BEFORE THEY WERE “YANKEES”
The New York Highlanders
There was a time in baseball history when the “New York Yankees” were called the “New York Highlanders”. They had no World Championships and no uniform numbers were retired (even though the Highlanders did not wear uniform numbers-this came much later with the Yankees) and no Monument Park to visit. They were just a bunch of guys making little or no money playing for the pure love of the game. There was no winning history to be celebrated, Babe Ruth was just eight years old when the Highlanders were created and Hill Top Park was the before the original Yankee Stadium of 1923.
On March 12 1903, the New York Highlanders were granted approval by team owners to join baseball’s American League. The Highlanders had recently moved from Baltimore, where they were called the Orioles and had a winning tradition dating back to the 1890’s.
Baltimore had a gritty taste of baseball in the late 19th century with a team of hard-nosed Orioles who hit with their fists as often as they did with bats. The team joined the new American League as a charter franchise in 1901. However, behind the scenes, American League President Ban Johnson believed that his fledgling league needed a team in New York to succeed. With the help of two businessmen he maneuvered the Orioles out of Baltimore and into New York. A hauntingly familiar move which took place in football to the Baltimore Colts who left in March of 1984 to Indianapolis. The Baltimore franchise sold for $18,000 to Joseph Gordon, Bill Devery, and Frank Farrell.
In December of 1902 Ban Johnson announced in a New York City Hotel, “The Victoria”, where the American and National League held a meeting to prepare for the 1903 season, the move of the Baltimore Club to New York. Johnson also announced at that meeting that they had secured grounds for the New York baseball club to play for $370,000 where they would later build Hilltop Park on 165th and 168th street. $200,000 was spent to excavate the area due to its rocky terrain. Johnson stated that the land was within “easy reach of down-town businessmen, who wished to see the games after banking hours”. As far back as 1902 location figured into a decision to attract large crowds.
Also during the evening of announcing the move of the Baltimore club to New York, Johnson presented the signing of Brooklyn star Willie Keeler for the New York club. Not quite the Reggie Jackson press conference of 1976 but a major announcement for that time. “I signed Keeler myself”, Johnson stated, “and found him an easy man to to do business with”. He also announced that Clark Griffith with be the “manager-Captain”.
The team became to be known as the “New York Highlanders” for two reasons; it was a reference to the team’s elevated location (the islands highest points between 165th and 168th streets) blocks away from the much larger Polo Grounds. The second reason, the “Highlanders” were named after noted British Military unit The Gordon Highlanders, which coincided with the team’s president Joseph Gordon. As was common with all members of the American League, the team was also referred to as the New York Americans. New York Press Sports Editor Jim Price coined the unofficial nickname Yankees (or Yanks) for the club as early as 1904 , because it was easier to fit in the headlines.
The first game with the Highlanders was April 22, 1903 against the Washington Senators. The Highlanders lost 3–1 “through their inability to bat safely at opportune times” as described in the re-cap of events. Today this would be known as “men left on base”. The sports writer described the game as “one of the most enjoyable ever witnessed by local cranks”.
The article goes on to describe the action of the game “New York was the first to score, through a rare piece of base running by Willie Keeler. Keeler got a base on balls, and started for second, when Fultz singled to Delehanty”. Today this is known as a “hit-and-run”, but apparently rare for 1903. “Delehanty immediately returned the ball to Coughlin, who jabbed at Keeler as the little wonder (5 Feet 4 Inches)dropped to the ground and made an exceptionally long slide safetly into third base, amid the applause of the multitude that occupied every available seat (sold-out crowd)and completely surrounded the outfield.” As Washington went on to win the game 3 to 1 the article praised the New York club, “Long, Keeler, Williams, Fultz, Ganzel and Conroy all played their best style, but the masterly delivery of Orth baffled all of them except Fultz.”
The opening of Hilltop Park in 1903 had its share of challenges for the first game. Hilltop Park named for it’s high elevation was unfinished and not in good condition. There was a swamp in right field that had yet to be filled in with rock, the outfield had no grass, the grandstand had not been completed, and the players had to dress at their hotel rooms because the clubhouse was not completed.
“the multitude that occupied every available seat (sold-out crowd)and completely surrounded the outfield.”
When Hilltop Park was finally completed, a single tier wooden covered grandstand extended from the third base dugout to homeplate and around to the first base dugout. Uncovered grandstands extended to both foul poles. From behind homeplate, fans could see scenic views of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades. After the Polo Grounds burnt in 1911, the New York Giants moved to Hilltop Park. The next year, the Highlanders moved into a rebuilt Polo Grounds along with the Giants and were renamed the Yankees.
The last game played at Hilltop was October 5, 1912. Hilltop Park stood until 1914 when it was demolished. The site remained vacant until Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center opened in 1928.
After the club moved to the Polo Grounds in 1913, the name “Highlanders” fell further into disuse, and the team was officially renamed the Yankees. The original Polo Grounds burned down in 1911 and the Highlanders allowed the Giants to play at Hilltop Park during reconstruction. Relations between the two teams warmed, and the Highlanders would move into newly built Polo Grounds in 1913. Now playing on the Harlem River, a far cry from their high-altitude home, the name “Highlanders” no longer applied. The media had already widely adopted the “Yankees” nickname and in 1913 officially became the “Yankees”. They played at the Polo Grounds until 1922 and then moved into Yankee Stadium in 1923 opening the “Babe Ruth” age.
THE BABE RUTH AGE
The Highlanders never finished higher then second place (1904)compiling a record of 734 Wins and 759 Losses. The 1904 season was the highlight of their existence as they remained in the pennant race leading by two games as late as September 20. However, on the last day of the season at Hilltop Park, pitcher Jack Chesbro threw a wild pitch in the ninth inning, giving the Boston Americans the win and the 1904 Pennant. Even though the Highlanders had little or no success they were the precursor to an unbelievable dynasty of winning tradition in the New York Yankees. 27 and counting to be exact!