By Marty Appel
In 1973, when the original Yankee Stadium was being prepared for partial demolition as part of a $100 million refurbishing, I was a member of the team’s public relations department.
And I had my eye on a quaint yet sturdy piece of the team’s heritage.
In the Yankee clubhouse, about ten feet from the locker that Joe DiMaggio and then Mickey Mantle had used, stood an ancient black Mosler safe, about three feet high. You would open the front door and find individual draws, each about 2” x 4”. Painted onto each draw in white was the bold face name of a 1903 New York Highlander – Chesbro, Ganzel, Elberfeld, Conroy, Keeler, Fultz, Tannehill, Griffith, Williams, etc. The paint was fading, but the safe was as strong and reliable as ever. And it was where the ’73 Yankees – Murcer, Munson, Stottlemyre, White, Nettles, Lyle, Clarke, Michael – would place their wallets and keys and watches before suiting up for a game.
I knew those Highlander names, and I knew that this safe represented the current team’s only link to its origin. There was nothing else; no files, no contracts, no signage, no equipment. I said several times to Pete Sheehy, our famous clubhouse man, “Pete, make sure nothing happens to this safe when they tear this place down!”
I had delved into these Highlander names a few years earlier when we decided to add a page to our press guide called “Top 20 Yankees All Time.” Bob Fishel, Bill Guilfoile, and I (the PR team), took it upon ourselves to research these lists in the major hitting and pitching categories. This was the year the first MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia was published, which proved a fine research tool, although we needed to dig deeper to find Yankee totals when a player had been traded during a season and his stats were combined. It was not an easy project in those pre-computer days, and we logged our findings on legal pads in pencil before typing them out.
To my surprise, players from the pre-Yankee Stadium years found their way onto the charts. Among pitchers, for example, there was Ray Caldwell – 12th in games pitched, 8th in innings, 10th in strikeouts. There was Jack Chesbro, 11th in games, 7th in innings, 8th in wins, 7th in strikeouts, 13th in shutouts, 3rd in complete games. Here was a surprise – Ford was first in ERA – not Whitey, but Russ! 2.54! Other names among the pitchers to appear on the charts were Al Orth, Jack Quinn, and Jack Warhop. Among the hitters, Willie Keeler was 9th in batting average, Hal Chase was 19th in hits, 18th in average and first in stolen bases! (Maybe first in games thrown too?) Chase is still third as this is written, with Derek Jeter climbing fast.
So these players were real, they counted, they had stats and at one time of course, they dominated the top 20, eventually replaced by the more glamorous teams of the ‘20s and beyond.
But what a rag tag franchise this had been! In its own way, it was a fun ball club, futile in attempts to win the pennant no matter how badly Ban Johnson wanted them to succeed. They almost defied efforts to stack the deck in their favor. Ultimately, they handed over to Murderer’s Row a run of no pennants in 18 years, no world championships in 20. Another way to put it – they spotted the rest of the American League two decades lead and still wound up with 26 world championships in the 20th century, by far the most in baseball.
Hilltop Park must have been something. How much would we pay today to see a lost film of a full game there?! To see Willie Keeler hittin’ ‘em where they ain’t, to see Happy Jack Chesbro loading one up, perhaps recalling the one that got away and cost them the ’04 flag. To see Big Bill Devery sitting next to the Highlander bench, second guessing Clark Griffith.
If humble beginnings were necessary to make the Yankees the world’s most famous sports franchise, you could surely find those up at the Hilltop. “Official” records indicate that 3,451,495 fans made their way to Hilltop Park between 1903-1912, less than the team draws today for a full season, or about 5,000 fans a game. What hearty soles they were, trekking to no man’s land in upper Manhattan to see the team take their lumps days after day. Could they possibly image what lay ahead for this club?
Ray Istorico has done modern Yankee fans a great favor by bringing this forgotten era back to life for us all. This team was at times pathetic, at times hopeful, but always colorful and fun.
Oh, yes – the clubhouse safe?
Gone. It never made it to Shea Stadium during the refurbishing, and never reappeared when we returned to the new Stadium in 1976. I don’t think we’re doing to see it suddenly appear in the new, new Yankee Stadium in 2009 either. I have no idea what happened to it, but I’m sad whenever I think of it. Like the memories of the Highlanders, no one is around any more that saw them play, and the safe, perhaps like Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud” sled in Citizen Kane, is gone up in smoke forever.