The 1931 baseball season brought the passing of the two founding fathers of the American League, Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey. Once best friends, the two men hadn't spoken to one another for years due to several bitter disagreements they had over issues that cropped up during Johnson's tenure as American League president. Both men died unhappy, with Johnson enduring a forced retirement from the league he had founded, courtesy of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Comiskey forever brokenhearted after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
Meanwhile, the prodigious offensive numbers posted in both leagues one year earlier prompted the baseball hierarchy to introduce a less lively ball it hoped would create a proper balance between hitting and pitching. Although power numbers fell off considerably as a result, hitters continued to have the upper hand. The National League batted .277 as a whole, while American League hitters posted a combined batting average of .278.
Once again, the New York Yankees had baseball’s most potent offense. After establishing a new record by scoring 1,062 runs the previous year, the Yankees scored the most runs by any team in the “modern era” by crossing the plate 1,067 times in 1931. Under new manager Joe McCarthy, New York also led the major leagues with 155 home runs, a .297 batting average, a .383 on-base percentage, and a .457 slugging percentage. Although they also received outstanding offensive production from shortstop Lyn Lary, third baseman Joe Sewell, left fielder Ben Chapman, catcher Bill Dickey, and centerfielder Earle Combs, the Yankees continued to be paced by the tandem of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Ruth had another phenomenal year, leading the league with 46 home runs, a .495 on-base percentage, and a .700 slugging percentage, while also finishing second with 163 runs batted in, 149 runs scored, 374 total bases, and a .373 batting average. Gehrig was equally magnificent, batting .341, tying Ruth for the league lead with 46 homers, and topping the circuit with 163 runs scored, 211 hits, 410 total bases, and an American League record 184 runs batted in. The duo’s combined total of 347 runs batted in remains the most ever by two teammates. With Lary and Chapman also driving in more than 100 runs, New York averaged more than seven runs per-game.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, they continued to struggle somewhat on the mound. With only Lefty Gomez (21-9, 2.67 ERA) pitching well consistently, the Yankees surrendered 134 more runs to their opponents than the Philadelphia Athletics, who continued to feature the league’s best pitching staff. The combination of the A’s strong pitching and solid offense (they finished third in the league with 858 runs scored) enabled them to capture their third straight American League pennant. Philadelphia finished the campaign with a record of 107-45, 13 ½ games ahead of second-place New York.
The trio of Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Mickey Cochrane paced the A’s on offense. Foxx batted .291, compiled a .380 on-base percentage, and placed among the league leaders with 30 home runs and 120 runs batted in. Simmons hit 22 homers, drove in 128 runs, scored 105 others, and won his second consecutive batting title with a mark of .390. Cochrane batted .349, posted an on-base percentage of .423, hit 17 homers, and knocked in 89 runs.
However, the A’s greatest strength lay in their pitching staff, which compiled a league-leading 3.47 team ERA. George Earnshaw finished 21-7, with 23 complete games and 282 innings pitched. Rube Walberg won 20 games, completed 19 of his starts, and led the league with 291 innings pitched. Lefty Grove dominated American League batters almost as much as he dominated the statistical categories for league hurlers. Grove led all A.L. pitchers with a record of 31-4, a 2.06 ERA, 175 strikeouts, 27 complete games, and four shutouts. His ERA of 2.06 placed him more than half a run per-game ahead of league runner-up Lefty Gomez, and two runs per-game ahead of the league average. Grove’s exceptional performance earned him recognition as the American League’s Most Valuable Player at season’s end. He beat out Lou Gehrig for the award, voted on by the members of the newly-appointed BBWAA committee.
The Athletics subsequently faced a St. Louis Cardinals team in the World Series they defeated in six games in the previous year’s Fall Classic. The outcome proved to be a different one this time, though. Earnshaw and Grove once again pitched brilliantly for Philadelphia, compiling ERAs of 1.88 and 2.42, respectively, in a combined 50 innings. The A’s even outscored their opponents 22-19. But, led by 27-year-old rookie Pepper Martin, who batted .500, knocked in five runs, stole five bases, and preserved Burleigh Grimes’s 4-2 Series-clinching victory in Game Seven with a superb defensive play in the outfield, the underdog Cardinals eventually prevailed.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• April 29 – Cleveland’s Wes Ferrell pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns during a 9-0 victory.
• August 8 - Washington Senators pitcher Bobby Burke tossed a no-hitter in a 5–0 win over the Boston Red Sox.
• August 23 - Dick Coffman held the Philadelphia Athletics to three hits on his way to a 1-0 victory. The Philadelphia defeat snapped Lefty Grove's 16-game winning streak. It marked one of only two times the A's were shut out all season.
• September 18 - Lefty Grove won his 30th game of the season, 3-1 over the Chicago White Sox. Only two other pitchers have reached the 30-win plateau since (St. Louis’ Dizzy Dean in 1934 and Detroit’s Denny McLain in 1968).
• The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) appointed two committees, one in each league, to elect the MVPs.
• Lou Gehrig established a major league record with 301 runs produced.
• The Yankees had a record six men who scored 100 or more runs.
• Cleveland's Wes Ferrell hit a season record nine home runs while serving as a pitcher.
• Ferrell tied Grove for the American League lead in complete games (27) and placed second to him in wins (22).
• The American League ruled that all teams must have numbers on their uniforms.
• Earl Webb of the Red Sox hit a major league record 67 doubles.
• Lou Gehrig hit a record three grand slams over a four-day period.
- 1931 World Series, Al Simmons, American League, Babe Ruth, Ban Johnson, Ben Chapman, Bill Dickey, Bobby Burke, Charlie Comiskey, Connie Mack, Dick Coffman, Earl Averill, Earl Webb, Earle Combs, George Earnshaw, Jimmie Foxx, Joe McCarthy, Joe Sewell, Kenesaw Landis, Lefty Gomez, Lefty Grove, Lou Gehrig, Lyn Lary, Mickey Cochrane, Pepper Martin, Philadelphia Athletics, Rube Walberg, St. Louis Cardinals, Wes Ferrell