Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How Do We Track the Dominant Team Championship Belt? (Part 1)

Over at Grantland, they've posted a bunch of features about the "Championship Belt" holders in various fields. Those articles basically determined who mattered most over the years in various areas of sports and pop culture. Two of my favorite editions in the series were Bill Simmons' Action Hero Championship Belt and Bill Barnwell's Pitching Championship Belt.

I've decided to apply* the idea of the Championship Belt to outline the most dominant sports teams in history. Which teams in the four major American sports have held most of the national spotlight, and for how long? I wanted to examine that question for two reasons:
1) I love the Championship Belt gimmick and its ties to pro boxing and wrestling.
2) I'm all for any list that will prominently feature a bunch of Yankees teams.

*By apply, I actually mean steal, but that's just semantics.

Some of our most dominant teams, like the 1970s Steelers and the Bulls of the '90s, have more staying power than others, such as the early-'80s Islanders. Still, each of those teams held the Championship Belt for a few years.

Before we retroactively pass out the Dominant Team Championship Belt, here are a few rules to keep in mind:
  • Dominant teams are usually easy to spot. The belt is held by each team for as long as it dominates the sports conversation in the United States. That almost always entails at least one memorable championship run that garners a great deal of media attention. 
  • It takes true dominance to steal the belt away. This point should go without saying, but it's extremely important. It takes a lot to knock the top team off its perch. The most recent season matters the most, but it isn't necessarily enough to change the titleholder. So even if a team like the 1931 Philadelphia Athletics didn't win the championship, it retained the belt because no other team dominated enough to rise to the top.
  • Cultural relevance matters. The title of "most dominant team" goes beyond the playing field. Teams with transcendent cultural icons (Babe Ruth, Joe Namath, Michael Jordan) should expect to fare better than teams without such recognizable superstars. A great nickname (e.g., The Steel Curtain, The Big Red Machine) or pop culture crossover appeal (e.g., "The Super Bowl Shuffle," Space Jam) also helps.
  • We'll start in the 1920s. Since we're strictly confining this list to pro sports, we'll skip over the early part of the 20th century, when boxing and horse racing dominated the American consciousness. However, even using the '20s as an arbitrary starting point, we should be prepared to see a bunch of baseball teams as the earliest Belt-holders. If you're not a fan of MLB, skip to 1956.
  • Subjectivity = Fun. I realize that this list is incredibly arbitrary, and that's by design. I will factor subjective measures like "coolness" into my decisions, so feel free to hit me over the head with a beer bottle if you disagree with me. Now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, let's track the history of the Dominant Team Championship Belt! 
1921-1922: New York Giants
By virtue of back-to-back World Series titles, John McGraw's Giants were the inaugural holders of the Championship Belt. McGraw is the most recognizable name on that Giants roster, unless you count an average outfielder named Casey Stengel. Nevertheless, this was certainly a dominant team, one that compiled a 187-120 record over these two regular seasons.

The iconic Polo Grounds added to this team's cultural significance. However, the Giants would soon be dethroned by the team it defeated in the World Series in both '21 and '22...

1923-1928: New York Yankees
Lists of dominant pro sports teams often begin with Babe Ruth's Yankees. In 1923, they finally won their first championship several years after Ruth began dominating the American League.

It's hard to overstate Ruth's dominance of both the sport and the nation's attention. There's the stat about Ruth hitting more home runs than any other team in the A.L., and he did that twice (1920 and 1927). There are also the countless myths about Ruth's eating, drinking, kindness to little kids, and larger-than-life personality that make it difficult to separate reality from fiction.

Photo via ossports.homestead.com
Even though the Yanks won "just" three championships in this six-year period, their enduring relevance allowed them to retain the Belt until 1928. The 1927 Yankees are still invoked in comparisons to other teams, usually to show that the other team is "not exactly the '27 Yankees." Additionally, the cultural terminology associated with these teams ("House that _________ Built," "Murderer's Row," even "Lou Gehrig's Disease") is still pervasive today.

1929-31: Philadelphia Athletics
Connie Mack's A's won over 100 games in each of these three seasons, capping two of those campaigns with World Series titles and the '31 season with a runner-up finish. In a 1996 Sports Illustrated story about the team, William Nack wrote that "according to most old-timers who played in that era, the 1927 and '28 Yankees and the 1929 and '30 Athletics matched up so closely that they were nearly equal, with the A's given the nod in fielding and pitching and the Yankees in hitting."

Anchoring that A's pitching staff was the immortal Lefty Grove, who led the league in ERA, strikeouts, and win-loss percentage in each of these three years. Remember, this was a time period when those were three of the only stats upon which pitchers were judged. Incidentally, Grove also earned Barnwell's Pitching Championship Belt from 1928-32.

In terms of cultural relevance, these Philadelphia teams are remembered for Mack's suits and the proliferation of the nickname "A's." Oh, and I didn't even mention the Hall Fame position players (Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane) that suited up for the squad.

1932-1941: New York Yankees
The Yankees won a championship in '32 then didn't capture another title until '36. However, during that dry period, no other team won more than one title. The Yankees retained the Belt through those years by virtue of their location in the media capital of the world and their star power. Ruth still played for the team until '35 and Gehrig remained productive until '38. In '39, he gave a speech you might have heard.

After '36, there's no debate about whether the Yankees' play on the field warranted the Belt. Joe DiMaggio hit .323 as a rookie that year and the team won championships in each of his first four seasons. In '39, the Yanks were historically great, going 106-45 as one of only 14 teams to ever post a winning percentage above .700.

Culturally, "Joltin' Joe" lives on to this day through Simon and Garfunkel on classic rock radio stations and old photos of himself and Marilyn Monroe.

1942-46: St. Louis Cardinals
Despite the Yankees' thorough dominance of the previous decade, the "Gashouse Gang" Cards of '34 could have made a case for the Belt. Regardless, during World War II, St. Louis grabbed a pretty strong hold on the title.

Stan Musial tore up American League pitching as soon as he was called up, hitting at least .310 in each of his first 16 seasons. Stan the Man also missed just one year (1945) due to military service, leading the Cardinals to World Series championships in '42, '44, and '46.

The '46 Cardinals also featured one of baseball's most memorable plays, Enos Slaughter's "Mad Dash" from first to home on a single in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

But alas, the Cardinals relinquished the Belt in '47 to a familiar foe...

1947-53: New York Yankees
Ho hum, yet another Yankees dynasty. DiMaggio's team became Berra's team during this period. Yogi led these Yankees to six championships in seven years to set the tone for a career in which he'd win 10 rings.

Yogi maintains his cultural relevance even today. Other highlights from these seasons include five World Series wins against the crosstown rival Giants and Dodgers, Mickey Mantle's debut, DiMaggio's retirement, Ruth's death, and the start of Casey Stengel's run as manager. So, yeah, there was some stuff to talk about.

Don Larsen's perfect game and the infamous Copacabana Incident wouldn't happen until later in the decade, but the Yankees were still the unquestioned keepers of the Belt.

1954: Cleveland Indians
Not to be confused with the Cleveland Spiders, these Indians were one of the best teams ever, steamrolling the A.L. on their way to a 111-43 record. Their .721 winning percentage is the best since the Dead Ball Era. I'd say that's pretty dominant.

1955: Brooklyn Dodgers
Another one-year wonder, the Dodgers brought their first and only title to Brooklyn in the magical summer of '55, spawning countless books and magazine articles romanticizing the team.

These Dodgers featured the first African-American pro athlete (Jackie Robinson); another black trailblazer (Roy Campanella); one of the greatest pitchers ever (Sandy Koufax); four Hall of Fame players (Robinson, Campy, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider); a Hall of Fame owner (Walter O'Malley) and manager (Walter Alston); an outfielder who would later become a legendary manager (Tommy Lasorda); and a light-hitting infielder who would become a legend in his own right (Don Zimmer). They also had a young announcer named Vin Scully who would eventually announce that he'd remain in the press box until at least 2015.

1956-58: Montreal Canadiens
Okay, so here's where this exercise starts to get fun. Professional hockey, football, and basketball all achieved varying degrees of prominence during the '50s, and all featured dynasties that challenged baseball's stranglehold on the Dominant Team Championship Belt.

The Canadiens of the late-'50s were probably most dominant hockey team ever. The Habs skated circles around the rest of the Original Six with a who's who of the early NHL: Jean Beliveau, the Richard Brothers, and Jacques Plante. These teams gave birth to Canadiens lore, and Plante gave hockey one of its greatest innovations:

Made specially for goalies who don't like taking pucks to the face! (Photo via lapresse.ca)
The Habs won five consecutive Stanley Cup titles from '56-60, but they were overtaken in '59 by another remarkable dynasty...

1959-66: Boston Celtics
These Celtics were the most dominant NBA team ever, winning eight straight titles, a feat that's never been equaled. Boston is remembered for Bill Russell's dominance, Red Auerbach's victory cigars, and the team's rosterful of Hall of Famers.

As was mentioned, the Celtics stole the Belt from the Canadiens even as the Habs won two more Cups. Boston's unparalleled run of dominance even denied the Belt to some great Yankees teams, most notably the one from the the immortal summer of '61. But when the Celtics finally faltered in '67, a football team finally took over... 

1967: Green Bay Packers
The NFL grew in popularity during the 1950s, culminating with the famous Colts-Giants championship at Yankee Stadium in '58. The brilliance of the Canadiens prevented those Colts from hoisting the Belt, allowing the Packers to become the first pro football team to capture it.

In '67, Green Bay won Super Bowl II as well as its fifth NFL championship in seven years. The Packers went just 9-4-1, a relatively pedestrian record for a titleholder. Still, the Pack was powered by legendary coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr, two immortals of American sport.

The Packers' Championship Belt in '67 began a long stretch of one-year titleholders.

1968: New York Jets 
Like the '67 Packers, the Jets didn't exactly dominate all season on the field, going 11-3 in the comparatively weak AFL. However, Joe Namath and his teammates remain one of the most famous units ever. The Jets' upset of the heavily-favored Colts in Super Bowl III once again prevented Johnny Unitas' squad from donning the Dominant Team Championship Belt.

In '68, Russell's Celtics won yet another NBA title, but they were no match for Broadway Joe's cultural appeal.

Namath didn't need the Belt to keep his pantyhose up, but he earned it with his Guarantee and one of the biggest upsets ever. The Jets technically didn't win the Super Bowl until January of '69, but we'll count 1968 as their Championship Belt Season.*

*This is a recurring issue with Super Bowl winners. We'll award the Belt for the year when the football season started. Conversely, as you might have already noticed, we'll give football and hockey teams the Belt in the years when they completed their title runs.

1969: New York Mets
Maybe this is just my New York bias, but the '69 Mets were one of the biggest sports stories ever. The team had two of the most enduring nicknames ever, making both "Miracle Mets" and "Amazin' Mets" stick.

After their inception in 1962, the Mets made a habit of losing 100 games, becoming even more of a laughingstock than they are today. However, in '69, they turned the tables, winning 100 and cruising to a World Series title.

The Mets' pitching staff featured star power, with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman leading the way and a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan coming out of the bullpen. Still, it's hard to look at the Mets' everyday lineup from that year and not see their World Series win as a small miracle.

1970: New York Knicks
The Knicks continued New York City's era of good feelings as they trotted out one of the most famous teams of all-time. Tons of books have been written about that season (Pete Axthelm's The City Game is my favorite), and many old-timers still wax poetic about the Knicks' team basketball.

Teamwork should not be confused with lack of star power, though, as New York featured a bunch of intriguing personalities. Walt "Clyde" Frazier was the stylish point guard, Bill Bradley was the Rhodes scholar (literally), Dave DeBussschere was the blue-collar worker, and Willis Reed was the unquestioned leader. Willis Reed also had the "Willis Reed Game":

Never mind that Frazier dominated that game. What really mattered was that the Knicks emerged victorious in Game 7 and gave birth to many enduring legends. They also kept the Dominant Team Championship Belt in New York for a third straight year.

Click here for Part 2 of this post.

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  1. Couldn't just finish the dam thing?

    1. Glad you're on the edge of your seat!

      I have every year outlined; I just need to finish the write-ups. You'll see it tomorrow or Thursday.