We typically associate the notion of a "superteam" with the NBA, where star players sometimes find the leverage necessary to coordinate their comings and goings in the name of building a championship-grade roster. So we don't necessarily think of Major League Baseball when pondering such machinations. However, the 2024 Los Angeles Dodgers have barged into the parlor to suggest that maybe we should start doing just that.
To chronicle that of which you are probably already aware, the Dodgers this offseason have invested more than $1 billion in guaranteed salary to two free agents – two-way superduperstar Shohei Ohtani, late of the Angels, and right-handed ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who was posted out of Japan. Ohtani's $700 million, , is the largest contract ever bestowed upon a professional athlete. Yamamoto's $325 million deal is narrowly the biggest ever for a pitcher and by a gaping margin the largest ever given to a player making the leap from Japan's NPB to MLB. In those ways, the Dodgers under lead operator Andrew Friedman have roved into not just uncharted territory but also largely unimagined territory.
Undergirding all of this is what the Dodgers, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Walker Buehler and recent trade acquisition Tyler Glasnow. There's also another noteworthy free-agent add in outfielder Teoscar Hernández. However you define the MLB analog of a "superteam," that's one., already had in place. They've made the playoffs in each of the last 11 seasons. Over the last half-decade, their average season has seen them play at a 107-win clip. Before adding Ohtani and Yamamoto to the fold, their roster already included the likes of
This brings us to the current exercise, which is an exploration of some carefully curated MLB superteams from the past. How you define such a thing is of course a subjective exercise. The first principle herein is that the superteam in MLB is not "merely" a great team, although there's of course a great deal of overlap. Otherwise, we could just tick off names like the 1906 Cubs, the 2001 Mariners, the 1998 Yankees and so forth and call it a job barely done. Really, the superteam designation is more about the assembling process paired with realistic aspirations of greatness. Whether greatness comes to pass at the level expected is not a primary consideration. After all, here we are pondering whether the 2024 Dodgers are a superteam before they've even played a game.
Moreover, we'll be looking at teams that in some ways innovated a particular means of player acquisition, advanced that means to new levels, or at least exemplified it in memorable ways. Again, it's subjective, but the burly presence of the 2024 Dodgers gives us occasion to define our terms and then explore them. Said terms duly defined, let's now get to the exploration of five squadrons that, it says here, embody the notion of the superteam in baseball and thus serve as "ancestors" to the team that added the likes of Ohtani and Yamamoto to an already juggernaut roster.
Money finds a way: The 1927 New York Yankees
The '27 Yankees were assembled some 50 years before the advent of free agency, a handful of decades before the draft was dreamed up, and even some time before minor-league teams functioned as affiliated farm clubs. These were the "wildcatter" days in which scouts combed the country in search of undiscovered baseball treasures and in which the more moneyed squads were able to use their financial might to buy talent from independent minor-league outfits. The construction of the 1927 Yankees by famed operator Ed Barrow entailed some of all of it – including one move that sent the arc of baseball history around a hairpin turn.
The second World Series winner in Yankees franchise history was the original "colossus from the Bronx" thanks to its star power and on-field dominance. The '27 model was of course helmed by the singular Babe Ruth, whose mighty swing and power outputs were like nothing the game had ever seen before. Famously and infamously, Ruth was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in what was less a trade than it was an exchange of assets. Sox owner Harry Frazee, prompted by financial strains that may or may not have become distorted over time, mandated a sale of Ruth, by then a two-way performer who was in the thick of a transition from moundsman to batsman. Frazee in December of 1919 sold Ruth's rights to the Yankees for a then-princely sum of $100,000 paid in installments plus a $300,000 loan from Yanks co-owner Jacob Ruppert. Frazee's manager, who guided the Sox to a World Series title in 1918, objected to the deal and to no avail admonished him, "You ought to know you're making a mistake."
Call it irony or coincidence, but Frazee's manager at the time was none other than Ed Barrow. After the 1920 season, Barrow followed Ruth to the Yankees. While Barrow had the title of business manager with his new employer, player-personnel decisions wound up within his purview. He also had substantial resources near at hand, as the Ruth phenomenon lifted the already financially imposing Yankees to an even higher stratum. One of his first moves was to hire away Red Sox coach Paul Krichell and make him the Yankees' lead scout. Another of his early maneuvers was to leverage his former team's precarious straits and acquire ace pitcher Waite Hoyt as part of a sprawling eight-player swap that, of course, also sent cash to Frazee.
In 1923, Barrow, at the urging of Krichell, signed local product Lou Gehrig out of Columbia University to a contract that entailed a $1,500 bonus and a monthly payment of $400 – a miserly deal that doubtless was enabled by the Gehrig family's poverty. Soon after the Yankees perpetrated, yes, another trade with the Red Sox, one that landed them starting pitcher Herb Pennock in exchange for three players and $50,000 cash. Pennock became the 11th player to be traded or sold from Boston to the Yankees in those recent years, and those former Sox talents formed the core of the Yankees team that would win the World Series for the first time in 1923.
The following year, Barrow and Yanks purchased fly-catcher Earle Combs from Louisville of the American Association for $50,000 and a pair of (much) lesser players. In the autumn of 1925, Barrow made what seemed a risky maneuver by sending the exact same package – $50,000 and a pair of (much) lesser players – to the Salt Lake City minor-league club for an epileptic second baseman whose offensive numbers were no doubt inflated by the lofty altitude. That second baseman was Tony Lazzeri, and suffice it to say Barrow's gamble was a sage one. Barrow spent more to flesh out what would be the legendary roster of the '27 Yankees. He bought Wilcy Moore out of the Sally League for $3,500, and the 30-year-old rookie emerged as a force in the bullpen. Another pair of core contributors to the '27 team – outfielder Bob Meusel and right-hander Urban Shocker – were purchased out of the minors before Barrow's time.
All those stars and near-stars led the '27 Yanks to some of the highest heights ever glimpsed in baseball and, it says here, superteam standing. They spent all 174 days of the season in first place. They out-scored the opposition by 376 runs. In games decided by five or more runs, they went 43-8. In their worst month, they won at a .615 clip. The final tallies:
Won World Series? Yes, 4-0 over the Pirates.
Hall of Famers: Six players — Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Hoyt, Pennock and Combs. Throw in Barrow and manager Miller Huggins and that's eight HoFers.
Down on the farm: The 1942 St. Louis Cardinals
For the earliest decades of organized-baseball history, minor-league teams largely functioned independently, outside of the occasional, somewhat informal working relationship with a major-league club. That began to change in 1921, when the National Association signed an agreement that permitted major-league franchises to purchase minor-league clubs. Soon thereafter, a young Branch Rickey, after transitioning from field manager to general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, began to take advantage of that new latitude like none other. In those prior years, big-league teams purchased the rights to minor-league players, and in the cases of the promising farmhands only after a vigorous bidding war. This, of course, advantaged the teams with the most resources – i.e., not Rickey's Cardinals, at least until a new owner came along.
Around the same time, the wealthy and free-spending Sam Breadon purchased the Cardinals, and he bankrolled Rickey's experiment. That experiment was to buy as many minor-league teams as possible so as to establish a lasting pipeline of talent for the Cardinals. Rickey and Breadon assiduously added team after team to their stable over the years – and on two occasions, shares of entire leagues – until the practice eventually earned the attention and ire of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's lordly and powerful first commissioner. Landis eventually made 74 Cardinal farmhands free agents in a ruling against Rickey's farm-system stratagem. Undaunted, Rickey would continue his work and take it to new breadths. As historian Pat Doyle wrote:
"By 1940, the Cardinals owned 32 teams and had working agreements with eight others, resulting in control of over 800 players."
During Rickey's tenure as general manager, the Cardinals would not purchase the rights of a single minor-league player, which is a reflection of the sprawl and strength of the farm system he and Breadon built. While that farm system played a key role in the Cardinals' three titles that came before it, the 1942 World Series-winning outfit perhaps most keenly embodied the approach. Almost every vital member of that team – Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Mort Cooper, Walker Cooper, Terry Moore, Marty Marion, Whitey Kurowski, Johnny Beazley, Max Lanier, Johnny Hopp, Jimmy Brown and Ernie White, among others – came out of the Cardinals' farm system. In all, every lineup regular, the team's top four starters, and most of the bullpen and bench came from within. Framed another way, homegrown Mort Cooper won the National League MVP that season for his peerless work on the mound, and eight other homegrown Cardinals received votes for the award.
The '42 Cardinals with all those former farmhands trailed the Dodgers for much of the season but wound up edging them out for the pennant and eventually winning the World Series. It's impossible to say when the descriptor "homegrown" became a statement of organizational merit in baseball, but maybe it traces back to Rickey's Cardinals. After that 1942 season, Rickey would move on to his next appointment with history, as lead executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Won World Series? Yes, 4-1 over the Yankees.
Hall of Famers: Two players — Musial and Slaughter. Rickey and manager Billy Southworth make it four.
The fruits of being first: The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers
The woefully belated integration of Major League Baseball, via the Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson and subsequent promotion to the big leagues in 1947, is mostly notable for its towering cultural importance. Being out front in the integration movement, however, also made the Dodgers a better team. Despite Rickey's claims of morally informed altruism in his decision to sign Robinson, that was no doubt his co-motivation – finding a competitive advantage for his Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey decamped for Pittsburgh after the 1950 season, but his successor with the Dodgers, Buzzie Bavasi, continued his work.
In 1955, the Dodgers went 98-55-1 during the regular season and at last topped the Yankees in the World Series, and it's no stretch to say their willingness to sign Black ballplayers before and more extensively than so many other teams was essential to that triumph. By late May of 1949, the Dodgers under Rickey had signed three current or near-future such stars – Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and ace right-hander Don Newcombe – before most other teams had signed their first Black player. At the time of Newcombe's addition, just two other teams, Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns, had broken their respective color lines. By the time the Dodgers opened the season of note in 1955, four teams – the Yankees, Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox – had yet to suit up a Black player at the highest level. That was a quarter of the league at that time. The Yankees would debut Elston Howard the day after the Dodgers played their first game of the '55 season. However, the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox would not permit a Black player to take the field until 1957, 1958 and 1959, respectively.
As for Rickey's and Bavasi's Dodgers, their overdue pioneering was essential to their success across multiple years, and that was especially the case in '55. By that point, Robinson was 36 and into his decline phase but still an important presence on the roster – important, of course, in ways that went beyond his on-field production. Campanella had one of his best seasons, as he cranked 32 home runs in 123 games with an OPS+ of 152 while manning the most premium position of all. The 1955 season also occasioned the onset of Newcombe's peak, as he went 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA and an MLB-leading K/BB ratio of 3.76. Campanella that season won the final of his three MVP awards, and Newcombe finished seventh in the balloting.
The story is more than "just" those three future Hall of Famers. Primary second baseman Jim Gilliam gave the Dodgers 3.5 WAR that season. Originally signed by the Cubs out of the Negro National League, Gilliam didn't rise out of the Cubs' system and was eventually returned to the Baltimore Elite Giants. Following the 1950 season, Bavasi and the Dodgers pounced and made Gilliam the starting second baseman for their top farm club in Montreal. By '53, Gilliam was in Brooklyn for good. He won Rookie of the Year laurels that year and allowed the Dodgers to move Robinson to multi-positional detail. Elsewhere, Cuban-born Sandy Amorós spent time in the Negro Leagues before Bavasi signed him in early 1952. By '54, Amorós was a core player for Brooklyn, and in '55 he was the team's primary left fielder. His catch in Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees that year was perhaps the most clutch snare in the annals of the Dodger franchise:
In the season prior of 1954, that same quintet – Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, Gilliam and Amorós – on July 17 against the Braves made the Dodgers the first MLB team ever to field a majority-Black lineup.
Finally, reliever Joe Black, who was signed at the same time as Gilliam and was Rookie of the Year in 1952 and later that season became the first Black pitcher to win an MLB World Series game, gave the Dodgers two months of quality bullpen work in 1955 before being traded to Cincinnati.
Without the contributions of all those Black players and the foundation laid for them by Robinson's arrival in 1947, the Dodgers don't win their first and only title before relocating to Los Angeles.
Won World Series? Yes, 4-3 over the Yankees.
Hall of Famers: Six players — Robinson, Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Sandy Koufax and Gil Hodges. Second-year manager Walter Alston would also make the Hall.
The new way: The 1972 Oakland A's
Over the years, MLB tried various measures to limit how much a team could spend to sign amateur and minor-league players. While these measures were typically taken under the auspices of competitive balance, they were at heart nothing more than an effort to limit labor costs. The "Bonus Baby" rule was one of the first of these. For almost two decades starting after World War II, amateurs signed to bonuses of $4,000 or more were required to be on the signing club's active major-league roster for at least two full seasons upon receiving the bonus. One of those famous bonus babies was a 19-year-old lefty pressed onto the roster of the aforementioned 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, name of Sandy Koufax.
Then came a concurrent effort toward the latter years of the Bonus Baby rule called the First-Year Player Draft, which would be held during the Rule 5 Draft starting in the winter of 1959. The first-year rule stipulated that any player signed as an amateur free agent would be subject to that draft after his first year in affiliated baseball if he wasn't added to the big-league roster of the club who signed him. This procedural wrinkle had the desired effect of giving clubs strong incentives not to invest heavily in amateur signees because of the possibility they could be plucked from them by a competitor. That apparatus prevailed until 1965, when MLB, taking a cue from rival leagues like the NFL, NBA and NHL, instituted its own form of an amateur draft, initially conducted in multiple phases in January and June but eventually pared down to the summer draft we know and follow today. By limiting an amateur player's freedom to negotiate down to a single team – the team that drafts him – signing bonuses were sure to plummet, which is precisely what happened.
Perhaps no team wielded the new draft better than the A's and their owner-operator Charlie Finley. They made the first-ever such draft pick when they selected Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday with the No. 1 overall selection in 1965. In the sixth round of that inaugural draft, Finley tabbed Monday's ASU teammate, third baseman Sal Bando, who would be a linchpin in those great teams to come. Prior to the 1968 season, Finley relocated his A's from Kansas City to Oakland, and he continued to build what would turn into a championship core, largely through the draft.
Finley's first World Series title as A's owner, and the franchise's first since 1930, came in 1972. Without Finley's draft maneuverings, it wouldn't have come to pass. Bando was one of the team's best players that season. Another 1965 draft choice was catcher Gene Tenace, a 20th-round pick out of Valley High School in Lucasville, Ohio. While Tenace's contributions during the regular season were more modest, he would go on to be named World Series MVP for 1972. Tenace in addition to the Bando and Monday selections make the A's 1965 draft still one of the most fruitful ever.
The following year, 1966, Finley made Arizona State two-sport athlete Reggie Jackson his top pick (No. 2 overall). Jackson would go on to be a Hall of Famer and one of the leading sluggers of his era. Reigning Cy Young winner Vida Blue came to the A's via the No. 27 selection of the 1967 draft. Lefty swingman Dave Hamilton was a fifth-rounder in 1966. Young and still somewhat lightly used outfielder George Hendrick was the top pick of the 1968 draft. Even Monday, that first-ever draft pick, played a key role of sorts even though he was no longer with the A's. Just after the 1971 season concluded, Finley traded Monday to the Cubs for left-hander Ken Holtzman (fourth-rounder, 1965). Holtzman in '72 would be the A's No. 2 starter behind Catfish Hunter, one of the last bonus babies.
Even Joe Rudi, Oakland's best player in 1972 and the runner-up for the AL MVP award that year, has a relevant tale despite being signed the year before the draft was instituted. The A's signed him in 1964, then tried to protect him from the First-Year Player Draft by placing him on waivers after he appeared at three different minor-league rungs that year. In May of '65, however, Cleveland claimed him. The A's, though, reacquired Rudi back that December as part of a four-player trade, and the entire thing may have been a calculated maneuver by the ever-enterprising Finley and Cleveland.
Ferried to championship heights by that drafted and draft-adjacent core, the A's in 1972 won what would be the first of three straight World Series titles.
Won World Series? Yes, 4-3 over the Reds.
Hall of Famers: Three players — Jackson, Hunter and Rollie Fingers. Manager Dick Williams is also enshrined.
Open season: The 2009 New York Yankees
Baseball's journey to free agency was a long and meandering one. For decades upon decades, what's known as the reserve clause in standard player contracts in essence yoked the player to one club for life until he was traded or the team no longer wanted him. As a (thoroughly intended) consequence of the reserve clause, team owners could renew a player's contract at any salary if the two sides couldn't negotiate a deal. Reserve rights remained with a team even into retirement. If a retired player chose to make a comeback, then his former team still held his rights.
Curt Flood famously attacked this premise, at great personal cost, when he objected to a 1969 trade that was to send him from St. Louis to Philadelphia. Flood wrote a letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn stating his objections to the trade, and with the backing of the players' union he mounted a legal challenge. While Flood's bid to weaken the clause failed after reaching the Supreme Court in 1972, it paved the way for a later successful challenge, which in the mid-1970s led to the advent of free agency.
That successful challenge came via a pair of pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Following the 1975 season, Messersmith was unable to agree to a contract with the Dodgers coming off back-to-back standout campaigns. The team renewed his contract at the salary of their choosing for the 1976 season, and the union filed a grievance on Messersmith's behalf.
Meanwhile, longtime Orioles lefty Dave McNally was at the end of his career. The union under the transformative leadership of Marvin Miller added McNally as a second plaintiff to the grievance because the Expos (his team at the time) still controlled his rights after retirement. Doing so, Miller figured, would buttress Messersmith's case.
The grievance was heard by arbitrator Peter Seitz, who interpreted the reserve clause to mean the team was entitled to one single contract renewal, not renewal upon renewal in perpetuity. Messersmith and McNally were ruled able to sign with any team, and free agency in MLB was born. The league appealed the ruling to no avail, and Kuhn fired Seitz shortly thereafter in a largely ceremonial reprisal that changed nothing. MLB and the union eventually agreed to a system in which players would be eligible for free agency after they accrued six years of service time in the majors.
The early years of free agency were quite different from the system that's prevailed in recent times. Initially, vested parties concocted a system called the "re-entry draft," which was designed to prevent certain well-heeled teams from hoarding free agents. In essence, teams could "draft" the right to negotiate with a certain number of players — a number tied to the total number of free agents in a given year. Mercifully, that somewhat byzantine setup didn't last for more than a few years before it was wiped out via the collective-bargaining process.
As for the general framework of free agency that's still in place today for players like Ohtani, perhaps no team made better use of it than the 2009 Yankees. At the time, the Yankees under longtime and still GM Brian Cashman were coming off a 2008 season in which they missed the postseason for the first time since 1993. As well, they hadn't won the World Series since 2000, which qualifies as a drought by the Yankee standards of that era.
On the free agency front, much work was done prior to the winter of 2008-09. Star third baseman Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract after the 2007 season and became a free agent. However, the Yankees re-signed him on the market to a record $275 million contract in December 2007. Four days later, they re-secured the services of legendary closer Mariano Rivera, who likewise had reached free agency, to a three-year, $45 million deal. A couple of weeks prior to the A-Rod re-up, stalwart catcher Jorge Posada remained a Yankee lifer by signing a four-year, $52.4 million free-agent contract. While DH Hideki Matsui was on an extension for 2009, he originally signed a free-agent contract with the Yankees coming out of Japan in late 2002. Outfielder Johnny Damon in 2009 was in the final year of the four-year, $52 million contract he signed with the Yankees as a free agent prior to the 2006 season.
All of that is prelude to the troika of notable free-agent additions that Cashman and the Yankees made just prior to the 2009 season. On Dec. 11, 2008, the Yankees forged a seven-year, $161 million deal with free-agent ace CC Sabathia that included an opt-out after the 2011 season, which he would parlay into another nine-figure deal with the Yanks. The next day came news of right-hander A.J. Burnett's five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Yankees. Then, two days before Christmas, Cashman secured the services of All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira with a $180 million accord that ran through the 2016 season. Finally, bedrock lefty Andy Pettitte in late January of 2009 was signed to yet another one-year pact in free agency, this one for $5.5 million.
Somewhat remarkably, the Yankees' payroll in 2009 went down from 2008 levels thanks largely to the retirement of Mike Mussina and the expiring deals of Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. That 2008 Yankees team was the first ever to run an Opening Day payroll of $200 million or more, and the 2009 model became the second.
While Derek Jeter, on the back end of a 10-year extension, was probably the team's best player in 2009, the Yankees wouldn't have achieved greatness without all those investments in free agency. Tally up all those market additions, and you get a total of more than $850 million in guaranteed salary to free agents who were main characters on that 2009 team (and that's not counting the initial investment in Matsui). Such determined use of the Yankees' vast resources led to the team's highest win total since 1998 and the club's 27th and most recent World Series title.
Won World Series? Yes, 4-2 over the Phillies.
Hall of Famers: Two players – Jeter and Rivera. Absent scandal A-Rod would be in, and also absent scandal Robinson Canó would perhaps make it eventually. Sabathia has a real shot on the ballot, and perhaps Pettitte gets in some day, likely via Era Committee election.
For purposes of bringing us full circle, let's note the Yankees in that winter immediately leading into the 2009 season spent roughly $430 million on the free-agent market. That is of course a lofty figure, but even after adjusting for inflation it doesn't approach the recent free-agent investments of the club that launched us on this excursion …
Where expensive eagles dare: The 2024 Los Angeles Dodgers
We've already chronicled the Dodgers' winter extravagances and historic nature of them. Now let's appreciate the scale of that history making. Ohtani's free-agent contract, in terms of total value, almost doubles the previous largest free-agent contract in MLB history, the $360 million deal Aaron Judge signed with the incumbent Yankees last offseason. Yamamoto's $325 million commitment more than doubles the old mark for biggest contract given to a player coming out of Japan (Masahiro Tanaka's $155-million pact with the Yankees back in 2014). There's breaking a record, and then there's leaving it in a smoking husk.
Now let's achieve consistency of format via the fool's errand that is predicting baseball outcomes – all with regard to that 2024 Dodgers team before us.
Won World Series? Yes, 4-2 over the Yankees.
Hall of Famers: Four players – Ohtani, Betts, Freeman and Clayton Kershaw, who shall sign a one-year deal in February to return to the Dodgers. Manager Dave Roberts makes five.
And with that the challenge is before the 2024 Dodgers to justify all this talk of superteams and superteamdom.
Sources: Baseball-Almanac.com; Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by David Pietrusza, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman; Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epsten; BaseballHall.org; Baseball Prospectus/Cot's Contracts; Baseball-Reference.com; The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James; BizOfBaseball.com; The Hardball Times; MLB.com; Paths To Glory by Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt; SABR.org; Philadelphia Inquirer archives; Total Baseball, edited by John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman