by Eddie Epstein
If a tie is like kissing your sister, then what is finishing second with a very good or great team? Some of the great teams that have finished second have really been part of a dynasty, like the 1909 Cubs or the 1954 Yankees. Others, like two of Connie Mack’s Athletics teams, 1909 and 1928, have foreshadowed the beginnings of a dynasty. Our focus is on teams that were truly exceptional, as measured by won-lost record and SD Score, but finished second and weren’t necessarily part of something bigger.
The first 20th century team worth mentioning as a “bridesmaid” is the 1905 Chicago White Sox (92-60 record, +3.10 SD Score). This team had the highest SD Score of any team that didn’t finish first and is the only team with an SD Score of 3.00 or higher that didn’t finish first. This was part of a good run by the White Sox, which of course, included the 1906 American League pennant and World Series title. Chicago finished within six games of first every year from 1904 through 1908, but only finished first in 1906.
While the 1908 pennant races in both leagues are remembered for good reason, the 1905 White Sox were also part of a very good pennant race. It was a three team race through July as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland all battled for the lead although the Athletics spent most of this part of the season in third place. Cleveland went into the tank in late July after Nap Lajoie suffered blood poisoning, leaving the race to the White Sox and Athletics. Philadelphia seemed to take control of the race in August with a 20-9 record, but Chicago stayed near and closed the gap to three percentage points in late September, right before a three-game series between the two teams in Philadelphia. The Athletics won two of the three games, which combined with two White Sox losses to the last-place St. Louis Browns the last week of the season enabled Philadelphia to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season and win by two games.
Once again, batting average doesn’t matter. These White Sox teams were known as the “Hitless Wonders” because their batting averages were low. (Well, I guess the nickname is technically correct.) The 1906 White Sox, the team really responsible for the nickname, were last in the league in batting average, but third in the league in runs scored. The 1905 team was fifth in batting average, but second in runs scored. The name of the game is to score more runs than your opponents, not to have a higher batting average. The 1905 White Sox actually led the American League in runs scored in road games. Their home park at this time (White Sox Park and not Comiskey which didn’t open until 1910) was an excellent pitchers park. That is another reason why the White Sox alleged weakness at bat is a misconception.
The 1905 team was almost the same as the 1906 team. The 1906 White Sox did have two new starting outfielders, Ed Hahn and Bill O’Neill, who replaced Danny Green and Nixey Callahan. Callahan was probably not replaced because he didn’t play well; in fact, he was Chicago’s second most productive offensive player, trailing only Frank Isbell in OPS. Callahan, who managed the White Sox in 1903 and 1904, had major problems with alcohol and with his temper. His career was actually quite interesting. He began as a pitcher and had success with Chicago’s National League team, particularly in 1898 and 1899. Callahan jumped to the White Sox in 1901, still a pitcher. He became an outfielder, as well as manager, in 1903. Callahan didn’t play at all in the majors from 1906 through 1910, but returned to the White Sox in 1911 and was a starting outfielder in 1911 and 1912 and the team’s manager from 1912 through 1914.
If your team leads the league in runs scored and in ERA, how do you not win the pennant? Well, that’s what the 1922 St. Louis Browns did (93-61, +2.80) falling a game short of the Yankees. In reality, St. Louis lost the pennant because they lost 14 of the 22 games with New York, including losing a key series to them in St. Louis in mid-August. This was George Sisler’s last great year; he soon suffered an infection which seriously affected his vision, causing him to miss all of the 1923 season and after his return he was not close to being the same player. Defenders of the Yankees can say that the only reason the race was close in 1922 was because of the suspensions of Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel for violating the rule about World Series participants not being permitted to “barnstorm” after the season. Ruth and Meusel were not allowed to play until May 20th after barnstorming (playing in exhibition games) after the 1921 World Series. That may well be, but it’s also true that if the Browns had won just one more game against the Yankees, the Browns would have won the pennant. Of course, the ace of the 1922 Browns, Urban Shocker, later played for the Yankees and was a key member of their pitching staff in 1926 and 1927 before a heart ailment ended his career and his life in 1928. Browns’ reserves Pat Collins and Cedric Durst also played for the 1927 Yankees.
Ken Williams became the first “30-30” player in major league history with 39 homers and 37 steals. His home run total got a big boost from Sportsman’s Park as he hit 32 of his homers at home. For his career, he hit 142 homers at home and 54 on the road.
Maybe the 1922 Browns “should” have won the pennant, but the 1934 New York Giants (93-60, +2.49) really should have won the pennant. They were in first place for almost the entire season, a total of 127 days. The Giants were cruising with an 80-46 record and a 5 1/2 game lead over both St. Louis and Chicago heading into September. This was the year that Giants player-manager Bill Terry made the remark, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” and the Dodgers “got revenge” by beating the Giants twice in the last weekend of the season to cost New York the pennant and allow the Cardinals to win. That comment by Terry didn’t seem to overly psyche Brooklyn the rest of the year, because the Giants still managed to win 14 of the 22 head-to-head games with the Dodgers. Terry made that famous remark at the baseball winter meetings in February of 1934. The Giants were the defending World Champions having won the World Series in 1933 in Terry’s first full year as manager.
The Giants had outstanding pitching in this era, led by the great Carl Hubbell. Although the Polo Grounds favored pitchers overall, it was a great home run park. Take a look at the park indices for runs and home runs from 1933 through 1935:
In 1934, the Giants’ 3.19 ERA was almost a full run better than the league average and was a half a run better than the second best team. Hubbell won the second of his three ERA titles (2.30), had 21 wins, and led the league with 8 saves. Hal Schumacher had 23 wins and a 3.18 ERA while Freddie Fitzsimmons had 18 wins and a 3.04 ERA.
The Giants were consistently good at the beginning of Bill Terry’s tenure as manager. In 1935, they led most of the way before fading to third. They won consecutive pennants in 1936 and 1937 and finished just five games out of first in 1938. The Giants then fell out of contention; perhaps not so coincidentally, Terry was made general manager, while retaining the job as field manager, in 1939.
Doormats for much of the 1930’s, the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50, +2.45) were part of the franchise’s renaissance forged by Larry MacPhail. After winning the National League pennant in 1941, the Dodgers looked they were going to repeat in 1942, starting strongly, playing well all year, and holding a 10-1/2 game lead over second-place St. Louis in early August. However, beginning with a doubleheader sweep of the Pirates on August 9, the Cardinals were simply unbeatable, going 43-8 in their last 51 games. It’s not that the Dodgers folded — they were 16-10 in September — it’s just that St. Louis almost never lost. The Cardinals passed the Dodgers for good on September 13 and clinched the pennant two weeks later on the last day of the season. Brooklyn had been in first place almost the entire season, a total of 148 days. Only the 1969 Cubs spent more days in first place without finishing first.
The ’42 Dodgers had a balanced club. They were second in the league in runs scored, OBP, and SLG, but had no player in the top five in the league in OBP or SLG. No Dodgers regular had an OBP over .375, but no regular had an OBP under .330. Six Dodgers pitchers finished with 10+ wins and Hugh Casey added a league-leading 13 saves.
Larry MacPhail resigned after the 1942 season and was replaced by Branch Rickey. The franchise wasn’t successful during the war years, but Rickey built a team that would contend for more than a decade.
Despite setting a home run record that lasted for 35 years, the 1961 New York Yankees didn’t lead the league in runs scored, the 1961 Detroit Tigers (101-61, +2.47) did. Just as significantly, the Tigers led the league in runs scored in road games. Their 51-30 road record was the best in the majors. The Tigers also spent most of the first half of the season in first place.
This season was, of course, Norm Cash’s great year (.487 OBP, .662 SLG, 119 runs scored, 132 RBI), a year for which he later earned notoriety by “admitting” he had used a corked bat. While Cash was a fine hitter, albeit an underrated one, for most of his career (and it pains me to say that given his disparaging comments about my hometown), his 1961 season was amazingly out of context with anything else he did. His 1148 OPS was far better than his second best mark of 903 and his 11.58 RC/27 was way beyond his second best figure of 7.67. While Cash did play much of his career during the “second dead ball era” from 1963 through 1968, even relative to the league his 1961 numbers look like they were taken from someone else’s career.
Besides Cash, the Tigers had a lot of players who had good years in 1961. Rocky Colavito hit 45 homers slugging .580, had a .402 OBP, scoring 129 runs with 140 RBI. Al Kaline had a good year (what else is new?): .515 SLG, .393 OBP, 116 runs scored and won the fourth of his ten Gold Gloves. Detroit’s top three starters, Jim Bunning, Frank Lary, and Don Mossi, pitched 784 innings with a combined 3.14 ERA (AL ERA was 4.02) and a 55-27 record.
The Tigers, who finished in sixth place with a 71-83 record in 1960, were a fair team from 1962 through 1966. Their best record in that span was 89-73 in 1965, their worst was their 79-83 record in 1963. So like Norm Cash, the 1961 season was out of context for the Tigers during that period in their history.
Another heartbroken Dodgers team? The 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers (102-63, +2.86) continued the “tradition” of the 1942 and 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers by leading most of the way only to lose the pennant at the end. Like 1946 and 1951, the 1962 Dodgers lost in a pennant playoff.
Which team led the NL in runs scored on the road in 1962? It must have been the Giants, right? Wrong. The Dodgers were the only team in the league to score more than 400 runs on the road in 1962. The image of the Dodgers of this era as a team built on pitching, speed, and defense is in no small part an illusion created by Dodger Stadium. Frank Robinson told me that hitting there at night was like trying to hit in a cave. Here are the runs and home runs park indices for Dodger Stadium from 1962 through 1966:
The numbers show that Dodger Stadium suppressed run production by about 20 percent compared to other NL parks and cut home run rates by about 40 percent.
In road games only, the Dodgers were better at scoring runs than at preventing them. Here are their NL road ranks in runs scored and runs allowed from 1962 through 1966:
Only in 1966 were the Dodgers truly a team that lived on pitching and defense, and even then they were middle of the pack in runs scored in road games. The reason I am spending so much time on this issue is that this team, the 1962-66 Dodgers, had a great influence on many baseball people, an influence still seen today. When a baseball executive talks about “pitching, speed, and defense,” the odds are that he has been directly or indirectly influenced by these Dodgers teams. The facts, however, are very clear as to the nature of that team.
Despite their legacy, the Dodgers might have been able to win the 1962 NL pennant if it weren’t for Sandy Koufax’s finger injury which kept him out for more than two months. He didn’t pitch from July 18 through September 20. In eight starts between June 13 and July 12, Koufax pitched to a 0.53 ERA and was 6-2, including a no-hitter on June 30. Of course, some would say that Koufax’s injury was “inevitable” given the history of the franchise.
The Dodgers continued to contend, winning pennants in 1963, 1965, and 1966, until Koufax retired after the 1966 season. Their next first-place finish was 1974.
Although the 1985 New York Yankees (97-64, +2.90) didn’t spend any days in first place, due mainly to their poor start, they were one of the best bridesmaid teams of the century. From May 1st on, they were 91-52 and had a 42-20 record during the season’s final two months. Perhaps this would be a good place to explain how these teams were chosen. Basically, I used a simple formula: 5 times winning percentage times SD Score. Teams that scored well, but for all intents and purposes were already accounted for, like the 1909 Cubs and the 1954 Yankees, were not included. In addition, the team had to finish second. No third (or fourth) place teams were considered.
Rickey Henderson joined the Yankees via trade for the 1985 season and he had a marvelous year. In reality, he had a better year than Don Mattingly, his teammate who was named AL MVP. In road games, Henderson led all AL players in the two most important offensive numbers (really, the only two numbers that matter), OBP and slugging percentage. Overall, his .419 OBP ranked 4th in the league and he added a .516 slugging. He “threw” in a league-leading 80 steals in 90 attempts and scored 146 runs, 30 more than the second-best player, in just 143 games. Henderson did this while playing centerfield and becoming the only Yankees centerfielder to ever lead the majors in putouts per game.
The Yankees stayed in contention through 1988. From 1989 through 1992, they had four consecutive losing seasons (kind of hard to believe, isn’t it?), including a last-place finish in 1990.
Unlike the 1985 Yankees, the 1987 Toronto Blue Jays (96-66, +2.87) spent much of the season in first place during a pennant race that had four contenders in the AL East. The Blue Jays had a 3 1/2 game lead over Detroit with seven games left. Toronto lost all seven games, including the last three to the Tigers, and finished two games out of first.
The Blue Jays were good in all phases of the game. They were third in the league in runs scored and first in fewest runs allowed. Toronto actually had the best run differential and best SD Score of any team in the majors in 1987. George Bell, of course, was named AL MVP although Alan Trammell probably deserved the award more. Jimmy Key led the league in ERA while Tom Henke led the league in saves.
The way they lost the AL East title just two years after “blowing” a 3-1 lead in the ALCS led to this team getting the nickname “The Blow Jays.” I’m not sure Toronto really shook off the name until they won the World Series in 1992. In actuality, the Blue Jays, under the expert guidance of Pat Gillick, were one of the most successful teams since the beginning of divisional play. They had eleven consecutive winning seasons (1983-1993) and either finished in first place or within two games of first for seven straight years (1987-1993). Looking at that run objectively, one can only conclude that the Blue Jays of this era (is it long enough ago for me to say “of this era?”) achieved more than all but a handful of teams in recent history.