The Greatest Baseball Team of All Time: played at Memorial Stadium

“If you’re not practicing, somebody else is, somewhere, and he’ll be ready to take your job.”

– Brooks Robinson #5, 3rd base

photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Traditionally three New York Yankee teams top the list of “Greatest Team of all Time:” the Yankees of 1939, 1998—and of course Babe Ruth’s 1927 “Murders’ Row.”

America loves Her Yankees and rightly so, as even this lifelong Oriole’s fan must admit the franchise to be the greatest of all baseball’s teams.  Though this essay, isn’t asking about the greatness of a dynasty, but rather it will illustrate why the 1970 Baltimore Orioles had the better team than any of those Yankee rosters—’27, ’39, ’98, or otherwise.

The ’70 Orioles is a story of an oasis inside  a vast desert.  The oasis lasted several years of the late sixties and mid seventies.  Lately however, wins have been scarcer than free water bottles in the Sahara.

Not the Yankees.  The Yanks, besides some bumps in the road during mullet and mustached Don Mattingly’s tenure with Dave Winfield, Mike Pagliarulo, and Steve Sax, have continued a long tradition of winning backed equally by George Steinbrenner’s money as Yogi Berra’s and Derek Jeter’s leadership.   But like Captain Jeter’s defense at shortstop, the Yankee team of ’98’s pitching, left fielding (Chad Curtis), and longevity were all very suspect—not to mention the payroll’s 75 million dollars.

And speaking of bumps, my argument against the ’98 team would crumble if Darryl Strawberry could have fulfilled his Hall of Fame abilities.  But he didn’t and so the ’98 team is commonly known as “the team without superstars.”  The nickname counters the robust payroll, though I will concede the team to be one expertly crafted out of veterans and youths, fusing chemistry into depth.

1998  New York’s pitching lacked a true ace.  A 35 year old David Cone was the only 20 game winner and we will not be talking about Cone’s eligibility into Cooperstown because he was not an ace.  Some will clamor for Andy Pettitte’s inauguration.  I will simply look to Petite’s numbers to illustrate why I always drafted New York Pitching during the late nineties for fantasy drafts.  No one can deny he was the benefactor of a strong and consistent lineup.  Either way, Petite is not a first ballot Hall of Famer.  When searching for the greatest team ever—I need at least one first ballot ace to anchor a pitching staff.  An elderly Cone and overweight David Wells certainly do not come to mind.  As fun as Hideki Irabu and El Duque were to watch, they were anything but consistent.  The ’98 Yanks’ starting rotation owned an average bullpen—that is, until the ninth inning came.  Mariano Rivera could be called one of the greatest pitchers ever, not just closing pitchers ever.  Rivera was the best player on the 1998 Yankees by far.

The impact of a manager can be debated and will be in another essay.  Buck built the ’98 team essentially but was replaced later at skipper by Joe Torre.   Torre is often seen by many as a strong manager though I would challenge anyone to produce a time when Torre won without one of the greatest teams ever.

If 1998 was the team devoid of stars, then the 1939 and 1927 teams could be called ‘98’s antithesis; for the ’39 and ’27 rosters boasted the biggest of all stars.  The ‘98 Yankees may have shown how to win with depth and 75 million dollars but the ’39 version showed how to win with style.

The star anchoring 1939 was the most graceful center fielder the game has known:  Jolting Joe.  Number 5 patrolled center field with a natural ease and slugged with power.  In fact, Joe DiMaggio beat out Jimmie Foxx for MVP honors in ‘39—a year in which injuries limited the Yankee Clipper to 120 games.  The injury had zero effect on his  numbers, batting .381, slugging .671, knocking in 126 runs, 30 home runs, and gold glove center fielding.

Like Strawberry in ’98—there is no telling how high the ’39 team could have flown if Lou Gehrig would not have left the lineup on May 2 ending his season after 8 games.  The Iron Horse’s exit yielded a sad movie  “Pride of the Yankees” and sadly substituted the light-hitting Babe Dahlgren in Gehrig’s absence at first base.

This becomes my major beef with the ’39 team.  As great as some of its hitters were (DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, George Selkirk, and HOF catcher Bill Dickey) nine sub-three-hundred hitters filled out the top, bottom, and bench of the ’39 roster—not to mention the team did not have a base stealer.  An often overlooked strength of the ’98 Yankees was that everybody seemed to be a base stealer.

Close scrutiny of the 1939 Yankee pitching also finds some serious flaws.  The team had one twenty game winner in the great Red Ruffing.  Ruffing however, was by no means a power pitcher (only 95 k’s in 133 innings) and after Lefty Gomez the pitching staff’s memorability quickly fades.

Bump Hadley had a strong season as their number three starter but will mostly be remembered for hitting the legendary Philadelphia Athletics’ catcher Mickey Cochrane in the head, ending the legend’s career.  In great baseball irony, Cochrane was the man Mickey Mantle was named after.   Mantle helped to end his own career with booze instead of bean balls after replacing DiMaggio in the outfield.

On July 18th 1927 Ty Cobb hits number 4,000 while Miller Huggins manages the new breed of slugger: power hitting Babe Ruth.  More praise does not need to be heaped upon Ruth though for comparison’s sake, “Total Baseball Encyclopedia” places Babe’s ’27 season in the top five ever had by a hitter.  The other four greatest-seasons-ever were two more by the mighty Ruth (’21 and ’23), Barry Bonds (’92) and Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. (’84).

The 1927 New York Yankees had two of the largest superstars and upon inspection, perhaps too larger than their supporting cast.  Ruth and Gehrig accounted for 107 of the 158 home-runs the ball club hit in total.  The two accounted for more than 67 percent of everyone’s power on the team.  Current pitching strategy would pitch around the two, explaining why Bonds (the Babe Ruth of his time) never won the World Series.

And Bonds had power hitting around him.  First Bobby Bonilla, then Matt Williams challenged Maris’ 61 in ’94, and the guy they traded Williams for, Jeff Kent was one of the greatest power hitting 2nd baseman ever.  The Barry Bonds example only serves me here to show how 2 hitters can be walked into a playoff and World Series drought.

That is not to say that the ’27 team did not have strong role players.

Earle Combs’ .414 OBP, Bob Meusel’s 24 stolen bases, and Tony Lazzeri’s all around play supported the duo that overshadowed them all.  After those three, the quality drops quickly on the roster.

As great as the ’27 lineup was, my major knock is best exemplified with the following statistic:  Gehrig drew 109 walks and Ruth commanded 138, while the third most walks was drawn by Lazzeri at 69.  After Lazzeri the rest of the lineup’s batters drew 62, 45, 54, 27, 25 and 20 walks respectively.

The weakness is thus revealed:  pitchers feared only two hitters (Gehrig and Ruth of course) while very eager to throw strikes to three others.  The title “Murders’ Row” becomes a bit of a misnomer when we realize it was a lineup of two huge stars, a couple good batters, and some very weak ones.

Mirroring the batting lineup card is the pitching stable:  three great hurlers supported the bunch—namely, Waite Hoyt (2.63 ERA), Herb Pennock (19-8), and master-reliever Wilcy Moore (2.28 ERA, 19-7, and 13 saves).  Meanwhile the rest of the staff flies under the radar with mediocrity.

A closer look into the star pitching even brings to light my major criticism of the pitching of  the ’27 Yanks:  the five starting pitchers’ strikeout numbers for the year goes: 86 for Hoyt; only 51 for Pinnock; a meager 35 for 18 game winner Urban Shocker; merely 45 for Dutch Ruether, and Goerge Pipgras’ 4.11 ERA managed only 81 K’s.   The starting rotation pitched 1,016 innings and only struck out 298 batters.

Simply put, no pitching coach would think those power-less pitching numbers satisfactory for the modern era of baseball.

The ’27 pitching staff had one 20 game winner and when we consider the output of run support for the pitchers, the rotation’s mythic luster muddies.

As a youngster watching the Turner Broadcasted and owned Atlanta Braves of the nineties I will always judge a team’s worth by its defense.  And so I must now bring to light a team boasting not one, not two, but three 20 game winning hurlers.

The Baltimore Orioles 0f 1970 had depth, hitting, running, a Hall of Fame manager in the fiery Earl Weaver, and the team embodied defensive excellence in the field and on the pitcher’s mound.

Imagine having to game plan for three ace pitchers in a series of seven.  First Jim Palmer’s 199 strikeouts and 20 wins; then Cuban born Greg Maddux precursor Mike Cuellar’s screwball striking out 190 that year on his way to 24 victories; and third up is Dave McNally’s 185 k’s and 24 wins.

The other two starters sported ERA’s of 3.07  and 3.53:  Tom Phoebus and Jim Hardin.

The bullpen was almost equally impressive as only 2 out of seven pitchers had an ERA above 3.78.  The 1970 Orioles, statistically speaking, destroy any pitching staff Steinbrenner or any other Yankee owner could buy.

In fact, the only staff on par with 1970’s is the Baltimore Orioles of 1971 because they had a record FOUR 20 game winners (Cueller, Dobson, McNally, and Palmer).

Walks are an underrated stat.  The base on balls illustrates a hitter’s discipline and displays a pitcher’s control.  The 1970 Orioles saw the largest walk differential of all time!  Meaning, they drew vastly more walks than they allowed.  Second to the Orioles are the 1927 Yankees, third is the ’75 Big Red Machine Reds, and fourth are the ’98 Yankees.  Ninth on the list is the 1938 version of the Yankees.  Clearly the teams which rank on the list prove the value of the walk differential statistic.  The walk differential is paramount to a team’s prowess and the Orioles top the list.

Unlike the earlier teams of New York, Baltimore of 1970 was stacked with depth.  And unlike the ’98 Yanks these Orioles also had star power.  Frank Robinson remains the only player to ever win an MVP in the National and American Leagues—although the year of 1970 John Wesley “Boog” Powell, the large heavy hitting first baseman for the O’s, took the A.L. MVP honors.

Paul Blair could play third base or outfield and snatched 24 bases while his outfield counterpart,  Don Buford could play 2nd, 3rd, or outfield while maintaining an OBP of .406 and stealing 16 bases.

Manager Earl Weaver’s philosophy was one of “pitching, defense, and the three run home run.”  His 1970 squad even had two future managers on its roster.  The back-up catcher Johnny Oates managed the Orioles later, winning 1996 A.L. Manager of the Year, and versatile second baseman/ shortstop Davey Johnson hit .281 in ’70—and he is currently breathing resurgence into the Washington Nationals this year—no doubt a testament to his teacher Weaver’s strategy.

However, I must concede that a hole was present in Weaver’s batting lineup.  His shortstop Mark Belanger only hit .218 but won 8 Gold Gloves on way to forming an infield unparalleled in the history of the game.  Next to Belanger was the greatest fielding third baseman of all time, Brooks Robinson (16 Gold Gloves—in 16 years!).  Robinson, so gifted with the glove, played in 15 consecutive all-star games and he ranked Number 80 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team—all of this for a .269 lifetime hitter, a mere 268 homeruns, and less than 3,000 hits—so we know his glove must have been that good.

Actually the team as a whole was defensively that good.  The following 1970 Orioles won Gold Glove Awards:  Blair (8X); Johnson (3X); Belinger (8X); Frank Robinson (1); Brooks (16X); and even the Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer (4X!).  Defense wins games, people are oft to say.  Have you said that before?

On their way to the World Series Trophy the Orioles had to beat another “all time great team” in the Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” Reds of Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, and the white Frank Robinson without the gambling and home runs: Pete Rose.  Rose is undoubtedly one of the best players of all time, while Bench one of the best catchers ever, and Perez hit 40 home runs in ’70 when 40 was still a lot.

Brooks Robinson’s glove robbed the Series from the Red’s hitters one diving stop at a time at the hot corner.  The unlikely hero went on to win the World Series MVP with a fielding display never seen since.  On the offensive side, the third baseman hit over .500 for the series.  Even DiMaggio couldn’t match that in the field or behind the plate—nor the mighty Ruth.

No one doubts the title the Yankees own of “greatest baseball franchise” (and probably of any sport) though I believe I have put together the science to knock their three historic teams behind the 1970 Baltimore Orioles of Memorial Stadium.

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“I’ll leave baseball without a tear. A man can’t play games his whole life.”

Brooks Robinson

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