Take a stroll through Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, and you are instantly struck by the presence of greatness. Many of the finest players in baseball history enjoyed their best seasons while wearing the fabled pinstripes, a list dominated by Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger the game has ever known.
Examining the top offensive performances in franchise history, you could easily fill each spot with the Great Bambino’s exploits, including his 60-homer season in 1927 -- one of two times he out-homered every other team in the American League, a feat that will likely stand forever as his own.
With that in mind, we’ll cover Ruth in the leadoff spot, then allow him to share the spotlight with a few friends. Keep in mind that what Aaron Judge is doing this season in his hunt to break Roger Maris' AL record of 61 home runs will certainly land on this list when all is said and done. It'll just be a matter of where. But for now, here is our review of the top five single seasons by Yankees position players.
1. Babe Ruth, 1920
Your first thought might have been 1927, when Ruth set a single-season mark for homers that stood for more than three decades. But Ruth’s 1920 season stands out because he was playing a completely different game than the competition. No one had hit 30 home runs in a season to that point (Ruth set the record in 1919 with 29), then the Sultan of Swat went out and showed that it was possible to belt 54.
That was the first time Ruth outhomered the entire AL; the Browns were second, with 50 homers, and the Red Sox -- in their first season sans Ruth -- finished last, with 22. Ruth’s resulting 255 OPS+ is pure insanity. With a .376/.532/.847 slash line, Ruth led the league in runs (158), homers, RBIs (135), walks (150) and on-base percentage. His slugging percentage stood as a league mark until Barry Bonds eclipsed it in 2001.
Although we’re giving the nod to Ruth’s 1920, he was also magnificent in 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1931 -- really, there’s no wrong choice. There have been 14 double-digit bWAR seasons in franchise history, and Ruth owns nine of them. If you prefer OPS+, Ruth owns the top five slots, and nine of 14.
2. Lou Gehrig, 1927
The ’27 Yankees are widely remembered as one of the game’s most dominant juggernauts, and Gehrig was a key part of their success. He earned AL Most Valuable Player honors in a year when the Murderers' Row lineup powered the club to 110 wins and a sweep of the Pirates in the World Series.
Playing in all 155 games (naturally), Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765, leading the circuit with 52 doubles and a then-record 173 RBIs. He peppered his stat line with 149 runs scored, 18 triples and 47 homers. His 117 extra-base hits that season are second only to Ruth’s 119 in 1921, and his 447 total bases are third all-time. Gehrig’s 1930, ‘31 and ‘34 seasons are also especially worthy of mention.
3. Mickey Mantle, 1956
The debate over New York’s top center fielder raged for years in the city’s schoolyards and barrooms, and with no slight to Willie Mays or Duke Snider, “The Mick” was the correct choice in ’56. En route to earning the first of his three career MVP Awards, Mantle won the Triple Crown with a .353/.464/.705 slash line, pacing the Majors with 132 runs, 52 homers, 130 RBIs and 376 total bases.
Mantle edged Ted Williams of the Red Sox (.345) for the batting title, outslugged Vic Wertz of the Indians (32) by a healthy margin for the home run column and nipped the Tigers’ Al Kaline (128) in RBIs. Mantle capped it all with a terrific running catch that kept Don Larsen’s perfect game alive. You can make a case that Mantle’s 1957, ’61 and ‘62 seasons were on the same level, but ’56 was the year he’d later write about in a book titled “My Favorite Summer.”
4. Joe DiMaggio, 1941
DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak captivated the public from coast to coast in the summer of ’41, earning newsreel coverage and sending Americans to the morning box scores in hopes that the “Yankee Clipper” had come through once again. From May 15 to July 16, DiMaggio did, shattering Wee Willie Keeler’s previous record of 44 and establishing a mark that many consider to be unbreakable.
Joltin’ Joe batted .408 during the streak, boosting his stat line in a splendid season. In 139 games, he batted .357/.440/.643 with 193 hits, 43 doubles, 11 triples and 30 home runs, leading the Majors with 125 RBIs and 348 total bases. The exploits earned him the second of his three career MVPs. His MVP performance of 1939, when he led the Majors by hitting .381, is a close second.
5. Roger Maris, 1961
The epic pursuit of Ruth’s single-season home run record made for terrific drama, with the "M&M Boys" of Maris and Mantle battling for newspaper headlines and fans’ affections as they chased the ghost of the game’s most prolific slugger. It was a story well told years later in the Billy Crystal movie "61*," which continues to hold up if you’re in need of a nostalgic baseball fix.
It may be surprising that the numbers don’t rank Maris’ 1961 season as highly as one might expect. Yes, he set the mark with 61 homers, led the Majors with 132 runs and 366 total bases, and paced the AL with 141 RBIs. He had a slash line of .269/.372/.620 and an OPS+ that is the 43rd-best in franchise single-season history, while his 6.9 bWAR is 53rd.
The spaces between Ruth and Maris on the OPS+ and bWAR lists produce some interesting seasons -- lots of Monument Park names, plus Rickey Henderson (1985), Alex Rodriguez (2005, ’07), Bobby Murcer (1971) and Aaron Judge (2017). We’re giving the nod to Maris, in part because of the extra challenges he faced. No one has made a movie about the others -- at least, not yet.