A league divided: Part 2 (1926-1952)

As a sequential successor to this article, we look at historical leagues if they were given divisions and had unbalanced schedules, playing about 55 percent of their games against their division. Full methodology is given in the previous article, but for ease of reference, here are the four divisions we’re dealing with in 1926-1952, when the Yankees truly gained dominance and teams went moribund until they got to move:

AL East         AL West        NL East       NL West
Boston          Chicago        Boston        Chicago
New York        Cleveland      Brooklyn      Cincinnati
Philadelphia    Detroit        New York      Pittsburgh
Washington      St. Louis      Philadelphia  St. Louis

As in the previous article, I’ll lay out all the division winners under this method and then comment on anything that wound up truly different than a simple break into divisions.

It’s worth noting that the three-game/one-game playoffs started in 1946; I subtracted those totals out for these results.

The winners from 1926-1952:

       AL East       AL West       NL East       NL West
1926   Yankees       Indians       Giants        Reds/Cards
1927   Yankees       Tigers        Giants        Pirates
1928   Yankees       Browns        Giants        Cardinals
1929   Athletics     Browns        Giants        Cubs
1930   Athletics     Indians       Dodgers       Cardinals
1931   Athletics     Indians       Giants        Cardinals
1932   Yankees       Indians       3 teams       Pirates
1933   Senators      Indians       Giants        Pirates
1934   Yankees       Tigers        Giants        Cardinals
1935   Yankees       Tigers        Giants        Cubs
1936   Yankees       Tigers        Giants        Cardinals
1937   Yankees       Tigers        Giants        Cubs
1938   Yankees       Indians       Giants        Cubs
1939   Yankees       White Sox     Dodgers       Reds
1940   Yankees       Tigers        Dodgers       Reds
1941   Yankees       White Sox     Dodgers       Cardinals
1942   Yankees       Browns        Dodgers       Cardinals
1943   Yankees       Indians       Dodgers       Cardinals
1944   Yankees       Browns        Giants        Cardinals
1945   Yankees       Tigers        Dodgers       Cubs
1946   Red Sox       Tigers        Dodgers       Cardinals
1947   Yankees       Tigers        Dodgers       Cardinals
1948   Red Sox       Indians       Braves        Cardinals
1949   Yankees       Indians       Dodgers       Cardinals
1950   Yankees       Tigers        Phillies      Cardinals
1951   Yankees       Indians       Dodg./Gia.    Cardinals
1952   Yankees       Indians       Dodgers       Cardinals

It’s pretty obvious that some teams needed to move for competitive balance; divisions don’t really help some of the failing franchises. Even in those random years where the Yankees didn’t win pennants in real life, they get to the playoffs, where their veteran experience would take them into the World Series … or something.

In any event, here are sundry stories out of the list.

1926 Reds/Cardinals

The first pennant for the Cardinals in real life and theirs subsequent heroics in the World Series (Pete Alexander/Tony Lazzeri/etc.) may not have worked out, as the Reds might have beaten them for the NL West here. These Reds were some holdovers from the 1922-23 squad discussed earlier, but outside Dolf Luque and Eppa Rixey, the pitching staff tended to shift in this era, though the team kept coming up with quality. In this year, Luque and Rixey were supported by a youngster and a veteran, Pete Donohue and Carl Mays. The six-man pitching staff threw all but about 50 innings, and they all had ERA+ figures of 101 to 118; there was a good shot to win no matter who was there.

The offense was pretty nice as well; this was the year of catcher Bubbles Hargrave‘s batting championship (his OPS+ was 151, so the rest of his game wasn’t that bad either); Edd Roush was supported in the outfield by what was probably Curt Walker‘s best year offensively (20 triples looks nice any day) and rookie miracle Cuckoo Christensen (135 OPS+; he would nosedive and be out of the majors after the next season) and with a post-Gehrig Wally Pipp at first base. The team had a lot of 33- to 35-year-olds, and this squad would be the last one in the first division until 1938, but it was certainly intriguing (how many teams in that era thrived off multiple ex-Yankees, especially before interleague trading?) and too easily forgotten.

This, by the way, was another year when the East was the entire second division of the league; the Giants get in like they always did in this era, but off a losing record. When your only competition was the Braves, Dodgers and Phillies, it wasn’t hard. It’s kinda like the AL Central of the ’90s in hypothetical land: “So, Mike Hargrove, do you think you can take all your tough competition this year?” “Is Kansas City still in the league?”

1929 Browns

The team finished two back of the third-place Indians (the A’s won the pennant in an anti-race) in real life, but gains five wins in the unbalanced schedule to win itsr second consecutive AL West crown. The Indians were best, oddly enough, against the second-place Yankees that year, but even that was a 14-8 record; they didn’t dominate anyone, but played solidly against most everyone. The Browns, on the other hand, were a .500 team except when they played the White Sox; their two other winning records were against the Indians and Tigers. How fortunate to be in a division with all the teams you’re good against!

The offense wasn’t good (though the OPS+ distributions in the AL that year were weird—three teams over 113 and everyone else below 100). Only three players achieved a 105 or greater OPS+, and one was 39-year-old catcher Wally Schang right at 105 in his last relevant year (though you gotta like his .237 BA with a .424 OBP. That’s just plain hard to do.). Lu Blue (116 OPS+) and Heinie Manush (127) were the rest of the offense; Schang and Blue combined for an absurd 200 walks against 54 strikeouts.

The pitching as a whole was better than the 1926 Reds at the front end and worse at the back; important figures were two guys known seemingly equally by their nicknames and first names, Sam/Dolly Gray (18-15, ERA under four, which was amazing in the day) and Alvin/General Crowder (17-15, also ERA under four). The Bill Hogg/Hank Thormahlen Award goes to third starter George Blaeholder. (What is it with third starters on forgotten teams having weird names? It’s a conspiracy.) It was a mediocre team by all accounts, one that would have been lucky to hold a lead against the Foxx-Simmons-Cochrane-Grove A’s of the day, but any excuse to look at a decent Browns team is good enough for me.

1930 Dodgers

In a hot potato pennant race, the Dodgers actually held the lead the longest but faded late to fourth place (though only six games back) and let the Cardinals seize the pennant. Here, though, they win the division over the third-place Giants, as they fared well against McGraw’s men and have their atrocious record against the Cubs minimized. The offense was okay here, proving rather typical aside from Babe Herman‘s 170 OPS+ that prophesied Larry Walker’s Rockies days (sure, the hitting was great in 1930, but .393/.455/.678 including 241 hits, of which 94 were extra-base, and 18 stolen bases to boot, is sick).

It was the pitching staff with its 122 ERA+, however, that provided the juice of contention. Dolf Luque (115) shows up here too, in his last full year as a starter, but he was the worst of the bunch, as Watty Clark (118), Ray Phelps (120) and Jumbo Jim Elliott (125) provided solid support for Dazzy Vance (189 along with 173 K’s, or almost a third of the team total).

My favorite performance was in the bullpen, though: Failed veteran Sloppy Thurston, a former 20-game winner for the White Sox but out of the majors since 1927, was a Rule 5 draftee who stuck as a swingman and put up the best ERA+ and peripherals of his career. (Strikeouts were just starting to outnumber walks in this era, but still this was one of only two Thurston seasons out of nine total with more strikeouts than walks.) And he went by Sloppy. I can’t find anything bad to say about that. And the pundits thought 2008 had a sloppy World Series…

The entire NL of 1932

This is my favorite by far. Not only are there four playoff teams for two divisions, but none of them are the Cubs, who actually won the pennant that year (the Pirates edge them by a game here in large part because in real life the Bucs went 13-9 against the Cubs).

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

And what of that three-way tie in a four-team division? Every team but the Giants makes the playoffs in this setup, all at 79-75. These teams may be best known for producing the only Phillies winning season amid about 30 losing ones, and boy was it an odd team. They could always hit—the Baker Bowl more or less lent itself to that sort of thing—but the pitching was sufficient to give them a solid team. For being in the Bowl, they only had two regular left-handed hitters, Chuck Klein (165) and Don Hurst (145), but Spud Davis, one of the best-hitting catchers of his era and (still very much above average in any era), checked in at 135, and outfielder Hal Lee (113) had loads of extra base hits to contribute.

The pitching staff was largely anonymous, but it was filled with solid denizens throughout the staff, in ridiculous contrast to Phillies staphs of that phase (why is it so fun to insert ph’s for f’s after the Phanatic did it?). We’ve seen Jumbo Elliott elsewhere, but he was no good on this team (he had won a league-leading 19 games the year before, so I forgive him). Ray Benge (108) was a reliably good pitcher for several years in the NL; Flint Rhem (117) was an unreliable but good pitcher for several years in the NL; Ed Holley (111) and Snipe Hansen (118) were not good pitchers in any year but this one; and then there was Phil Collins in the bullpen.

This team was chock full of good nicknames—Spud AND Kiddo Davis, a Snipe and a Jumbo. Too bad it didn’t make the playoffs. The team also was managed by Burt Shotton long before his Dodger stint; it would have been quite a feat to guide this team to the playoffs.

The Dodgers, in contrast to two years back, had offense but no pitching, as Dazzy Vance was old. The rotation did have Dazzy, the aforementioned Watty and Sloppy, and a rookie Van Lingle Mungo; can any team beat this rotation for CORN (Coolness Over Replacement Name)?

The offense was led by Lefty O’Doul (163) and Hack Wilson (141) with third outfielder Danny Taylor (135) semi-platooning with Johnny Frederick (129) for a rather productive unit. Taylor’s career is worth looking up; he didn’t play for long, but he was a solid platoon player for six years (career OPS+ was 121, off solid BA and healthy walk totals) and he contributed to every team he was on.

I’ve covered this Braves era previously, with nothing to add. For the Pirates, the notable developments were Arky Vaughan‘s solid rookie year and the pitching being led by Larry French and a gentleman named Steve Swetonic.

All in all, a year that with divisions would have been far more fascinating than it looks in the history books.

1934 Giants

As well they should have in the regular season, the Giants beat the Cardinals out for best record, though both make the playoffs. So much legend of the Gas House Gang is based on a team that was in first for only a few days of the season; the Giants led for pretty much the whole year even though the Cards had a 30-game winner in Dizzy Dean. I just don’t like how the landscape of the 1934 season in the popular mind focuses on how awesome the Cardinals were that year, and how the Giants are completely forgotten. Maybe awesome is a euphemism for loud or aggrandizing. Would have been nice of Frankie Frisch to clarify this for us…

1936 Cardinals

The Cards and Cubs tied in the real life, but the East/West splits for the Cubs are startling; 15-7 against Brooklyn and 16-6 each against Boston and Philadelphia, but .500 against everyone else. The Cardinals were the Gas House Gang, part 2, but with one notable addition: rookie Johnny Mize.

Mize isn’t as well remembered as he ought to be; he was bookended by pennants in St. Louis, his Giants years were the worst years for the franchise since the 19th century and he was a platoon guy by the time he hit the Yankees. But in his first 10 seasons, Mize’s lowest OPS+ was 156. In Albert Pujols‘s eight seasons, he’s dipped below 156 only once, but he has (mind you, only to 151). That’s how good Mize was in his day.

Oh yeah, Spud Davis also shows up on this team. Spud was ubiquitous. Beware the ubiquitous Spud.

1938 Giants

Not particularly different from the pennant winners of the previous two years other than that Carl Hubbell aged a bit. They do gain six games from the unbalanced schedule to tie the Cubs for best record in the NL (though they’re in different divisions to mitigate the caring somewhat). The focus is on the Cubs and Pirates looking historically at this season, but the Giants weren’t half-bad either.

1939 White Sox

Taking the AL West in this system (over Cleveland), these were the first White Sox to be relevant in a very long time. The team OPS+ was 88—putrid, I say!—but the starting pitching was solid, led by Ted Lyons (171) from the right side and randoms who were very good for a while together, including lefties Thornton Lee (112) and Eddie Smith (128) and righties Johnny Rigney (127) and Jack Knott (114).

Clint Brown‘s season as a reliever was noteworthy as Jim Baker points out this week; it got 11th in MVP voting. He went 11-10 with 18 saves; the only other seasons with at least that many of each stat were Mike Marshall in 1973-74, Rollie Fingers in 1976, Sid Monge in 1979 and Dan Spillner in 1982. Yeah, Clint stands out on that list a bit. Not to point out the glaringly obvious or anything… .

The 1940s

There are no divisions that are settled differently from an unbalanced or balanced schedule, but a few best records change: the Yankees over the Tigers in 1940 and 1945; the Dodgers over the Cardinals in 1942 and 1946, and the Cardinals over the Dodgers in 1949.

Because the Cardinals’ 1940s pennants were all in a row pretty much, and the Dodgers’ pennants followed them (with 1941 preceding), the back-and-forth nature of this rivalry isn’t remembered as strongly as it ought to be. The games of separation between the teams from 1945-1949 are, in order: eight, zero, five, one and one. They were also within three games of each other in 1941-42. I’ll take that as pretty close.

1951 Dodgers/Giants

Yep, they still would have tied. Most teams in the 1950s don’t change their win totals much in this system, contrasting with all the previous years. The reason I bring up this tie is that once you subtract out the three-game playoff from the head-to-head matchups; there’s only one team the Giants didn’t win at least 10 games against—the Dodgers. The Flatbushers went 13-9 against their crosstown rivals. While it’s remarkably easy to criticize the Ralph Branca relief decision, Chuck Dressen could be defended for having beaten the Jints quite a bit over that season and generally having a handle on what to do. Maybe that’s generous, but most of his moves up until then had produced solid results against the Durocherites.

Regardless, the winner of that would face Marty Marion‘s Cardinals, in his only year of managing them. Under this system, Marion is also the only manager to win the AL West from 1951-1961 and not be Al Lopez, which I’m sure says something, unless it doesn’t.

Next time

We’ll cover 1953 to 1968, where there’s not a whole lot of races to discuss, but a lot of moving and how it affected things.

References & Resources
B-ref on myriad subjects.

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