This article is about a team record that was set by a team long after it had ceased to be a team. It might well never be broken. Or it might be under attack right now, by a Yankees team that's 95% retired, or by one that's 75% retired, or by one that's 40% retired, or by one that's -- somewhat shockingly -- not a Yankees team at all.
This record began to come together after the 1926 season, with some minor accusations of game-fixing against Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. The fallout was that both players, aging greats who'd been with their respective teams for more than a decade, retired. Then, having not been found guilty, they were reinstated as free agents. Cobb signed with the Philadelphia A's. Speaker signed with Washington, but he was released after one season and then he signed with the A's, too. Around the same time, the great second baseman Eddie Collins was released by the White Sox, and for his waning days he returned to play and coach for the team with which he began his career: The A's. If we'd had WAR at the time, Cobb, Speaker and Collins would have ranked first, second and fourth in major league history to that point.
So it was that a Philadelphia A's fan who bought a ticket to a July 4, 1928, doubleheader would have seen Cobb and Speaker, who still rank as two of the six greatest position players in history, by WAR. The ticket-buyer would have also seen the 20-year-old sensation Jimmie Foxx, who would go on to produce the 25th-highest WAR among hitters. Al Simmons, 77th in history, batted cleanup in both games, and Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane (205th) caught both. One of the pitchers he caught was Lefty Grove, sixth all time in WAR among pitchers. Another was Jack Quinn, 66th. Our fan would have had to be satisfied with seeing Collins coaching third base, since Collins didn't get into either game that day. On top of all this, the manager was Connie Mack, the winningest manager in history.
If you wanted to see the greatest collection of baseball history on one team, you'd go watch those 1928 A's. It wasn't the best team -- though the 1929-1931 A's are in that conversation -- but it was the greatest collection of greatness, as measured by total career WAR on one roster. Collectively, the 1928 A's produced 1,138 WAR in their careers -- the years they'd already played and the years they would go on to play. Roughly speaking, it was as if a rookie Mike Trout was on a team with late-career Barry Bonds, late-career Alex Rodriguez, late-career Albert Pujols, mid-career Greg Maddux, mid-career Edgar Martinez, early-career Joe Mauer -- plus seven other players who played at least 15 years in the majors, and a few besides them who were named All-Stars or earned MVP votes in their careers.
For the rest of the 20th century, no team could come close, according to Dan Hirsch at Baseball-Reference, who provided the querying for this article. The 1927 A's, the year before Speaker joined, were the only other team that cleared 1,000 WAR, at 1,000.3. The 1933 Yankees (944 career WAR) were the closest distinct competitor, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and seven other lower-tier Hall of Famers. Those Yankees were finally surpassed by the 1979 Yankees (985), with Reggie Jackson leading 10 players who had 40-WAR careers. And those Yankees were displaced in the No. 2 spot by the 1996 Yankees, led by Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter and Tim Raines. And then the 2000 Yankees, with Roger Clemens, became the first non-A's team to pass 1,000 WAR, before Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter retired and closed the books on that historic club.
That's a lot of Yankees. But the greatest Yankees teams were arguably still to come; in fact, might still be to come.
There are four clubs who might be said to be actively pursuing this record, in a sense:
1. The 2005 Yankees, who -- at 1,103 WAR -- currently stand as the second-greatest collection of baseball greatness ever
The key acquisition: Randy Johnson (acquired the previous offseason)
The key debut: Robinson Cano
The other main stars: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Mariano Rivera
Famous players you'll never associate with that team: Ruben Sierra, Al Leiter
Total All-Stars (at any point in the players' careers): 23
They are so close -- just 35 behind the 1928 A's -- and, six months ago, I might have let myself dream. Two Yankees from that club are still active, almost 15 years later: Cano and Melky Cabrera. Cano was, as recently as last year, still a very valuable major leaguer, and not long ago he was an MVP candidate. Cabrera was still a league-average hitter and just 34 years old. (He ranks sixth among active players in career hits, if you can believe it.)
But each player has been worse than replacement level this year, dragging the 2005 Yankees backward by almost two wins and obliterating hopes of each player aging gracefully for another half-decade (or more) of value. The second-best collection of baseball stars in history is worth commemorating, and 97% as much stardom as the 1928 Philadelphia A's is oh-so-close. But those final 35 WAR have become, almost certainly, insurmountable.
Rough estimate of WAR still to come: 5 (for a total of 1,108)
2. The 2012 Yankees, who -- at 1,026 WAR -- currently stand as the third-greatest collection of baseball greatness ever
The key acquisitions: Ichiro Suzuki (midseason trade), Andy Pettitte (coming out of retirement)
The key debut: None, really. Adam Warren has 7 career WAR
The other main stars: This was the second-to-last year Cano, Rodriguez and Jeter played infield together, and Rivera's penultimate season. CC Sabathia was the ace and Andruw Jones the platoon DH with 400 career homers
Famous player you'll never associate with that team: Derek Lowe, Eric Chavez
Total All-Stars: 20
Unlike the 2005 club, there are enough active players left that we can sort of dream of future WAR: Cano, Russell Martin, Curtis Granderson, Eduardo Nunez, Brett Gardner, Steve Pearce, Francisco Cervelli, Ivan Nova, Sabathia, David Phelps, Warren and David Robertson. (Chris Stewart is in Triple-A.)
But that's more a long list of names than a long tail of future WAR. That group has produced only 5 wins this year, with Gardner and Nova still producing but Nunez, Pearce and Granderson sledgehammering the total. Sabathia might not pitch again, Cervelli nearly quit catching, and after a couple of drinks, I could probably be convinced Martin is a more valuable pitcher than he is a hitter right now.
That makes them very unlikely to pass the 2005 Yankees, let alone the 1928 A's. With 10 lottery tickets in a sport as unpredictable as baseball, it's hard to rule out anything. But the best bet for the mid-30s players who remain is probably not late-career resurgence; it's probably Baseball-Reference tweaking its WAR model.
Rough estimate of WAR still to come: 30 (for a total of 1,056)
3. The 2016 Yankees, who -- at 688.7 career WAR -- currently stand as the 235th-greatest collection of baseball greatness ever
The key acquisition: Aroldis Chapman
The key debut: Aaron Judge
The other main stars: Carlos Beltran, Sabathia, and in their final seasons, A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. The ascendant stars were Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino, who had each debuted in 2015
Famous players you'll never associate with that team: Kirby Yates, Billy Butler
Total All-Stars: 19
700 WAR is a long way from 1,100 WAR. But unlike the previous two contenders, these Yankees weren't primarily an accumulation of veteran stars. They were, in a lot of ways, more like the 1928 A's: a good team that was transitioning into an exceptional one, with two different generations of stars overlapping.
Besides Judge, Sanchez and Severino -- whose collective upsides provide most of the hope that these Yankees could ultimately pass the A's -- are a dozen or so players who are active, productive major leaguers in their late 20s or early 30s: Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Dellin Betances, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Chad Green, Nathan Eovaldi, Donovan Solano, Starlin Castro, Andrew Miller, Chapman and Yates.
Based on those players' 10-year projections at Baseball Prospectus -- projections that were made before this season began, and that we're only roughly eyeballing for these purposes -- there's probably 200 more WAR to come from this roster. That would get these 2012 Yankees into the top 25 all time, but nowhere close to the A's (or the best Yankees collections). Jeter retired one year too early; Gleyber Torres debuted two years too late.
But these Yankees do still have youth on their side. In baseball, nothing is promised once a player passes a certain age, but the corollary is that nothing can be ruled out before he reaches a certain age. There's still, theoretically, time for Judge, Sanchez and Severino to become Foxx, Simmons and Grove.
Rough estimate of WAR still to come: 200 (for a total of 889)
4. The 2017 Dodgers, who -- at 561.5 career WAR -- currently stand as the 746th-greatest collection of baseball greatness ever
The key acquisition: Yu Darvish
The key debuts: Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Alex Verdugo
The other stars: Clayton Kershaw, Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez, Corey Seager
Famous players you'll never associate with that team: Curtis Granderson, Sergio Romo
Total All-Stars: 19
The Dodgers are the only 2017 team in the top 1,000 all time, and a big share of their collective WAR is already retired just two years later in Utley, Gonzalez and Ethier. Granderson's retirement appears imminent. Kershaw, the heavyweight on the roster -- the player most likely to join the ranks of Grove and Speaker in WAR triple digits -- is still very good, but also clearly decelerating.
But the Who's Left list is incredible: Not only the three players who debuted that year, but Seager and Darvish, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Julio Urias, Alex Wood, Justin Turner, Ross Stripling and Chris Taylor. The 2017 Dodgers have produced 46 WAR this year; the 2016 Yankees, by contrast, have produced only 28.
Rough estimate of WAR still to come: 365 (for a total of 927)
If the 2017 Dodgers follow through on that estimate, they'll challenge the 1972 Dodgers (Frank Robinson, Don Sutton, Maury Wills, etc.) as the greatest collection of baseball greatness in the franchise's history. But they'd trail a long line of great Yankees teams, from distinct time periods. Of the 20 "greatest" teams ever, 16 are Yankees; of the top 100, 40 are Yankees. Essentially every Yankees team since they acquired Babe Ruth has been in the top 1,000, with three brief exceptions: the World War II years, the years immediately preceding George Steinbrenner's 1973 purchase of the team, and the late-'80s/early-'90s doldrums.
And yet none of those scores of Yankees teams has toppled the A's, and it's hard to figure whether a challenge is more or less likely now than it once was. The case for it being more likely is that teams churn through far more players over the course of a season than they once did:
1928 A's: 29
2005 Yankees: 51
2012 Yankees: 45
2016 Yankees: 53
2017 Dodgers: 52
Each of those 52 Dodgers represents an entire career, comprising all the years before and all the years after the season in question. They're simply more likely to cover more total seasons than 29 players are.
But here's the case for it being less likely now: Teams are rarely built these days to simultaneously include both accomplished superstars and future superstars. Rather, teams go through teardown-and-rebuild cycles, trading away their Lefty Grove equivalents, refusing to sign the Ty Cobb equivalents, while hoarding the Jimmie Foxx equivalents. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio might well go on to produce three Hall of Fame careers. But the Blue Jays called those three up only once the team had emptied its roster of nearly any other accomplished big leaguers. You're probably less likely to see a 20-year-old future Hall of Famer, a 28-year-old future Hall of Famer, and a 40-year-old future Hall of Famer on the same roster than you were in 1928.
That makes sense. This thing we've been talking about -- most career WAR, past and present, collected on one roster; a sort of baseball equivalent of Awesome People Hanging Out Together -- isn't the objective for teams. Their objective is to win, and that usually means collecting a lot of "right now" talent that can be good right now, or else a lot of "in three years" talent that can be amazingly good in three years. This record is less for them. It's more for the fan who buys a ticket to a doubleheader and, in one afternoon, sees enough baseball history to fill a scrapbook someday.
Thanks to reader Mike, who inspired this inquiry by noticing that the 2014 Tigers had Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera in their primes, along with Ian Kinsler, David Price, Torii Hunter and young versions of J.D. Martinez and Eugenio Suarez, a spectacular collection of stars in various stages. Those Tigers rank 395th all time. Thanks also to Dan Hirsch and the Baseball-Reference Play Index.