featured four HOFers in the primesof hteir careers, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella. 3B Billie Cox was the only starter with an OPS+ below 100, and he was at 98. And the pitching wasn’t bad either. Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, and Ralph Branca formed an excellent front three, and rookie Clem Labine was a revelation in 65 innings (9 of which included a six-hit shutout of the Giants in the playoffs). You can read more about the playoff elsewhere, considering it’s the most famous three-game stretch in baseball history. The Common Man finds it odd that Roe was never used in the series, but thinks the decision to hold him back and bring in Branca was justifiable given the Dodgers would have needed someone to start against the Yankees the next day for Game 1 of the World Series.
15) 1920 Chicago White Sox (96-58, .623)
14) 1935 St. Louis Cardinals (96-58, .623)The last gasp of the Gashouse Gang saw the famous pairing of Dizzy and Daffy Dean, who combined to win 47 games, before Daffy got a sore arm and Diz was sold to the Cubs. The brother tandem was supported by excellent seasons from Joe Medwick (151 OPS+) and Ripper Collins. The Cardinals actually led the NL until September 12, but from Sept. 13 on they went 9-9 while the Cubs were enjoying a September that saw them go 23-3 (which included a 21 game winning streak). The Cards didn’t choke; the Cubs just ripped the pennant away from them. In addition to Dizzy and Medwick, the Cardinals had Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin, and Jesse Haines (and HOF manager Leo Durocher).
13) 1905 Pittsburgh Pirates (96-57, .627)The Pirates were a perennial powerhouse from 1900-1912, mirroring the incredible prime of Hans Wagner. As TCM said previously, as went Wagner, so went the Bucs. And this was one of Wagner’s best seasons (.363/.427/.505). Player-manager Fred Clarke and OF Ginger Beaumont each had terrific seasons. And Deacon Phillippe (20-13, 2.19) and Sam Leever (20-5, 2.70) led solid pitching staff. However, as good as the Pirates were, the Giants were just as incredible, if not better. In 1905, they got off to a hot start, and ran away and hid early en route to winning 105 games. And you just can’t compete with that. Wagner and Clarke were the Pirates’ only HOFers.
12) 1906 New York Giants (96-56, .632)There was no shame for the Giants in 1906. How in God’s name are you supposed to beat a team that wins 116 games in a 154 game schedule? Despite winning 96 of their own, the Giants finished 20 games out. Frankly, the rest of the National League would have been better taking the year off. The race was actually pretty close until August, at which point the Cubs went on an historic tear, winning 50 of their last 58 games (an .862 winning percentage). The Giants featured Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan, and even John McGraw gave himself three plate appearances.
11) 1961 Detroit Tigers (101-61, .623)
9) (tied) 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates and 1908 New York Giants (both 98-56,.636)The Cubs and Giants, along with the Chicago Cubs, combined to win every NL Championship from 1901-1913. The Cubs won four of those, including in ’08. The Pirates also won four and the Giants won five. This was the most hotly contested all the seasons, as all three teams finished within a game of one another (the Cubs would win 99 games).
The Pirates wasted what was one of the best seasons of all time by SS Honus Wagner, who hit .354/.415/.542 with a 205 OPS+. He led the league in hits, 2B, 3B, RBI, SB, batting average, OBP, and SLG. The Bucs also got good seasons out of 3B Tommy Leach, Roy Thomas, player-manager Fred Clarke, and 2B Ed Abbaticchio. The pitching was good, but the team’s 2.12 ERA is deceptive, as 30% of the runs they allowed were unearned. Indeed, they actually finished fourth in runs allowed. The Bucs won eight in a row, and 13 of 14 heading into the last game of the season against the Cubs, and were up by half a game. Vic Willis, who had won 23 games, went for the Pirates against Three Finger Brown, who was pitching his third game in six days. Tied 2-2 in the 6th inning, Brown singled off of Willis to give the Cubs the lead, which they’d never give back. Of the ’08 Pirates, Wagner, Clarke and Willis all made the Hall of Fame.
6) 1915 Detroit Tigers (100-54, .649)The Tigers led the American League in Runs, Hits, 2Bs, SB, BB, batting average, OBP, SLG, and total bases. And, of course, so much of hat damage was done by Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who batted.369/.486/.487 with 118 BB and 96 SB. SS Donie Bush hit .228, but managed a .364 OBP thanks to 118 BB of his own. Along with Cobb’s 185 OPS+, the Tigers outfield also boasted Sam Crawford and his 134 OPS+, as well as Bobby Veach’s 141. Indeed, it’s possible that this was the best hitting outfield of all time. Unfortunately, the pitching was utterly mediocre, in a virtual tie with the Highlanders for the 4th in the AL. It’s a shame Cobb couldn’t pitch too.
4) 1928 Philadelphia A’s (98-55, .641)Like the ’09 A’s discussed earlier, the ’28 A’s were a staging ground for the juggernaut that Connie Mack was about to unleash on the American League. Jimmie Foxx, who was entering his 4th season at just 20 years old, was given his first extensive playing time, backing up at 3B, 1B, and C, and had a 148 OPS+. The club also used Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, both in their 40s, as veteran leadership in the outfield. The following year, the A’s simplified things further, jettisoning Cobb and Speaker, and 1B Joe Hauser,* and installing Foxx and Mule Haas full time. The team’s scoring increased by 72 runs on the year, and they jumped from 98 wins to 104. The ’28 team was overflowing with Hall of Famers (even moreso than ’29), with Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Cobb, Speaker, Eddie Collins, Lefty Grove, and Rube Walberg on the roster. For those keeping track, that’s at least six inner-circle HOFers (it could be seven ifyou’re a Simmons fan). Wow.
3) 1993 San Francisco Giants (103-59, .636)The year before baseball split into six divisions (three per league), and instituted the Wild Card, the Giants were really the last dominant team to be excluded from the postseason. With 103 wins, in virtually any other season, the Giants would have won in a walk, but they ran into a buzzsaw in the form of the Atlanta Braves, who won 104. San Francisco was led by Barry Bonds, in his first season with the Giants after leaving the Pirates as a free agent. Bonds hit .336/.458/.677 (204 OPS+) with 46 homers to win the NL MVP award. 2B Robby Thompson hit .312/.375/.496 and 3B Matt Williams pounded 38 homers and hit .294/.331/.561. Billy Swift and John Burkett each won more than 20 games, and Rod Beck set the NL record for saves with 48. The Giants and Braves went into the final game of the regular season tied with 103 wins each. The Braves, facing the Rockies, pitched Tom Glavine on 3-days rest, and he held the Rox in check for almost 7 innings and earned the win. The Giants, rather than bringing ace Billy Swift back on 3 days rest or going with the more experienced Trevor Wilson, started 21 year old rookie Salomon Torres. Torres had gone 3-4 with a 3.70 ERA, but struggled significantly with his control walking 22 in 41 innings, against 22 strikeouts. Predictably, Torres couldn’t find the plate. In 3.1 innings, he allowed five hits and walked five more. He left with a 3-0 deficit, and the Dodgers would go on to win 12-1.