The New York Yankees of the '50s, and the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Cowboys of the '90s, had one crucial element in common: consistent excellence in their organizations and performance. That's a rare accomplishment, but if you think it could never occur in your portfolio, think again. Carefully chosen dividend-paying stocks could be your key to superstar returns.

Build the next investing dynasty
These long-haul outperformers can help you build your fortune, as studies from investing gurus such as Jeremy Siegel have shown time and time again. Finding them is our Motley Fool Income Investor service's mission.

Southern Company (NYSE: SO), for example, has returned more than 40% since November 2003; currently, it rewards investors with a 4.5% yield. Or consider VF (NYSE: VFC), which has returned 29% since June 2006, atop a current 2.8% yield. While these stocks happen to be Income Investor recommendations, you don't need to be a subscriber to get great gains.

Identify new talent
With the help of Motley Fool CAPS, we'll search for the best dividend-paying stocks around. Here are several dividend picks that have also earned high ratings from the 83,000-plus members of our CAPS community:

Company

Yield

CAPS Rating

AT&T (NYSE: T)

4.2%

****

Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT)

3.7%

****

Chevron (NYSE: CVX)

2.8%

*****

Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY)

5.3%

****

Vodafone Group (NYSE: VOD)

3.0%

****

Sources: Capital IQ, Yahoo! Finance, and CAPS as of Feb. 14.

Stake your claim
Please excuse me while I state the obvious: When the price of a dividend-paying stock goes down, the dividend yield goes up. So while a down market gives investors the opportunity to buy stocks cheaper across the board, it also typically provides the opportunity to pick up quality stocks with bond-like yields. Of course, with 10-year treasuries yielding less than 4%, dividend yielders don't have a high bar, either.

Aoviding the temptingly high yields of troubled stocks -- in this market, those crazy financials -- is a tricky line to walk. Although the dividends might seem too good to pass up, financial companies have been slashing dividends left and right, making the previous yields meaningless.

I particularly noticed that drug manufacturers, whose businesses should remain relatively stable even in an economic decline, have been beaten down to the point where they're offering great yields. CAPS All-Star xthecritic has seen this and rated Bristol-Myers an outperformer last December in a broad sweep of the sector.

This is a sector play. Drug manufacturers have been and will continue to outperform the market in the next 12-18 months, as we deal with economic weakness. I like the sector overall, especially after several years of pressure from products coming off-patent, in addition to positive overall demographic trends.

JohnyRay, another Bristol-Myers bull on CAPS, did note that the company had "really bad management" and "uncertain short-term prospects" but also called out the company's drug pipeline and, of course, the nice dividend.

You can see who else has been bullish on Bristol-Myers, and chime in with your own thoughts, by heading over to CAPS. You might check out a few of the other top rated dividend payers above while you're there.

Dividend stocks could help you transform your portfolio from the flash-in-the-pan Florida Marlins into the dependable New York Yankees. And if you hate the Yankees, it's probably because they're so darn good, so darn often.

More CAPS Foolishness:

Kraft Foods, Southern Company, and VF are Income Investor recommendations. You can test drive Income Investor  free for 30 days.

Yankees fan and Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer hopes the Yanks can continue their legendary excellence (next year?), and has his fingers crossed that the Cowboys never will get back to the top. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy is a true investing dynasty.