Beckett Media

Hilltop Park Apartments
By Marty Appel

There aren’t many legacies remaining from the original New York Yankees franchise. The team, born in 1903, is better known today as having been the “Highlanders” and having played for ten seasons in “Hilltop Park.” They never won a pennant (coming close once), produced few stars (Jack Chesbro and Wee Willie Keeler are in the Hall of Fame), but at least their wooden ballpark didn’t burn down, a fate not uncommon in that era.

Hilltop Park (more commonly known as American League Park in its day), was actually quite picturesque. From the higher grandstand rows, one could see the Hudson River and the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades, behind which the sun would set in the late afternoon of late season games. It was a pastoral way to escape teeming Manhattan living.

The park was hastily constructed along Broadway (where the entrance was), stretching from West 165th to West 168th Streets. Workers, using dynamite, cleared and leveled the land at a cost of $275,000, a lot more than the $18,000 the franchise itself cost. Seating for 16,000 was built, making it the largest park in the American League, but quite insignificant compared to the stately Polo Grounds, about half a mile south.

After the 1912 season, the newly-named Yankees (Highlanders having never really caught on),moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the New York Giants. Hilltop Park was torn down soon after and in the 1920s, the land would become home to what is today a complex called New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

There is a commemorative plaque in the enclosed courtyard within the hospital grounds, shaped like home plate and dedicated in 1993. Nothing else remains from the days of Hilltop, although the 168th Street subway station still requires an elevator to access the platform, reminding visitors that the elevation was indeed formidable.

But wait. Something else does indeed remain.

In many of the photos taken in the days of the Highlanders (many by the great Charles Conlon),three apartment buildings loom over the outfield fence. For those who lived there, mostly Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants, it was free baseball – not unlike the apartments facing Wrigley Field across North Sheffield Avenue in Chicago.

And here is a surprise – those buildings are still there! They are actually three buildings, attached,but with separate addresses – 601, 603 and 605 West 168th Street, facing the hospital’s emergency entrance.The neighborhood is mostly Dominican today – Alex Rodriguez was born nearby – and the buildings cannot be seen from the hospital courtyard. But up close, they are unquestionably the very same buildings seen in the photos from 1903-1912.

When I occasionally give tours of the area, it gets more reaction than anything else I point out,including the level right field area where Wee Willie stood after the dynamite did its job. It’s a fairly obscure destination for baseball fans, but when one stands before the apartments and imagines what went on across the street – it is a remarkable piece of baseball history.

FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF MANHATTAN – The 1910 Post-Season Series Between the Yankees and the Giants.
By Marty Appel (Special to Beckett Vintage)

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the first New York Yankees pennant, and with that, the first “subway series,” – the Yankees against the New York Giants. We call it a subway series not because the two ballparks were connected by a subway line, but because fans could take the subway to all the games.

But wait!

There was actually a Yankees-Giants post-season series played eleven years earlier, in 1910, during the Taft administration, a series so big it threatened to override the World Series. Today it would be unthinkable for baseball to allow anything to preempt the sport’s greatest showcase. But in 1910, it happened. There was no commissioner to stop it, and the three-man National Commission took no steps to prevent it. In fact, the Commission handled ticket sales and disbursement of winning and losing shares, and assigned high-profile Bill Klem and Billy Evans to umpire. They would not work the World Series which began four days after this series.

Make no mistake, this was huge. The New York Times, referring to the Highlanders (still their official name) as “Yankees” or “Yanks” throughout its coverage, called it the “Championship of Manhattan” and wrote “No game in recent years has excited the fans to the high tension now evident in baseball circles except for the memorable play-off of the 1908 season.” (That would have been the Giants-Cubs playoff game in the wake of the notorious Fred Merkle boner that forced the extra game. And the Bonehead was still the Giants first baseman!)

The Times was only talking about game one, with ticket sales limited to first six, and then four per customer. People who got back in line were hustled off by four uniformed Pinkerton security people armed with billy clubs.

The Brooklyn Superbas (Dodgers), were not part of this “championship,” as they weren’t in Manhattan. But in Ohio, Cleveland quietly played Cincinnati without approaching the fanfare the New York series was receiving. (The Reds won in seven games). Yankees-Giants was another story, even nationally. Both teams had finished second in 1910, so this was, in a sense, the “runner-up bowl”. Francis Richter, writing in the year-end Reach Guide, said, “National interest in this post-season engagement was so great that it shared attention with the supreme World Series contest between the Athletic and Chicago teams.”

John McGraw, the influential Giants manager, who had kept his team out of the 1904 World Series because he didn’t want to risk upstaging its National League pennant, was now on board with an interleague series, and the National Commission ceded to his wishes. The Yankees manager was Hal Chase, 27, who had replaced George Stallings with 14 games left in the regular season, and who had won ten of them. Although history tells us that Chase would not be averse to throwing an occasional game (slow to cover first base on a routine grounder, for example), he was in his sixth year with the Yanks and was the team’s most popular player. Neither team had ever played in the other team’s ballpark, although a few players on both squads, when in the other league, had seen action there. The Yankees’ Charlie Hemphill, Lou Criger, Harry Wolter, and Fred Mitchell had seen action in the Polo Grounds as visiting players earlier in their careers. On the Giants, it was almost unthinkable that McGraw would ever employ an American Leaguer, given his belief that “those guys” played in an inferior league. But he had two. Pitcher Bugs Raymond had briefly been with Detroit in 1904 but never visited Hilltop Park.

And then there was Wee Willie Keeler, in his last of 19 big league seasons. The Brooklyn native had returned to the Giants in May, where he had debuted in 1892. Keeler however, had played in only one game since mid-August and at 38, was clearly wrapping things up. He would not see action in this series. (In fact, we don’t even know if he was there). But oh, what an ovation he would have received at the Hilltop. He had been the highest paid and first star of the Highlanders after a brilliant National League career with Brooklyn and Baltimore. He had played in the very first game at Hilltop Park, standing on wooden planks in right field because the outfield grass was still swampy and had poor drainage.

The Polo Grounds was considered the grand temple of baseball at this time, a double-decked delight in architectural beauty with a seating capacity of 35,000. Hilltop Park, a hurriedly constructed wooden structure just ten blocks north up Broadway, held only 14,000, and was hardly a tribute to the national game. But for those seated in the higher rows, it provided scenic, pastoral views of the setting sun over the New Jersey Palisades and Hudson River. It was the largest ballpark in the American League, and one of the few that didn’t ultimately burn down.

The Giants had only one day off after their season ended, while the Yankees had four.

Game one, on Thursday, October 13, drew a huge crowd of 24,398. It felt like a mixed crowd with lots of fans for both teams enjoying the spectacle as much as the competition. As opening ceremonies unfolded, the applause for Chase rocked the Polo Grounds as he was the last to emerge from the dugout, strutting by the stands, setting a tone of fan frenzy. McGraw, adding to the drama, waved his cap to the excited mob.

For concessionaire Harry M. Stevens, who had the rights to both parks, this was an unexpected post-season bonanza.

The great Christy Mathewson, “Matty”, already a 263-game winner (en route to 373) started for the Giants. His opponent was Russ Ford, inventor of the scuffed up “emory ball”, who had won a still-standing rookie record of 26 games in 1910, with 209 strikeouts. Mathewson had thrown 318 innings with 27 complete games, but was coming off a rare four-day rest.

This would be a best-of-seven series as autumn descended on New York, with falling temperatures and an early sunset. The Giants had been in the World Series before; this was going to be a new October experience for Highlander fans.

The day belonged to Matty, who pitched a 5-1 victory, striking out 14 and walking no one. The Giant scored four in the eighth to break a 1-1 tie, and take a 1-0 lead in the series.

Game two would be at “the Hilltop”, on land the owners (Frank Farrell and Bill Devery) were forced to take in 1903 when the Giants successfully blocked their attempts to choose a site more geographically desirable. It cost more to blast the rocks and level the field than it did to buy the team.

At least the subway now stopped there – 167th Street – a station which required a slow elevator to street level, hence “Hilltop Park.” (The elevator is still there, and still slow). Hardy fans got off at the Polo Grounds exit ten blocks south and walked north, rather than wait their turn for the elevator. As for the game, 10,565 attended and witnessed the Hilltoppers score two in the ninth off Hooks Wiltse for a 5-4 win behind Jack Warhop. Wiltse, (whose brother “Snake” had pitched briefly for the original Highlanders) had been so disgusted by Billy Evans’ ball-strike calls, that he threw his glove down in disgust. Chase, who walked to force in the winning run, was mobbed on the field by the fans. Merkle stayed at first to make sure everyone touched their bases correctly. He’d been there.

Game three was back at the Polo Grounds, and the Saturday contest drew 27,766, bigger than any World Series game would draw that month in Philadelphia or Chicago. And it was the biggest New York City crowd of the year. This one was taken by the Giants 6-4, with Mathewson pitching in relief and earning what we would call a save today. Two Yankee batters – Jimmy Austin and Bert Daniels – were fined $25 by umpire Klem for arguing balls and strikes, an umpire prerogative at the time. It was noted in the press that the fans were growing increasingly partisan, cheering and booing their favorite teams more derisively, and treating the game as more than the exhibition it was. Bragging rights were being established.

There being no Sunday baseball in New York until 1919 (one of the last holdout cities), the off day was followed by game four back uptown on October 17, which coincided with the day the World Series began in Philadelphia.

A near capacity crowd of 13,050 turned out to witness a 5-5 tie, halted by darkness shortly after 5 p.m. The fans booed when the umpires stopped play, but they weren’t the ones standing in the batter’s box without helmets, trying to see scuffed up fastballs, spitballs, emory balls and fadeaways thrown from 60’6” away.

Game five on Tuesday afternoon at the Polo Grounds saw Mathewson beat Ray Fisher 5-1, before 15,353, to take a 3-1 lead in the series. Fisher, just 22, and like Matty a college man, went on to coach baseball at the University of Michigan for 38 years, starting in 1921, and even attended a Yankee Old Timers Day in 1982 at the age of 94. (He died several weeks later, and was the last survivor of this series).

Home runs were hit by the Giants’ captain Larry Doyle and left fielder Josh Devore, who each hit two in the series – the only ones hit. The Yankees, unlike their descendants, were not built for power. Hilltop Park was not exactly a home run haven – since 1904, Highlander players had hit only eight over-the-fence home runs in Hilltop Park. That’s right, eight in seven seasons.

On Wednesday the 19th, chilly weather kept the crowd to 7,462 at Hilltop Park, where the winds blowing in from the Hudson River made for an unpleasant afternoon. But the Yankees won the game 10-2 with eight runs in the second inning. Jack Quinn, in relief, won it, and the second-year spitballer was still serving them up in 1921 as a member of that first Yankees World Series team – the only Highlander to eventually appear in a Yankee World Series.

The weather was winning out, the temperature was in the low fifties, and many doubtless felt this should have been a best-of-five series. After a rainout on Thursday, only 4,439 brave souls ventured in the cold drizzle to the Polo Grounds for game seven, October 21, seeing Mathewson (with an extra day’s rest), win his third game (plus the save), so that the New York Times headline the next morning could say “MATHEWSON BEATS YANKS FOURTH TIME: Famous Pitcher Practically Wins Manhattan Championship for the Giants.” The score was 6-3, and a highlight was the Yanks’ Hemphill lining one down the right field line which rolled under the parked car of Giants owner John Brush. It was ruled a double. Apparently, permission was granted to Brush to park inside the park.

Devore hit .414 to lead the Giants, and the Yanks’ shortstop John Knight hit .391 to top their roster.

There was no Corvette for a series MVP, (Mathewson’s performance was noted on his 1911 baseball card) but each player did get a participation medal, and the winning Giants also pocketed $1,111, with each Yankee receiving $706.76, (less $25 for Austin and Daniels, of course) all rightly based, as today, on attendance for just the first four games.

The teams agreed to play again after the 1911 season, but in 1911, 1912 and 1913 the Giants went to the World Series, so there was no Manhattan championship played. The series was revived in 1914, with the Giants winning in five games but with no crowd over 14,000. By then, the two teams shared the Polo Grounds, and the thrill of the 1910 series in dueling ballparks seemed to have faded.

The “real” 1910 World Series ended two days later in Chicago, with the Athletics besting the Cubs in five games, and ultimately outdrawing the Yankees-Giants series, largely because Hilltop Park had such a small capacity. $2,063 was the winner’s share for each Athletic.

The “feud” McGraw felt towards the Yankees had been stilled. The following year, after a fire tore through the Polo Grounds, the Yankees invited the Giants to play 28 games at Hilltop Park while repairs were hastily made. And then from 1913-22, the two teams shared the Polo Grounds and Hilltop Park was no more.

The 1910 exhibition series may have been the high water mark of the entire Highlanders era.