A reader named Jack wondered if the 1954 American League, the year of my Near-miss league New York Yankees team, was the most top-heavy league year of all time.
“Indians won 111, Yankees 103 and the White Sox 94 … the same total as their ’59 pennant winners but 17 behind in ’54. Then it was about a 25-game drop to the other five,” he wrote.
Exactly 25 games, in fact, to the 69-win Boston Red Sox, who finished 42 games out.
I responded that it was a good question, and if I were ever laid up with a broken leg or something I’d research it. Well, I overestimated how difficult it would be to research that question, which means I underestimated the usefulness of Baseball-Reference.com, which at this point in history there’s no excuse for doing.
So I looked into it. Now, I don’t know how to define the most top-heavy league, but let’s use Jack’s rough definition, the best combined record of the top three teams. The ’54 Indians, Yankees and White Sox combined to go 308-154, which for the mathematically sharp-eyed among you is easy to spot as a .667 winning percentage.
According to my research — a word about the research: I was sober and reasonably careful, but let’s not go betting the house on the results, OK? — those 308 wins were the most by any three teams in one league in one year between 1901 and 1968, which covers the so-called modern period before the advent of divisions. Even when the schedule expanded from 154 games to 162, in 1961 in the American League and ’62 in the National, no three teams ever combined to win 308 games.
Dividing the league into divisions, which happened in 1969, presented a different enough picture that I didn’t include that period in this survey. I mean, if one team in each of the West, Central and East combined to win 315 games, it wouldn’t feel like a top-heavy league. It would just feel like a series of one-sided division races.
But while 308 wins was the most by any trio, by winning percentage, the 1954 A.L. was only the third most top-heavy league in the period. The most top-heavy by that reckoning was the 1909 National League. The top three teams that year were Pittsburgh, with 110 wins, the Cubs with 104 and the New York Giants with 92. That’s only 306 wins, but for some reason the league schedule was only 153 games that year, not 154. And the Pirates had a rained out game they never made up. So the overall record of those three teams was 306-152, a winning percentage of .668.
The drop from the third-place Giants to the fourth-place Cincinnati Reds was only 15 games. The lopsidedness wasn’t spread as evenly as it would be in the 1954 A.L. The bottom three teams, Brooklyn, St. Louis and Boston, lost 98, 98 and 108 games respectively.
The top three in the N.L. in 1906 also had a better combined winning percentage than the ’54 A.L.’s top three — barely. But that’s a little misleading — a little like saying that King Kelly and I are the highest-scoring pair of guys named King in history with a combined 1,357 runs.
There was nothing special about the second- and third-place teams that year. The Giants won 96 games and the Pirates 93. But the Cubs were the winningest regular-season team ever, going an astounding 116-36, the only major league team to ever win three-fourths of its games. They won the league by 20 games — over a team that won 96.
Anyway, the combined 305 wins in, again, a 153-game schedule, with both the Cubs and Giants having one unplayed game, meant an overall record of 305-152, a winning percentage of .667. But that was better than 1954, because it was .6673, while the ’54 A.L. teams combined to go .6666.
So, by this measure anyway, the combined winning percentage of the top three teams, the 1954 American League was the third most top-heavy league in history, behind only the 1909 and 1906 National League. It was certainly the most top-heavy that anyone now living can remember. But if you measured it a different way — say, the distance between third place and fourth — you’d get a different answer.
By the way, the best third-place team I found in my little survey — and it only might be the best I noticed, not the actual best — was the 1962 Reds, who won 98 games but trailed both the Giants and Dodgers. They both won 101, then the Giants won two of three in a playoff.
Meanwhile, my ’54 Yankees just lost two out of three to the ’25 Washington Senators. We’re 7-5, one game behind the 2008 Red Sox. Next up, three at the 1977 Kansas City Royals, then back home to the Bronx for a four-game weekend set — we’re up to the last weekend of April — against the 2007 Cleveland Indians.