May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The greatest American sports team of all time? It’s no contest: Any pool of sports experts you care to name will pick the 1927 Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig New York Yankees as the greatest, most dominant team of baseball’s modern age, and in America baseball is the measure of all things sporting. Want to extend the debate to the best back-toback teams? Toss in the ’28 Yankees and tell the fat lady to clear her throat.
I’m not about to tell you that those Yankee teams weren’t great. In 1927 they were a breathtaking 110-44 and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 in the World Series. The next year they went 101-53 and swept the St. Louis Cardinals in October. They had Ruth, Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, and a pitching staff headed by Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Urban Shocker (the old-time ballplayer with the name best suited for a ’90s grunge band). The Yankees of 1927 and 1928 were pretty darn good.
Not as good, though, as the team that followed them as American League champions over the next three seasons, the Philadelphia A’s. From 1929 through 1931 the A’s were 313-143 to the 1926-28 Yankees’ 302-160 (the A’s played fewer games because of rainouts). The ’27 and ’28 world champs were 211-97; the A’s ’29 and ’3O champs were 206-98. If you combine the ’29 and ’31 A’s, who somehow lost the World Series (to a St. Louis team they outscored, 22 to 19), you get 211-91, six games up in the loss column to the ’27-’28 Yanks. The A’s of that period had more great players than the Yankees or anyone else: Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and catcher Mickey Cochrane, and a pitching staff anchored by George Earnshaw, Rube Walberg, and the man many regard as the game’s greatest pitcher ever, Lefty Grove. And who remembers those great A’s teams today? No one, not even in Philadelphia.
No one at the time thought the Yanks of 1926-28 were better than the A’s of 1929-31, but over the years as the Yanks kept winning and the A’s sold off their best players (much as the Florida Marlins did last year) and eventually moved to Kansas City and, later, to Oakland, the legend of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig grew while the memory of Foxx, Simmons, Cochrane, Earnshaw, and Grove faded. The Yankees absorbed them in the collective memory of millions of baseball fans.
It seems odd to call the winningest NFL franchise of the ’90s—and most of the ’80s—“underrated,” but the San Francisco 49ers are not only underrated but underappreciated. The 49ers have won five Super Bowls since 1981 but only one since 1990; this would seem to put them well behind the Dallas Cowboys in the race for the unofficial team-of-the-decade title. But the Cowboys disintegrated for at least the next few years while the 49ers posted the league’s best record and were one game away from playing in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos (whom they beat during the regular season).
The 49ers have outlasted the Cowboys, just as they have outlasted the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, the Washington Redskins, and all other would-be dynasties over the last two decades. The San Francisco organization has a coherent, clear-headed approach to football based on progressive strategy on the field and humane treatment of players and coaches off of it. The Niners’ passing game, “the West Coast Offense,” stresses speed, cunning, and deception ahead of the traditional brute force associated with American football. A measure of how much the 49ers’ philosophy has caught on in pro football is the number of NFL teams currently coached by San Francisco alumni. The Minnesota Vikings went to the second round of the playoffs with Dennis Green, a former assistant of 49ers coach Bill Walsh; former Walsh aide Pete Carroll took the New England Patriots to the first round of the AFC post-season; and the Kansas City Chiefs, with a roster littered with former 49er players, lost in the post-season to the eventual Super Bowl winner, Denver. The NFC and AFC title games featured three teams out of four coached by men whom Walsh had a hand in selecting. No coach, no organization, has ever exercised so much influence on a sport in a single season.
When former 49er assistant coach Mike Holmgren faced off the Super Bowl against former 49er offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, Bill Walsh must have felt vindicated even if his old team didn’t make it to the championship game. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson on someone’s dullness, the San Francisco 49ers don’t merely win, they are cause of winning in others.