With 116 victories in 2001, the Mariners tied the record for the most wins in a 162-game season, set more than a hundred years earlier, by the 1906 Cubs. But since Chicago accomplished its feat in a shorter season, that club still boasts the best winning percentage of all time (.763).
Will those records ever be broken? There have not been many serious challengers of late. Until the World Series champion Dodgers went 43-17 (.717) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, only two teams (the ’01 Mariners and 1998 Yankees) had posted a winning percentage of .700 since the start of the Expansion Era in 1961, when the AL moved to a 162-game schedule. (The NL followed a year later).
Here is a list of the 10 AL/NL teams in the Modern Era (since 1900) with winning percentages of at least .700 in a full season (so not counting the 2020 Dodgers). Eight of those teams played in the World Series. Five of them won it all.
1906 Chicago Cubs: 116-36 (.763), lost World Series
The 1906 Cubs are the winningest team since the turn of the 20th century. Their 116 wins still stand as the record (matched only by the 2001 Mariners) more than 100 years later. First-year skipper Frank Chance, who also served as the club’s everyday first baseman, led Chicago to the first of four National League pennants over his five-year tenure.
The roster featured four Hall of Famers: Chance, second baseman Johnny Evers, shortstop Joe Tinker and right-handed pitcher Mordecai Brown. The Cubs led all of baseball in most runs scored (704) and fewest runs allowed (381) by a significant margin, and Brown’s 1.04 ERA still stands as the NL record, surpassed only by the American League’s Tim Keefe in 1880 (0.86) and Dutch Leonard in 1914 (0.96).
The Cubs fell short in the World Series, however; they were upset by the rival Chicago White Stockings. The White Stockings won in six games in the first and only postseason meeting between the Windy City franchises.
2001 Seattle Mariners: 116-46 (.716), lost in ALCS
The 1906 Cubs’ 116 wins have only been matched once, by the 2001 Mariners, led by three-time Manager of the Year Pinella. Seattle led the big leagues in several major statistical categories, including runs (927), stolen bases (174), on-base percentage (.360), ERA (3.54), shutouts (14), runs allowed (637) and WHIP (1.200).
The 2001 campaign also marked Ichiro’s debut campaign in the United States. He delivered an outstanding rookie campaign — batting .350/.381/.457 to claim the batting title and win both the AL Rookie of the Year Award and the AL Most Valuable Player Award. The M’s had eight representatives, including four starters, at the 2001 All-Star Game, the first hosted at Safeco Field: Ichiro, second baseman Bret Boone, outfielder Mike Cameron, starting pitcher Freddy Garcia, designated hitter Edgar Martinez, righty reliever Jeff Nelson, first baseman John Olerud and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Like that 1906 Chicago team, the Mariners’ remarkable season also ended without a title. Seattle defeated Cleveland in the AL Division Series, but it lost to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
1998 New York Yankees: 114-48 (.704), won World Series
The Yankees may have fallen two games short of the Cubs’ and Mariners’ wins record, but they claimed the ultimate prize by defeating the Padres in the World Series. New York still holds the record for most wins by a team that won the World Series. The Yanks’ 125 wins in the regular season and playoffs combined are also the most by a championship team. The season was also highlighted by southpaw David Wells’ perfect game on May 17, the 15th in MLB history.
Led by Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, New York boasted a star-studded roster that included fellow Cooperstown inductees in Derek Jeter, Tim Raines and Mariano Rivera. The roster also featured household names like Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Jorge Posada, Scott Brosius, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry and Chuck Knoblauch, as well as two future Major League managers in Joe Girardi and Dale Sveum.
En route to the franchise’s second of four titles in a five-year span, the Yankees went 11-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Rangers in the ALDS and the Padres in the Fall Classic. New York’s only two losses came against Cleveland in the ALCS.
1954 Cleveland Indians: 111-43 (.721), lost World Series
The 1954 club holds the all-time record for winning percentage in the AL. Until 2015, when the Blue Jays replicated the feat, this was the only team to record two winning streaks of at least 11 games in the same season.
Cleveland’s pitching staff would go down as one of the best, featuring three Hall of Famers in Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Bob Feller, and its 2.78 ERA was the best in the AL or NL that season by a notable margin. Reliever Hal Newhouser and center fielder Larry Doby were also among the players on this squad who eventually reached Cooperstown.
Cleveland couldn’t keep up the momentum in the playoffs, losing to the New York Giants in the World Series. It would be the club’s last Fall Classic appearance until 1995.
1927 New York Yankees: 110-44 (.714), won World Series
No list of the greatest teams of all time would be complete, of course, without a mention of the late 1920s Yankees and the “Murderers’ Row” of sluggers anchored by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their primes. The 1927 Yanks, one of the greatest teams assembled by the storied franchise, set the program’s all-time record in winning percentage and a new Yankees record for wins until it was finally topped seven decades later by the 1998 team.
Where to begin? This was Ruth’s legendary 60-homer campaign, the single-season record until Roger Maris broke it 34 years later. Gehrig was the league MVP at age 24, finishing second in the AL in both hitting (.373) and homers (47). The lineup featured two more Hall of Famers (Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri) and the starting rotation boasted another two (Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock).
The Yankees’ 110 wins were a new AL record. They led the league in every major offensive category but stolen bases, with their 158 team homers more than 100 ahead of Philadelphia’s 56 in second place. They finished the season by outscoring the Pirates, 23-10, in a four-game sweep of the World Series.
1909 Pittsburgh Pirates: 110-42 (.724), won World Series
The turn of the century was kind to the Pirates, who gained a pair of future Hall of Famers before the 1900 season in player-manager Fred Clarke and shortstop Honus Wagner. Despite winning three straight NL pennants from 1901-03 (losing the first modern World Series in 1903), it wasn’t until 1909 that the Pirates made it back to the Fall Classic on the back of a 16-game winning streak in late September, which gave them a franchise record of 110 wins that still stands to this day.
Even at age 35, Wagner was still arguably the premier hitter in baseball, leading the NL in hitting (.339) and RBIs (100) to win the seventh of his eight batting titles. Rookie second baseman Dots Miller, at 22, finished third in the league with 87 RBIs, and the Pirates had a pair of 20-game winners in Howie Camnitz (25-6) and Vic Willis (22-11).
This set up one of the more anticipated World Series of the era against the Detroit Tigers, featuring baseball’s two best hitters in Wagner and 22-year-old Ty Cobb, who hit .377 that season to claim his third straight batting title. The teams traded wins for the first six games before the Pirates won, 8-0, in the first decisive Game 7 in World Series history to win Pittsburgh’s first World Series title.
1931 Philadelphia Athletics: 107-45 (.704), lost World Series
Before the 1972-74 Oakland Athletics won three straight World Series, they were the 1929-31 Philadelphia Athletics, an AL juggernaut that nearly became the first team to three-peat but fell just short in ’31 despite setting a franchise record in wins with 107.
The lineup was anchored by three future Hall of Famers, including AL batting champion Al Simmons (.390), a 23-year-old Jimmie Foxx and catcher Mickey Cochrane, but the driving force behind the Athletics’ success was a league-best pitching staff anchored by a career year from AL MVP Award winner Lefty Grove, who led the league in wins (31), ERA (2.06), complete games (27) and strikeouts (175) to win his second straight pitching Triple Crown.
Philadelphia came tantalizingly close to its third straight title, but it lost a tightly contested World Series rematch to the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, the last time the franchise would reach the Fall Classic until 1972.
1907 Chicago Cubs: 107-45 (.704) won World Series
The 1907 Cubs had a tough act to follow after their record 116 wins a season earlier. Despite returning every starter, the Cubs scored nearly 130 fewer runs than their prolific 704-run output in 1906, failing to lead the league in any major hitting category. No member of the starting lineup hit better than .300 for the season.
But the league’s best pitching staff carried the Cubs to a second straight NL pennant. Chicago pitchers posted a microscopic 1.73 ERA as a staff, and of the top six ERAs among qualified starters in the NL that year, five of them belonged to Cubs, with Jack Pfeister (1.15), Carl Lundgren (1.17) and Brown (1.39) topping the leaderboard.
And while they failed to match the 1906 team’s lofty win total, the Cubs rebounded from their upset World Series loss a year earlier by sweeping the Tigers to claim the first championship in franchise history.
1939 New York Yankees: 106-45 (.702), won World Series
Considered by many to be the best baseball team ever formed, the 1939 Yankees set the record for single-season run differential (+411) and remain, to this day, the only team in baseball history to outscore its opponents by more than 400 runs, in a season immortalized by both a fourth straight World Series victory and Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” retirement speech.
A 24-year-old Joe DiMaggio won the first of his three AL MVP Awards and the batting title despite playing only 120 games on the strength of a .381/.448/.671 slash line, and a roster studded with six future Hall of Famers included Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing anchoring a league-best pitching staff, as well as catcher Bill Dickey and second baseman Joe Gordon.
The Yankees finished 17 games ahead of rookie Ted Williams and the second-place Red Sox to win their fourth straight AL pennant and handily swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, outscoring them 20-8.
1902 Pittsburgh Pirates: 103-36 (.741), won National League pennant
Clarke and Wagner had raised the Pirates to previously unseen heights by helping secure Pittsburgh’s first NL pennant in 1901, and as part of their three-year stretch of dominance following the turn of the century, they ran roughshod through the NL in 1902 for the Bucs’ first 100-win season and a second straight pennant.
Frankly, the race wasn’t even close. Alongside batting champion Ginger Beaumont (.357) and league win leader and future Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro (28-6), Wagner led the league in RBIs (91) and stolen bases (42), as the loaded Pirates topped the NL in every major hitting category but stolen bases and won the pennant by a 27.5-game margin over the second-place Brooklyn Dodgers.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the modern World Series wouldn’t yet exist for another year, and they couldn’t measure themselves against Connie Mack and the AL champion Philadelphia Athletics.
By the way, 24-year-old third baseman Tommy Leach led the league in homers … with six.
Teams with .700-plus winning percentages before 1900
1887 St. Louis Browns: 95-40 (.704)
1897 Boston Beaneaters: 93-39 (.705)
1886 Chicago White Stockings: 90-34 (.726)
1886 Detroit Wolverines: 87-36 (.707)