Introduction to the 1939 World Series
First off, let me welcome you back to our countdown of the most competitive World Series of all time. During this year’s pennant chase and postseason, we realized the countdown wouldn’t be done in time for the 2015 World Series, so we decided to resume things at a later point. Here we are, and we hope you enjoy! For a refresher and full list of Series we’ve already done, click the link at the very bottom of the article. Now, on to the 98th most competitive Fall Classic, the 1939 World Series.
The 1937 World Series wasn’t very good. The 1938 World Series was only marginally better. The 1939 World Series, it turns out, was also a little better. This is the side effect of the incredible Yankee dominance of the era. A year earlier, the Yankees became the first team to win 3 straight World Series. Any guess how 1939 went? It featured a near no-hitter, perhaps the World Series’ greatest rookie performance, and one of the most bizarre plays in baseball history.
The 1939 New York Yankees (106-45) were one of the greatest Yankee teams of all time. Only 3 Yankee teams have ever won 70% of their games: 1927, 1998, and 1939. They scored 6.4 r/g (+1.2 r/g over average) and allowed 3.7 (-1.5). A +2.7 r/g advantage is pretty insane, folks. So, who made up an all-time great team?
C: Bill Dickey, 32 – An all-time great at the position, Dickey had his last truly great season in ’39, hitting .302/.403/.513/ 134 wRC+, 24 HR, and 105 RBI, producing over 5 WAR and finishing 6th in the MVP race. He was still pretty good in the following years, but his next 3 top 20 MVP finishes were mostly out of respect.
1B: Babe Dahlgren, 27 – The remarkable thing about the ’39 Yankees is that they lost one of their best players to a fatal disease early in the season and still were as good as they were. Lou Gehrig played just 8 games for the Yankees in 1939, being diagnosed with ALS later in the summer. He was replaced by Dahlgren, easily the worst player in the lineup. Dahlgren hit .235/.312/.377/ 78 wRC+, with 15 HR and by WAR was a worse than replacement level player.
2B: Joe Gordon, 24 – A rookie breakout from ’38, Gordon’s ’39 season was even better – .284/.370/.506/ 122 wRC+, with 32 doubles, 28 homers, 111 RBI, and over 6 WAR. He finished 9th in the MVP race.
SS: Frankie Crosetti, 28 – .233/.315/.332/ 71 wRC+ with 10 HR, 11 SB, and just over 2 WAR. Crosetti wasn’t a star, but he was a solid MLB shortstop. For the 4th straight year (and 5th in 6), Crosetti led the AL in times being hit by pitch. He was named to the 1939 All-Star Game.
3B: Red Rolfe, 30 – Rolfe had a career year in 1939, hitting .329/.404/.495/131 wRC+. He led the team with 46 doubles, 10 triples, and 139 runs scored, adding 14 HR as well. WAR estimates have Rolfe adding 6 wins over replacement that year, but he only finished 27th in the MVP race, though he was an All-Star.
LF: George Selkirk, 31 – Twinkletoes, as he was known, also had a career year in ’39, hitting .306/.452/.517/ 151 wRC+, with 21 HR, 103 runs, 101 RBI, and he led the team in both steals (12) and walks (103). By WAR, he was worth over 5 wins, and Selkirk was a 1939 All-Star.
CF: Joe Dimaggio, 24 – As good as everyone else was, this was Joe’s team. Dimaggio won the 1939 AL MVP award, and it’s not hard to see why – .381/.448/.671/ 180 wRC+ is a hell of a batting line. He led the Yankees in HR (30), RBI (126), and WAR (over 8). He struck out just 20 times in 524 plate appearances.
RF: Charlie Keller, 22 – King Kong Keller is today an under-appreciated component of the early 40’s Yankees. A rookie in ’39, his first 7 years served as his peak, producing nearly 40 WAR in the timeframe. As a rookie, he hit .334/.447/.500/ 146 wRC+ with 11 HR, finishing 22nd in the MVP vote.
SP1: Red Ruffing, 34 – With a 21-7 record, 2.93 ERA, and a league-leading 5 shutouts, Ruffing finished 5th in the MVP race. By WAR estimates, Ruffing was worth around 4 wins over replacement.
SP2: Lefty Gomez, 30 – Gomez had a brilliant twenties, but his thirties just weren’t quite up to par. This was his last really useful season, going 12-8 with a 3.41 and around 3 WAR.
SP3: Atley Donald, 28 – Swampy Donald (because he went to Louisiana Tech, I guess) went 13-3 with a 3.71 ERA in 1939, his rookie season, and was worth around 1 WAR.
SP4: Monte Pearson, 30 – 12-5 with a WAR near 2, but a 4.49 ERA was not good for the era, and it showed early signs of a quick decline. Pearson was an All-Star in 1940, but pitched just 24.1 innings, the last of his career, in 1941.
SP5: Bump Hadley, 34 – Hadley went 12-6 with a 2.98 and a WAR near 2, and was a bit of a jack of all trades. He started 18 games, hurling one shutout. He also came out of the bullpen 8 times for 2 saves.
Closer: Johnny Murphy, 30 – Murphy allowed a 4.41 ERA but picked up 19 saves, which led the AL.
There you have it, the key players on one of the 10 best teams ever assembled. The Yankees were, unsurprisingly, the favorites.
The 1939 Cincinnati Reds (97-57) were the NL’s best team, but their record was buoyed by a 14-4 record in extra innings. The Cardinals had the NL’s best record in 9 inning games, but Cincy’s prowess beyond the 9th earned them a date with New York. The Reds were very good, leading the NL in run prevention (3.8/g) and finishing 2nd in the league in scoring (4.9/g). While it’s not the +2.7 advantage the Yankees enjoyed, a +1.1 run/g advantage is significant. It was all a bit of a surprise, as Cincinnati had been mostly a non-factor in the NL for two decades. Since “winning” the 1919 Series that was thrown by the Black Sox, the Reds finished as high as second 3 times, but the last time had been 1926. Between 1927 and 1937, the Reds finished in the bottom half of the NL every year, and in 1938 they only managed a 4th place finish. Six star offensive players carried the load. The best player was 2B Lonnie Frey, who hit .291/.388/.452/ 130 wRC+ with 27 doubles, 9 triples, and 11 HR; Frey finished 19th in MVP voting, but led the team in WAR, at over 6. 1B Frank McCormick (.332/.374/.495/ 134 wRC+) played every game and led the team in hits (209), doubles (41), and RBI (128), while finishing 2nd with 18 HR on his way to a 4th place MVP finish. OF Ival Goodman (.323/.401/.515/ 147 wRC+) was the team’s best overall hitter, ripping 37 doubles and 16 triples, and also finished in the top 25 of the MVP race. SS Billy Myers (.281/.369/.393/ 110 wRC+) was, like Goodman and McCormick, a 5 win player and finished 14th in MVP voting. C Ernie Lombardi (.287/.342/.487/ 121 wRC+) led the team with 20 HR. 3B Billy Werber (.289/.388/.389) led the team in runs (115) and stolen bases (15). Perhaps a bigger story than the offense was the 1-2 punch in the starting rotation of Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer. Walters won the pitching triple crown, going 27-11 with a 2.29 ERA and 137 K’s (yes, that led the league). His 31 complete games and 319 innings both led the league as well, and Walters was named the NL MVP for the 1939 season. Derringer went 25-7 with a 2.93 ERA, topped 300 innings as well, and finished 3rd in the MVP race. He had the best K/BB ratio in the league and was every bit the ace that Walters was. SP3 Whitey Moore (13-12, 3.45) was reliable and versatile, leading the team with 3 saves. Starters Lee Grissom (9-7, 4.10) and Johnny Vander Meer (5-9, 4.67) weren’t very good, but rookie relief ace Gene Thompson (13-5, 2.54) was a stalwart.
Ruffing faced Derringer, and the pitching duel was as good as advertised. Through 3 shutout innings, they had combined to face just one batter over the minimum. In the top of the 4th, Ruffing issued a two-out walk to Goodman. Goodman stole second and was driven in on a McCormick single to give Cincinnati a 1-0 lead. New York answered in the 5th, tying the game on a Dahlgren double that scored Gordon. Through the 6th, 7th, and 8th, the pitchers continued to dominate. Ruffing retired the Reds 1-2-3 in the 9th, sending the 1-1 tie to the bottom half. Against Derringer, King Kong Keller hit a one out triple to bring up Dimaggio. The Reds wisely refused to let Joltin’ Joe beat them and put him on 1st. Deciding to pitch to Bill Dickey instead of Selkirk, Derringer surrendered a single to center field, scoring Keller and giving New York a 2-1 victory and 1-0 Series advantage.
Average leverage: 1.23
Relatively unstellar during the regular season, Monte Pearson got the start for the Yankees in Game 2 against NL MVP Bucky Walters. It was a deft strategic move on New York’s part, if you think about it. When the opponent starts their best pitcher, it’s not a bad move to start one of your worst. Sure, it puts you at a disadvantage for a single game, but if the rotations are otherwise similarly matched, it could very well provide an advantage in every subsequent game. Also, there’s the off chance that your inferior pitcher just happens to have a great game and beat the superior one. That’s precisely what happened for New York in Game 2. The Yankees jumped on Walters in the 3rd – Crosetti brought home Dahlgren on a productive groundout, Keller doubled in Rolfe, and Dickey singled home Keller to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. An inning later, Dahlgren homered to extend the lead to 4-0. The Reds were helpless against Pearson. The first baserunner came in the 4th on a walk, and the Reds pushed for a big play, but a strike ’em out and throw ’em out double play killed the rally. Pearson carried what was potentially the first World Series no-hitter into the 8th, where Ernie Lombardi finally broke through with a single. Pearson notched a K and a groundout to end the threat. In the 9th, Billy Werber got a 2 out single, but it amounted to nothing. The Yankees won 4-0, going up 2-0 thanks to a brilliant game from an unlikely hero – Monte Pearson, he of the 4.49 regular season ERA. It was his first and only shutout of the 1939 season.
Average leverage: 0.55
Game 3’s starting pitchers were interesting, to say the least. Cincinnati turned to rookie relief star Gene Thompson. Thompson had started 11 games in the regular season, including several in September, but was more often utilized out of the bullpen. The Yankees started the great Lefty Gomez, who had won all 6 World Series starts he’d ever made. However, 1939 was a rocky year for Gomez. His results were generally fine, but he hurt his back in May and changed the way he threw as a result. This resulted in poorer mechanics, which predictably led to undue strain on his arm. He tore a muscle in his side in late September. Less than two weeks before Game 3 began, Lefty was in the hospital.
In the top of the first, the Yankees struck against the rookie Thompson, with Charlie Keller hitting a two-run homer with one out. Gomez took the mound with a 2 run lead, but with two outs, Ival Goodman hit a grounder towards Gomez, and the pitcher was unable to make the play. More damaging was the abdominal muscle Gomez strained while trying to make the play. McCormick singled, and then Lombardi knocked in Goodman with a third straight single. Gomez escaped with only one run of damage, but he clearly wasn’t recovered. After he struck out awkwardly to end the top of the 2nd, manager Joe McCarthy had seen enough; he pulled Lefty Gomez from what would be his final World Series game after only one inning. In the bottom of the 2nd, the Reds offense gave new Yankee pitcher Bump Hadley a rude welcome. #8 hitter Billy Myers hit a one out single, and the pitcher Thompson followed with bloop that fell in. Billy Werber singled home Myers to tie the game at 2-2, and two batters later, Goodman singled home Werber for the lead. The lead lasted 5 batters. With two outs in the top of the 3rd, Thompson walked the red hot Keller to bring up Joe Dimaggio. Baseball’s best hitter did what baseball’s best hitters often do – he homered, giving the Yankees a 4-3 edge. In the 5th, the Yankees pulled away. After a one out single from Red Rolfe, Keller hit his second two-run homer of the game to put New York up 6-3. Two batters later, Bill Dickey added a solo shot of his own, chasing Thompson from the game with a 7-3 score. Hadley would scatter two hits over the rest of the game, not allowing the Reds to score. New York took a commanding 3-o Series lead thanks mostly to Charlie Keller, the first rookie in MLB history to homer twice in a World Series game.
Average leverage: 0.76
Scheduled to start Game 3 until Gomez talked McCarthy into pitching him, Yankee pitcher Oral Hildebrand took the mound in Game 4. The 32 year old started 15 games in the regular season, but only two in September. A former All-Star with Cleveland, Hildebrand was making his first World Series start against Reds Game 1 starter Paul Derringer. Through 4 innings, Derringer was still perfect, but Hildebrand had only allowed a couple of hits. The Yankees got a man to second in the 5th, but couldn’t bring him in. McCarthy removed Hildebrand for Steve Sundra, yet another man who started a handful of games (11) during the 1939 season while also coming in from the pen (13 times) with excellent overall results (11-1, 2.76, 2.4 WAR). The ’39 Yankees had an endless supply of these guys. The Reds got a man to third in the bottom half, but also added goose egged the scoreboard. After 6 innings, it was still 0-0. The dam broke in the 7th. The Yankees scored the game’s first run on a homer by who else but Charlie Keller. Two batters later, Dickey homered for a 2-0 lead. The Reds answered in the bottom half, however. McCormick reached on an error, and after a Lombardi strikeout, 37-year old Al Simmons came to the plate. From 1924-1934, Simmons had finished in the top 11 of the MVP vote 8 times. By 1939, Simmons was a shell of his former self. After Cincinnati acquired him from the Boston Bees – who merely put him up for sale, he batted just 23 times for the Reds, collecting 3 singles and a miserable .143/.217/.143 line. With a runner on first, Simmons ripped a double, the only extra-base hit of his Reds career. With runners now on second and third, that brought up another faded star from the early 30’s – former Brave Wally Berger. Berger was still only 33, but he had less than 50 remaining regular season plate appearances in his career. Berger hit a grounder that scored McCormick, cutting the lead to 2-1. After a Billy Myers walk, the Reds pinch-hit for Derringer with Willard Hershberger, a second year 29-year old catcher who had batted .345 as a backup during the ’39 season. Hershberger singled to left, scoring Simmons and tying the game. It was a bright moment in the otherwise sad career of Hershberger, who less than a year later would become the only MLB player to commit suicide during a season. Billy Werber followed Hershberger with another single, scoring Myers for a 3-2 Cincinnati lead. With Derringer out, Cincinnati brought in the NL MVP, Bucky Walters. In the bottom of the 8th, Ival Goodman doubled and was brought home on an Ernie Lombardi single. The Reds carried a 4-2 lead into the final inning.
Keller led off the 9th with a single off Walters. Then Dimaggio singled, and Keller took third. Walters induced a groundball from Bill Dickey, but when Reds 2B Lonny Frey threw it to SS Billy Myers, Myers mishandled the catch. Keller scored, making it 4-3, and all runners were safe. Selkirk flied out to right for the first out, but it was deep enough for Dimaggio to take 3rd. A Joe Gordon single then tied the game 4-4, scoring Dimaggio. Walters retired the remaining Yankees, but the damage was done: having entered the 9th with a 92% chance of winning, the Reds lost the lead and after failing to score in the bottom half, the game entered extra innings. Crosetti led off the 10th with a walk, where Red Rolfe bunted him to second. Keller hit a ground ball to Myers, where Myers again booted it, his second error in as many innings. With runners on first and third, Dimaggio ripped a single to right field, easily scoring Crosetti, but thanks to a slight misplay in right field (a charged error), Keller dug for home. He arrived at the same moment the ball did, crashing into Lombardi. The ball got away, the Yankees led 6-4, but Lombardi was still shaken and without possession of the baseball. Joe Dimaggio raced around the bags while Lombardi lay on the ground – he had taken a shot to the groin – and ultimately scored. On a single, all three runners scored, two errors were charged, and the Yankees took a 7-4 lead. The Reds managed a couple of singles in the bottom frame, but came away with nothing. New York had claimed its fourth straight World Championship, and done so via a sweep for the second straight year.
Average leverage: 1.58
Average Leverage: 1.03
The ’39 Series was bookended by a very good game (Game 1) and an all-time classic (Game 4), the latter of which is, by leverage, the 7th best deciding game in World Series history. Unfortunately, both games as well as the two in between, were all won by the same team. Who says you can’t slug your way to a championship? The Yankees and Reds each collected 27 hits, but there were 8 Yankee home runs and 0 big flies from Cincinnati. The Reds, despite losing, would begin a string of 6 straight seasons in the top half of the National League, including another more fruitful trip to the World Series.
This predates the MVP, but as usual, here are the top 5 choices by Win Probability Added. But first…
Least Valuable Player: Billy Myers. It is tempting to name Bucky Walters here, as Walters was the worst by WPA. The pitcher allowed a 4.91 ERA in his 11 innings, and his being the league MVP means his failure to show up for this Series was all the more painful. However, Myers wasn’t particularly timely with his 4 hits (a .333 batting average netted a win probability added that was still in the red), and his errors in Game 4 were massive.
#5: Monte Pearson, +.350 – Pearson’s two hit shutout in Game 2 was pitched mostly with a 3 or 4 run lead, but it was still mightily impressive. Pearson pitched the first no-hitter in Yankee Stadium history, and he nearly pitched the first in World Series history. Later in life, he’d become the chief sanitarian of Madera County, a post which ended when he was found guilty of taking bribes to approve substandard septic tanks, after which he served 8 months in jail. So there’s that.
#4: Joe Dimaggio, +.380 – The Clipper batted .314/.353/.500 in the Series, and in the deciding Game 4, scored the tying run in the 9th before driving in the winning runs in the 10th.
#3: Bill Dickey, +.430 – If you read the game descriptions, Dickey’s name came up again and again. He batted .267/.313/.667 with 2 homers and 5 rbi.
#2: Red Ruffing, +.539 – Pearson may have had the shutout, but Ruffing’s one-run gem in Game 1 featured much more duress. Ruffing didn’t throw a single pitch with the lead, but still came away with a 2-1 victory. Also, Ruffing got a hit.
#1: Charlie Keller, +.984 – Was there any doubt? As I wrote the game recaps, I quickly realized that this was the King Kong Keller show, and the rest were just along for the ride. 7 hits, 1 triple, 3 homers, 6 rbi – all led the way for the champion Yankees. Keller’s career is a bit underappreciated. He was a 5-time All-Star. He received MVP votes 5 times. Keller is 33rd all-time with a .410 OBP. He ranks 41st in OPS at .928, and adjusted for league average, his OPS+ of 152 is #31 all-time. There’s a very probable chance he’s one of the hundred best hitters in baseball history, and most of us haven’t heard of the guy. A retroactive World Series MVP for 1939 on one man’s countdown won’t change that, but hopefully it won’t hurt.
Note: Leverage Index is an average of the leverage of situations, with 1 being average, below 1 being low-pressure, and above 1 being high-pressure.