By Marty Appel
A hundred seasons ago, the New York Yankees were born.
To see the international recognition of the franchise’s storied name today, it is hard to imagine how humble the origins were. Like the majesty of Yankee Stadium vs. the wood and nails of Hilltop Park, it has been, like New York City itself, a remarkable hundred years of growth.
It all began as a dream of Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson, the founder of the American League, who took on the mighty National League in 1901 with franchises in
Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
But he knew, and followers of baseball knew, that this would never truly be a “major league” until the nation’s most populous city was included. And if Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia could deal with two leagues, surely New York, which had recently merged its boroughs, could manage the accommodation.
In fact, the population of Manhattan was 1.85 million in 1900, even greater than the 1.54 million today.
But politics was on the side of the Nationals. The owner of the might New York Giants, Andrew Freedman, was a particularly well connected member of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, and as such, he was able to block any site proposed by Johnson for construction of a ballpark to house an American League team. No park, no team.
In mid-season of 1902, Freedman bought control of the A.L.’s Baltimore Orioles, releasing most of the players, signing the better ones for New York, and pulling the manager, John McGraw, north to begin his long reign as Giants’ manager. The Orioles were looking at possible forfeiture of the balance of its schedule, had not Johnson acted quickly and filled out the roster with players from the other A.L. teams. The Orioles managed to finish the season, and at year’s end, Freedman left baseball, selling his interest in the Giants to John Brush.
With Freedman gone, it was easier to move an American League team into New York. On January 19, 1903, a peace agreement between the two leagues was signed, ending bidding wars and moving the Baltimore team to New York. The deal hinged on finding a site to build a ballpark, and of course, finding ownership. (It was the last franchise shift the major leagues would experience until the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953).
New York Sun sportswriter Joe Vila had owners in mind. He introduced Johnson to a couple of real New York “characters” of the time, Frank J. Farrell, and “Big Bill” Devery.
Farrell owned a fleet of racehorses and ran some 250 pool halls, gambling houses and saloons, mostly in what is today the West Village. The jewel in his crown was a classy gambling palace on West 33rd Street near the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Gambling houses could thrive in those days if the proper payoffs were made to the “right people.” Devery, as it happened, was a famously corrupt police chief and as such, was one of the right people. The two had a cozy “working relationship,” and would vacation together during racing season at Saratoga. Likeable Big Bill had been New York’s last Chief of Police before the position became Police Commissioner in 1901. He enjoyed a reputation as “probably the most notorious police officer in New York City’s history,” according to writer Lincoln Steffens. He lived in a mansion on West End Avenue.
Farrell and Devery paid $18,000 for the Baltimore franchise and tabbed Joseph W. Gordon, a coal dealer and former assemblyman, to be the team’s president and “front man” while they tended to their other interests. Devery would not play a big role in the running of the club, but his cigar-smoking, oversize presence was always apparent when he attended a game and sat in the owner’s box next to the New York bench.
Still, a site was needed to play baseball, and quickly. And John Brush, while not quite as powerful as Freedman, was still capable of working with Tammany Hall to block desired locations and push the new team beyond where the expanding IRT subway line ran.
Despite protests from the Washington Heights Board of Improvement, who feared that baseball would bring “undesirables” into the neighborhood, Farrell and Devery signed a 10-year lease for a parcel of land from the New York Institute for the Blind between 165th and 168th Streets and between Eleventh Avenue and Ft. Washington Avenue for their ballpark. To reach it from heavily populated downtown, it could take up to an hour on the 9-mph electrical Broadway streetcar line. On the other hand, a subway could whisk you up to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants in about 20 minutes.
In just six weeks, at a cost of $200,000, workers managed to level the land, blast a rockpile away where a grandstand would be built, and fill in a swamp near the Broadway side of the field with the displaced earth. For an additional $75,000, the wooden grandstand went up seating 15,000. A fence surrounded the whole place, with the words “N.Y. American League” painted over the Broadway entrance.
The land was at the highest point of Manhattan, and it did not take long before people started calling the ballpark “Hilltop Park.” The team would be nicknamed “The Highlanders,” not only because of their location, but because a famed British regiment was known as the “Gordon Highlanders,” and this appealed to Joseph Gordon, who encouraged it.
In truth, nicknames were not as sacred as they are today. A newspaper story might well refer to the team as simply the New York Americans on a given day, and then, even as early as 1904, slip into use the word “Yankees.” Perhaps this had something to do with the team being “north” of the Giants’ Polo Grounds, and the north had been the “Yankees” in the Civil War. It was also, of course, a patriotic word to northerners, which played well with the public as well as with headline writers, who had struggled with Highlanders. (The team finally became the Yankees for good in 1913).
While rocks were being cleared, a team was being assembled for spring training in Atlanta. Ban Johnson wanted a formidable team for New York, and he personally intervened in helping to stock what would be the highest-paid roster in the league.
Clark Griffith, who had managed the Chicago White Stockings in 1901-02, was moved to New York as player-manager of the Highlanders. “The Old Fox” had been a great pitcher in the National League in the 1890s, and had led Chicago to the first A.L. pennant. His days as a star player were winding down, but he would continue to appear on the mound for the Highlanders, posting a 14-11 record in that first season.
The first players to join the Highlanders were pitchers Jack Chesbro and Jess Tannehill. Both had jumped from Pittsburgh before the peace agreement was reached, after winning 47 games between them in 1902. The only Baltimore players who made it to New York were second baseman Jimmy Williams, centerfielder Herm McFarland, and pitchers Harry Howell and Snake Wiltse.
Sixteen players had contracts which had been in dispute at the time of the peace agreement, and four were awarded to New York: outfielders Lefty Davis, Dave Fultz and Willie Keeler, and third baseman Wid Conroy.
“Wee Willie” Keeler, 31, a Brooklyn native and a veteran of the Brooklyn Nationals, was the pick of the litter. He was paid $10,000 a year, tops in the new league, and brought with him a .377 lifetime batting average from the National League, and howls of “traitor!” from his Brooklyn fans. Famous for hitting “em where they ain’t,” he would be the team’s first star and would lead New York with a somewhat disappointing .313 average and 98 runs scored in 1903. A shoulder injury incurred when his carriage flipped over while barnstorming in California had reduced his effectiveness, and, it was said, he was having second thoughts about jumping leagues, particularly with the long trip to Washington Heights from his Brooklyn home.
A veteran shortstop and longtime N.L. star, Herman “Germany” Long, was awarded to New York, but on June 10 he would be traded (with infielder Ernie Courtney) to Detroit for rough-and-tumble Norm “The Tabasco Kid” Elberfeld in what would be the franchise’s first trade.
John Ganzel, who had earlier played first base for the Giants, was recruited for the Highlander job in ’03 after being released from smallpox quarantine. He would hit the team’s first home run on May 22 at Chicago, 20 games into the season. “Rowdy Jack” O’Connor, a 16-year veteran, would share the bulk of the catching duties with a 28-year old rookie, Monte Beville.
Many looked at the roster and decided that this was in fact an all-star team, assembled to make good in a hurry in the competitive environment of New York. There were some 13 daily newspapers in New York, and Farrell and Devery proceeded to court them all in an effort to gain equal footing with the lordly Giants. (“Start spreading the news…..”). Besides Joe Vila at the Sun, Mark Roth of the Globe was an early supporter of the team. In fact, in 1915 Roth would become the team’s traveling secretary and its first historian, having seen nearly every game since their first, and holding the traveling secretary position until 1942. He would span Willie Keeler to Phil Rizzuto.
The Highlanders, decked in dark blue uniforms with a white, separated N.Y. on the jersey and matching caps, played its first game on April 22, 1903 in Washington’s League Park on Florida Avenue N.E., about a mile from where Teddy Roosevelt resided in the White House. Several blocks southwest, Congress was in session, featuring a young Democratic representative from the Silk Stocking District of Manhattan, Jacob Ruppert.
11,950 fans turned out to see the Senators win 3-1 behind pitcher Al Orth (who would move to New York the following year). For the record, the Highlanders lineup was lf Davis, rf Keeler, cf Fultz, 2b Williams, 1b Ganzel, 3b Conroy, ss Long, c O’Connor, p Chesbro. An oddity: the Senators batted first, as the rules permitted. Seldom did a home team take that option.
New York won the next day, 7-2, for their first victory.
The first home game came on Thursday afternoon, April 30. Hilltop Park wasn’t “done.” There was no roof over the grandstand, but it was complete enough for more than 16,000 people to manage their way uptown. There were no clubhouses, and the players arrived dressed in uniform.
The exterior outfield fence now said “American League Park,” and if fans turned their backs from the field, they could see the Hudson River two blocks west and the New Jersey Palisades in the distance. The fences were foolishly distant – 542 to center, 365 to left, 400 to right –but no one was going to hit home runs in the dead ball days anyway. (McFarland led the team with five that year, probably all on the road, unless he had some inside-the-parks ones at home.)
No less than George M. Cohan was on hand to sing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” without benefit of a P.A. system, and the 69th Regiment Band played tunes like “The Star Spangled Banner” (not yet the national anthem), and “Yankee Doodle.” The two teams, New York and Washington again, each waved little American flags as they followed the band across the field. Ban Johnson, senior contractor Thomas McAvoy, Gordon, and the owners of the Senators (Fred Postal) and even the Athletics (Ben Shibe), also joined in the march, a “celebration to the will of the American working man,” who constructed the park so rapidly. Each spectator also received small flags to wave. (The first Yankee promotion day was thus American Flag Day!) Johnson threw out the first pitch.
Playing conditions were poor. Despite the 400-foot distance to right, a swampy condition there forced the team to rope off an area closer in. Anything past the rope was a ground rule double. Some days later, heavy rain caused such flooding in right, that Keeler had to stand on a wooden platform, never mind who the batter was. (By June, the team conceded that a shorter fence was the answer, and the swamp was closed off.)
The home opener was better than the road opener, the Yankees beating Washington 6-2 before the standing-room-only crowd. For this, they wore home whites with white caps, the dark N.Y. matching the styling of the road uniform.
The team, alas, got off poorly and did not fulfill expectations.
In addressing the specifics of their inaugural season, Francis Richter, writing in the 1904 Reach Baseball Guide, conceded that “The All-star New York team proved to be the greatest disappointment in the American League. It got a poor start, owing to the illness of Long, the disability of Fultz, the failure of O’Connor and a general batting slump. It was further heavily handicapped by its new and therefore rough ground. For half the season, the team trailed in the second division, but finally Manager Griffith got things to working smoothly, braced up his infield with Elberfeld, whom he secured from Detroit, and in the latter half of the season, the Highlanders showed their true calibre. They not only held their own, thereafter, on the road, but proved their superiority at home, gradually got into the race good and hard, and finished a very close fourth.”
Actually, the only thing they were close to was second place, finishing 2 ½ games from that slot, winning ten of their last 14. They had a 72-62 record and were 17 games behind first place Boston, the “Curse of the Bambino” not yet in place.
The team drew an announced total of 211,808 fans, to the Giants’ 579,530, averaging not much more than 3,000 per game. Attendance doubled in 1904, and in time, the subway would reach them, and the fans would find them.
Gordon was replaced by Farrell in 1907 as team President, Devery having moved on to other interests. The team was sold to brewer Jacob Ruppert, (the former Congressman), and engineer “Til” Huston in 1915 for $460,000, and it was they who would buy Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920 and open Yankee Stadium in 1923.
Farrell and Devery never won a thing, wound up not speaking to each other, but did fulfill their lease obligation at Hilltop Park and then moved in with the Giants as tenants at the Polo Grounds in 1913. Devery died in 1919, Farrell in 1926. Both died broke.
From the original Highlanders, Griffith lasted as manager into the 1908 season, quit over Farrell’s interference, and went on to purchase the Washington Senators, owning that team until his death in 1955. Chesbro won a record 41 games in 1904, but his wild pitch at the end of the season cost the Highlanders a pennant. Keeler, apparently adjusting to his commute, remained with the team until he was released the end of the 1909 season and was the last of the original Highlanders to depart the club. All three are in the Hall of Fame.
Second baseman Jimmy Williams was the longest surviving member of the original Highlanders, living until 1965, when he died at 88.
Hilltop Park was torn down in 1914, and in the ‘20s, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center was erected there. A memorial plaque, where home plate had been, was installed in a courtyard ceremony there in 1993.
As for the team, they gave the rest of the league a 20-year head start on winning pennants, and didn’t win their first until 1921. They did pretty well for the remainder of the century.
Richter probably summed up the true value of the 1903 season when he wrote, “The American League made its calling and election as a real major league secure by the establishment of a club on Manhattan Island. The new Greater New York Club did not score the success expected, owing to unforeseen and unavoidable first-season handicaps, but it secured such a footing as to assure its fixture as a New York institution, thus adding strength to the American League and bringing its circuit to full major league calibre.”
A New York institution, indeed.
Baseball’s place in American literature is not necessarily measured by book sales and a landing on best-seller lists. Indeed, many fine books about the game develop cult followings, strong word-of-mouth, and a treasured place in baseball libraries without being necessarily reflected in sales.
Still, we’re baseball people, and we love our league leaders. We comb the stats and categorize the numbers, and find a certain order, a certain rightness to looking at names and numbers in charts. It’s who we are as baseball fans.
And so comes the wonderful marriage over the years between baseball books and the New York Times best-seller list.
There are any number of best-seller lists in the country, most published on Sundays, but it is the hardcover list in the Times that tends to be the standard-bearer, the one publishers themselves turn to when designing the paperback and proudly adding “New York Times Bestseller!”
The Times began its list on October 6, 1935 as a monthly feature. It became weekly on August 9, 1942, well after Christy Mathewson might have made it with “Pitching in a Pinch” (1912), or Ring Lardner with “You Know Me, Al” (1914), or John McGraw with “My Thirty Years in Baseball” (1923).
The methodology in researching the list was to work with Deborah Hoffman at the Times, and provide her with all names of books that might have appeared. She would check the book against her file, and if there was a match, she would be able to provide the number of weeks on the list. It was not possible to do a computer search entering “baseball” and have all the best-sellers come back. It had to be checked one at a time, and yes, the possibility exists that one or two could have been missed. For example, Paul O’Neill’s “Me and My Dad”, published just this year in time for Father’s Day, spent a week on the list just at that time of year. It’s the sort of book that one might not think of years from now. But it was, indeed, the 35th baseball book to make the list.
It is important to note, of course, that making the list has a lot to do with what else is out there at the time, and not necessarily about total sales. An evergreen work of literature like Lawrence Ritter’s wonderful “The Glory of Their Times”, considered by many the best baseball book ever, never appeared on the list, but has sold more than 360,000 to date. However, it is still selling some 40 years later, still beloved, and in aggregate, surely one of the best-selling baseball books in history. But in no particular week was it able to crack the list.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, published by MacMillan, totaled nearly a million in sales through its nine editions, but never made the list.
The first baseball book to appear on the list was “The Babe Ruth Story”, by Ruth and Bob Considine, which checked in at number 14 on May 30, 1948, about 11 weeks before the Babe’s passing. So for the man who hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium and the first home run in an All-Star Game, the Babe had one more “first” before his death; he was the author of the first baseball book to make the Times best-seller list.
How much the dying Ruth cared about that fact, or about the book itself, is open to question. We do know from anecdotal tales, that he did attend a book party thrown by the publisher, and at the party Considine asked Ruth if he might sign a personalized copy.
“Sure,” said the Babe. “What’s your name again?”
“The Babe Ruth Story” spent three weeks on the list. We skip over 1954’s Grantland Rice memoir, “The Tumolt and the Shouting”, because that book, like others to follow, was all sports, not strictly baseball. It did spend 26 weeks on the list, and “Cosell,” an autobiography by the acerbic sportscaster Howard Cosell, spent 21 weeks in 1973. But neither was strictly baseball, and thus doesn’t make our cut.
So the next baseball book to hit the list after Ruth did not come until 1955, when the autobiography of Jimmy Piersall, “Fear Strikes Out”, written with Al Hirschberg, appeared on the list for a single week. The book, which dealt with Piersall’s mental illness while playing for the Red Sox, inspired a movie, but the movie publicity did not help propel this to the list; the movie was released in 1957.
Only two books, aided by the release of a movie, have ever hit the list. Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” was first published in 1952, but did not make the list until Robert Redford starred in the movie in 1984. And W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe”, from which Field of Dreams came to the cinema, made it in 1989, seven years after it was first published.
In any case, the 1940s gave us Ruth and the 1950s Piersall, not a very voluminous impression of baseball on the list. Only three books from the 1960s would hit – ex-pitcher Jim Brosnan’s acclaimed “The Long Season”, ex-catcher Joe Garagiola’s riotous “Baseball is a Funny Game”, and ex-owner Bill Veeck’s memoir, “Veeck as in Wreck”.
Baseball writing in the ‘70s was beckoned by the publication of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”, which would go on to 17 weeks on the hardcover list, breaking Veeck’s record of 15, and Garagiola’s of 13. Bouton’s book has been reissued under numerous publishers, and the author’s own estimate on total sales of all editions is over three million. And while the Bouton book opened the door for baseball writing with a higher octane level of publicity, and led to Leo Durocher/Ed Linn’s “Nice Guys Finish Last” (1975) and Sparky Lyle/Peter Golenbock’s “Bronx Zoo” (1979, 220,000 sold), there was also a welcome place for Roger Kahn’s classic “The Boys of Summer”, (1972). With 140,000 hardcover sales during it’s record 24-week best-seller run, (which would continue to grew to more than 2.5 million, including1.9 in trade paperback, covering a remarkable 85 editions), the book was the first not written by a baseball insider, but rather, by an observer of the game, to crack the list.
Kahn’s ”A Season in the Sun”, (1977) and Roger Angell’s first collection of New Yorker magazine articles, “The Summer Game” (1972), were also mid-‘70s delights on the list. “The Bronx Zoo” held firm on the list for an amazing 29 weeks, breaking Kahn’s record, and setting a mark which would stand for 11 years.
Ten books would break through in the 1980s, including “The Natural” and “Shoeless Joe.” Two were by umpire Ron Luciano and David Fisher, “The Umpire Strikes Back” (18 weeks, 400,000 copies sold), and “Strike Two” (260,000 copies sold). Golenbock’s collaboration with Graig Nettles, “Balls”, found a place on the list, as did Angell’s “Late Innings”, Pete Rose’s collaboration with Roger Kahn, “Pete Rose: My Story”, Reggie Jackson’s autobiography written with Mike Lupica (“Reggie”), “Bill James Historical Abstract”, which came off and on the list over a period of three years for a total of 13 weeks, and Duke Snider’s autobiography, written with Bill Gilbert, “The Duke of Flatbush”. For Kahn, it marked his third appearance on the list. He’s the only baseball writer to accomplish that.
Five books made the list in the 1990s, the first of which, “Men At Work”, by George Will, stayed on the list for 35 weeks – nearly 9 months – breaking Lyle’s record and still the pace setter to this day. Eighteen of those weeks were spent at the number one position.
In addition to Will, the only books to crack the list in the ‘90s were “If I Had a Hammer” (Hank Aaron and Lonnie Wheeler), “All My Octobers” (Mickey Mantle and Phil Pepe), “Wait Til Next Year” (Doris Kearns Goodwin) and “Bunts” (George Will’s follow-up), which only spent two weeks on the list.
This new millenium seems to find a baseball hungry reading audience waiting on line for bookstores to open. With the decade only 4 years old, nine books have already hit, including O’Neills. The others have been Bob Costas’s “Fair Ball” (2000), Richard Ben Cramer’s “Joe DiMaggio” (2000), Yogi Berra and Dave Kaplan’s “When You Come to a Fork in the Road” (2001), “Zimmer” (2001) by Don Zimmer and Bill Madden, Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” (2002), and this year’s “Perfect I’m Not” (David Wells and Chris Kreski), ”The Teammates” (David Halberstam) and “Moneyball” (Michael Lewis).
Among those that didn’t make the cut were the autobiographies by Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Bob Creamer’s wonderful biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel, Ray Robinson’s Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson bios, Halberstam’s earlier baseball books, “Summer of ‘49” and “October 1964”, the Putnam team histories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, Frank Graham’s and Paul Gallico’s Gehrig bios, Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out”, Pat Jordan’s “A False Spring,” or Daniel Okrant’s and Harris Lewine’s “The Ultimate Baseball Book,” which has been in print and selling since 1979.
Tops by Weeks on List
35 Men At Work (Will, 1990)
29 The Bronx Zoo (Lyle, Golenbock, 1979)
24 The Boys of Summer (Kahn, 1972)
20 Moneyball (Lewis, 2003)
18 The Umpire Strikes Back (Luciano, Fisher 1982)
17 Ball Four (Bouton, Schecter 1970)
16 Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (Leavy 2002)
15 Veeck As in Wreck (Veeck, Linn 1962)
15 Balls (Nettles, Golenbock 1983)
13 Baseball is a Funny Game (Garagiola, 1960)
13 Bill James Historical Abstract (James, 1984)
13 The Teammates (Halberstam, 2003)
10 Wait til Next Year (Goodwin, 1997)
10 Fair Ball (Costas, 2000)
9 weeks – Joe DiMaggio (2000), 7 weeks – When You Come to a Fork in the Road (2001), 6 weeks – All My Octobers (1994), Late Innings (1982), 5 weeks – Perfect I’m Not (2003), If I Had a Hammer (1991), The Summer Game (1972), 4 weeks – Shoeless Joe (1989), Reggie (1984), 3 weeks – The Babe Ruth Story (1948), Zimmer (2001), 2 weeks – Bunts (1998), Pete Rose: My Story (1989), The Duke of Flatbush (1988), 1 week – Me and My Dad (2003), The Natural (1984), Strike Two (1984), A Season in the Sun (1977), Nice Guys Finish Last (1975), The Long Season (1960), Fear Strikes Out (1955).