Benched in the Bronx: The Unsung 1927 Yankees

Bob Shawkey not only pitched for the 1927 Yankees, he was their pitching coach. (via Library of Congress)

Even more than nine decades later, when discussion turns to the greatest team of all time, the 1927 New York Yankees are usually the first team that springs to mind. The Yankees have had plenty of dominant teams since then, and a case can be made for any number of other squads (e.g., the 1907 Cubs, the 1929 Athletics, the 1976 Reds). But the ’27 Yankees remain a team to be reckoned with.

How could it be otherwise, with six Hall of Fame inductees (Earle Combs, Lou Gehrig, Waite Hoyt, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock and Babe Ruth) on the roster? Throw in a number of others (Joe Dugan, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel and Urban Shocker) who had distinguished careers, and the case appears to be closed.

But the major league roster has room for 25 players, and the above-named players amount to a total of 10. What about the other guys who played for the 1927 Yankees?

Surprisingly, the 1927 Yankees did not have a first-rate catcher. Wally Schang’s last season as a Yankee was 1925 (his last good year was 1924) and Bill Dickey did not arrive until 1928. Of course, the Yankees won pennants in 1926 and 1927, so the catching situation was hardly a drag on the team. The other position players provided enough offensive firepower. At the time, the ’27 Yankees set records for runs scored (976) and home runs (158), though the latter stat is a bit misleading, as the power was not evenly distributed (Ruth and Gehrig combined for 107 homers and Lazzeri chipped in 18, but nobody else was in double figures).

At any rate, the starting line-up could withstand a mediocre-hitting catcher. Given the talent on the pitching staff, it was more important to have catchers with defensive skills who knew how to handle pitchers. Offensively, there wasn’t much difference among the three members of the Yankee catching corps.

Pat Collins could be said to occupy the first-string slot simply because he had more at-bats (251) than the other two catchers. Arriving in the big leagues at age 22 with the Browns in 1919, he spent most of his time on the bench. After spending the 1925 season with St. Paul in the American Association, he was traded to the Yankees. The results in 1926 and 1927 were good. He had, respectively, a 131 and 122 wRC+. By 1928, his average was down to .221 in 136 at-bats, though with a 112 wRC+ he was still an above average hitter. Given that offensive drop-off and Dickey’s arrival, Collins became expendable, so it was back to the minors, where he spent the rest of his career, except for five at-bats for the Boston Braves in 1929. After 10 seasons in the big leagues, he retired with a .254/.378/.385 career line, 33 home runs, and 168 RBI.

Johnny Grabowski can be classified as the second-string catcher, off his accrual of 195 at-bats. After three seasons of limited duty with the White Sox, he was traded to the Yankees in time for the 1927 season. He performed capably, milking those 195 at-bats for a .277 average. Unfortunately, the results dropped off in 1928 and 1929. Like Collins, Grabowski became superfluous after Dickey arrived, and he too went back to the minors. He resurfaced with the Tigers in 1931 for 136 at-bats. Then it was back to the minors for two more seasons. His major league totals included a .252/.295/.314 line, three home runs, and 85 RBI.

Benny Bengough was clearly the third-string catcher in 1927 (84 at-bats) but he wasn’t originally considered an also-ran. After a six-season apprenticeship with Buffalo of the American Association, the then 24-year-old arrived in the South Bronx in 1923. Standing just 5-foot-7 and weighing a mere 145 pounds, his appearance inspired the nickname of “The Peter Pan of Baseball.”

Over the years, Bengough put on weight, and began to look more like a catcher. His defensive skills were considerable, but after injuring his arm in 1926 he was used sparingly in subsequent seasons. Even so, he logged eight seasons with the Bombers. He roomed with Gehrig and went hunting and barnstorming with Ruth. He finished his major league career with the Browns (1931 and 1932), with a 252/.295/.317 line, an anemic 59 wRC+, and 108 RBI. He never hit a big league home run.

Though he was never more than a part-timer, he was a familiar face on the Yankees of the 1920s. Eventually, he carved out some name recognition with the Phillies, for whom he served as a coach from 1946 to 1958. After he retired from the coaching staff, he served as a postgame TV host and goodwill ambassador for the team. He was still around in 1959 when Sparky Anderson was the team’s regular second baseman, so the erstwhile Peter Pan and the future Captain Hook (the result of Hall of Fame manager Anderson’s readiness to yank his starting pitcher) were on the Phillies payroll at the same time.

The catching corps handled a supremely talented staff. There must have been a paucity of arm injuries as only 10 men pitched for the Yankees all season. Hoyt, Pennock and Shocker all pitched 200 or more innings. But that stable of workhorses included a stall for a fourth, and eventually a dark horse candidate moved in.

Wilcy Moore, a 30-year-old rookie, started 12 games and came out of the bullpen 38 times, fashioning a 19-7 record in 213 innings with a staff-leading 2.28 ERA. His 1927 season was not entirely unexpected, as he had won 30 games for the Greenville Spinners of the Sally League the year before. He was a late bloomer in more ways than one, as he did not begin his minor league career till age 25.

Unfortunately, glory was fleeting, as his post-1927 career with the Yankees and Red Sox would show. After six seasons, his major league career stats were 51-44 with a 3.70 ERA. Though his overall record was modest, he could legitimately claim he was a key member of the 1927 Yankees. As Dizzy Dean observed, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it. And in 1927, Wilcy Moore did it. But not in subsequent seasons.

Walter Ruether was nicknamed Dutch, as was the case with many a ballplayer of Teutonic lineage. (If the name sounds familiar, it may be because it is similar to Walter Reuther, longtime head of the United Auto Workers union.) A 10-year veteran who had met with some success (124-89), he had pitched for the Cubs, Reds, Dodgers and Senators before he was traded to the Yankees late in the 1926 season. He was 33 years old in 1927, his only full season with the Yankees and his last in the majors. He went out in fine fashion, with a 13-6 record after 184 innings and 27 games (26 as a starter) with a 3.38 ERA.

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His reputation as a hardheaded hell-raiser apparently kept other major league teams from seeking his services. He was not quite washed up, as he went to the San Francisco Seals (he was a native of the Bay Area) in 1928 and won 29 games in 303 innings. After that, his usage went down each season, until 1935, when he pitched 5.1 innings for the Seattle Indians, for whom he had assumed managerial duties the previous season.

Ruether accrued a very creditable 137-95 record with a 3.50 ERA over his major league career. As a member of the pennant-winning 1919 Reds, he led the league in winning percentage (.760 based on 19-6). He started and won the first game of the World Series, but since he was pitching against the Black Sox, his achievement was tainted through no fault of his own.

George Pipgras was also a rookie pitcher. He had briefly pitched for the Yankees in 1923 and 1924 but did not arrive to stay till 1927. His ERA of 4.11 was a bit on the high side, but his 10-3 record in 166.1 innings made for an encouraging rookie campaign. In 1928 he laughed in the face of the sophomore jinx by leading the league in wins (24) and innings pitched (300.2). When he finished his playing career (hastened by a broken arm) in 1935, he was 102-73 with a 4.09 ERA. He eventually got back into the game as an umpire, serving in the American League from 1939 to 1945. He was one of a select few who had World Series experience as a player and an umpire.

Myles Thomas hailed from State College, Pennsylvania, and was a college star at – surprise! – Penn State. Embarking on a professional career at age 23, he did not appear headed for the big leagues until he went 28-8 for Toronto of the International League in 1925. Obviously, his stock rose after that season and he made his major league debut with the Yankees in 1926. His rookie year (6-6, 4.23) was more or less a microcosm of his career (23-22, 4.64).

For the ’27 Yanks he appeared in 21 games (nine as a starter), and contributed seven victories in 88.2 innings despite a 4.87 ERA. After a slow start in 1929, he was traded to the Senators, with whom he finished his major league career in 1930, though he soldiered on in the minor leagues, winning 67 games for several teams in the American Association from 1931 to 1935. Somehow he was coaxed out of retirement at age 42 to pitch for the Class-D Tiffin Mud Hens of the Ohio State League.

Bob Shawkey really doesn’t belong in this survey. So why is he here? He looms large in Yankees franchise history, but by 1927 was a marginal member of the pitching staff (19 appearances, 43.2 innings pitched, and a record of 2-3). He was 36 years old, serving as both pitcher and pitching coach, and 1927 was his last year in the majors.

But he had pitched with distinction for the Yankees since 1915 and had four 20-win seasons. He had the honor of starting the first game ever in Yankee Stadium in 1923. When he retired with a record of 195-150 and a 3.09 ERA, he was the franchise career leader in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, shutouts and saves (not that anyone was counting them at the time). One could argue that by 1927, he was entitled to rest on his laurels while sitting in the bullpen.

His one-year career as manager, with the 1930 Yankees, resulted in a record of 86-68, an improvement over 1929, but not enough to enable him to retain his job once Joe McCarthy became available. In his ’60s, he managed the Dartmouth College baseball team from 1952 to 1956.

Joe Giard was a southpaw with the nickname of Peco. In 1924, at age 25, he went 20-17 with the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. Even more noteworthy, he logged 328 innings. In 1925 he made his major league debut with the Browns, then was traded to the Yankees before spring training in 1927. He appeared in 16 games (27 innings) for the Yanks in 1927 and was ineffective (8.00 ERA). Without combing the box scores, I think it’s reasonable to assume he was a mop-up man. He had no decisions in those 16 appearances, so more than likely he was not out there when the game was on the line. At any rate, he never pitched in the big leagues after 1927.

Walter Beall was the Moonlight Graham of the ’27 Yankee pitching staff. One inning pitched, one earned run, a 9.00 ERA. For his career, he was 5-5 with a 4.43 ERA in 124 innings pitched in five seasons. After a 25-8 season for Rochester of the American Association in 1924, he (and the Yankees) probably anticipated better. The most memorable thing about Beall was his middle name of Esau. There are a number of Old Testament characters worthy of namesakes but Esau was not one of them.

Among position players, the Yankee part-timers were, for the most part, nondescript. But that does not mean their careers are not worth exploring.

Ben Paschal was a handy fourth outfielder. In 1927, he hit .317/.349/.549 with a 128 wRC+ in limited appearances (26 for 82). He broke in with the Indians in 1915 by breaking up a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth. As it turned out, that was not only the first hit of his career but his only hit of the season – but he was only 19. He resurfaced briefly with the Red Sox in 1920, but then it was back to the minors till 1924 when he was acquired by the Yankees.

He was 29 years old in his official rookie season of 1925 and impressed greatly. In 247 at-bats, he hit .360/.417/.611 and a 155 wRC+ while filling in for an ailing Bambino early in the season. In 1926, he tailed off a bit, going 74 for 258 (.287). After that, he never had more than 82 at-bats in a season. Nevertheless, when he retired after the 1929 season, he had a .309/.369/.488 career line with a 120 wRC+.

One suspects a number of teams inquired about him, and he could have played regularly for a lot of them. On the other hand, as a member of the Yankees, he had a reasonable expectation of cashing a World Series check. Though he played only briefly in the World Series in 1926 and 1928, he was also on the post-season roster in 1927. Since regular season salaries were relatively small in those days, a World Series check could double the salary of a fringe player. And the huge capacity of Yankee Stadium (62,000 in 1927) maxed out the payout. So if Paschal ever felt disgruntled about lack of playing time, he did have consolation prizes. He probably made more money sitting on the Yankee bench than he would have playing regularly for any other team.

Cedric Durst broke in with the Browns in 1922 and remained with them through 1926. Along with Giard, he was traded to the Yankees on February 8, 1927. He played all three outfield positions plus first base. Offensively, 1927 was hardly a memorable season, as he hit just .248/.281/.326 and a 58 wRC+, with no home runs in 129 at-bats. Nevertheless, he remained with the Yanks till he was traded to the Red Sox (he was hitting a mere .158 at the time) during the 1930 season, his last in the majors. That final year was his busiest: he hit .245/.290/.351 in 302 at-bats with the Red Sox. It was a suitable swan song, as he retired with a lifetime line of .244/.294/.351.

His contributions to the Yankees from 1927 till 1930 were minimal, yet his contribution to the franchise continued by proxy. When Durst (and $50,000) went to the Red Sox, the Yankees received Red Ruffing, who went on to win 231 games for them, pitched in seven World Series, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1967. This deal is not quite as notorious as the 1919 Babe Ruth deal, but the day of the Red Ruffing trade (May 6, 1930) is a day that should live in infamy in Red Sox history.

Mike Gazella (memorably nicknamed Gazook) stood eye to eye with Benny Bengough —he was also 5-foot-7. Arriving in the Bronx in 1923 for a cup of coffee, he returned in 1926 when he was 30 years old. As a utility infielder, he acquitted himself well in 1927, hitting .278/.403/.417 with a 119 wRC+. Given his size, power was not expected, but he did come up with eight doubles and four triples, which gave him that .417 slugging percentage. That is not exactly headline news, but for Gazella it was really muscling up.

Like Bengough, he never hit a home run in the majors. Unlike Bengough, he never got another extra base hit after 1927. In 1928, he hit just .232 with a slugging percentage to match. At age 32, he had become expendable. He went back to the minors, where he played, at various levels with varying levels of success, through age 43 in 1939.

Ray Morehart hit more home runs than Mike Gazella – but just barely. His one and only major league home run came in 1927. Morehart, a backup middle infielder, debuted with the White Sox in 1924 but returned to the minors for more seasoning in 1925. After hitting .330 for the Wichita Izzies of the Single-A Western League, he returned to the White Sox for a full rookie year in 1926. He hit .318 in 192 at-bats, which obviously enhanced his trade value, as he and Johnny Grabowski were traded to the Yankees in the offseason. His stats for the ’27 Yanks were mediocre (.256/.353/.328) so it was back to the minors. For good. For six more seasons.

Julie Wera’s career bears a close resemblance to that of Morehart. Like Morehart, he had just one major league home run. But he did a good job of picking his spot. It came in the second game of a double-header against the Senators at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1927. A then-record SRO crowd of 74,000 was on hand. It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Wera, as the 25-year-old rookie had been on the squad all season, but didn’t get his first hit till June 12. Wera’s baseball resume included a stint with the Peerless Chains, an amateur team so called because it was sponsored by the Peerless Tire Chain Company of Winona, Minnesota.

By all accounts, he was a sure-handed third baseman. Ironically, pre- and post-baseball, he worked as a butcher. His MLB career was restricted to a mere 42 at-bats in 1927 and 12 in 1929, but his brief time in the majors had a bizarre postscript. In 1948 there were news reports about Julie Wera’s death by suicide. Wera did not die until 1975, so he was probably surprised to find out that a California man had been passing himself off as Julie Wera during the last year of his life. Well, if you’re going to pass as a member of the ’27 Yankees, you need to pick one of the more obscure players. No information superhighways back then, so you could probably pull it off if you were more or less the same size and had done sufficient research on the player’s background.

Like any other outstanding team, the 1927 Yankees had a number of outstanding individuals, some who were merely good, and some who were not. Some rarely saw their names in box scores. Yet they were all members of a legendary assemblage of baseball talent. So if there’s any lesson to be learned from the benchwarmers of the ’27 Yankees, it’s this:

They also serve who only sit and wait.

References and Resources

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Paul G.
Paul G.

I looked up Giard’s box scores. He never came in a game where the Yankees had the lead, but he did enter three games with the score tied and Yankees won two of those games. The amusing thing is he pitched badly in both games that they won, and pitched decently in the game that they lost.

In the May 20 game, Giard and Beall both pitched and gave up a run each. If they had shutdown the opponents, the Yankees would have won, probably. Again, amusingly, Giard did not pitch bad in that game either.