Eight Things You Should KNow About the Birth of the Yankees By W. Nikola-Lisa
By Floyd Miller
The New York Yankees are a household name. Everyone knows who they are. Casually mention “The Yankees” and your audience instantly knows what you’re talking about. They’re that famous. But have you ever thought about how the Yankees became the Yankees? For instance, did you know they came from Baltimore? Here are eight things you should know about the birth of major league baseball’s most successful franchise.1. Ban Johnson Dreams of Power. First of all, the story of the New York Yankees is the story of the American League. When little-known sports editor Ban Johnson, working for the “Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette” in the early 1890s, signed on to be president of the Western League, a small minor league circuit operating in the Midwest, he did so with the dream of building it into a powerful major league. His push to move Western League teams east in order to compete with the dominant National League is the true beginning of the New York Yankees’ story.2. Before New York, There Was Baltimore. The Yankees actually didn’t come from New York: they came from Baltimore. Throughout the 1890s, the National League fended off one major league contender after another. By 1899, they had successfully crushed all contenders. As such, they downsized from a bloated 12-team league to a more trim eight-team circuit. One of the teams dropped was Baltimore, which had been a strong National League team since the mid-1880s. Johnson quickly moved an American League team into the Baltimore market, but his eye was really on New York City.3. Western League Becomes American League. Johnson’s eye might have been on New York City, which at the time meant Manhattan, but his ability to move a team there was thwarted. When Johnson announced at the end of the 1900 season that the Western League would compete as a major league under its new name—the American League—owners of National League clubs tried to thwart every move made by Johnson. This was especially true of the owners of the National League’s New York Giants, since New York City was the only National League territory in which an American League team had yet to be placed. 4. Hilltop Park. It took two years, but Johnson finally placed a team in Manhattan. But they were not called the Yankees; they were called the Hilltop Highlanders. Tired of being thwarted by the National League, Johnson sold the Baltimore franchise to two New York City underworld characters—Frank Farrell and “Big Bill” Devery—who quickly found a piece of property in upper Manhattan and built a ballpark on it. The ballpark was officially called American League Park, but was known locally as Hilltop Park since it sat on a high point in Washington Heights. The Highlanders—a mediocre team at best—played at Hilltop for ten years, until 1912 when they lost their lease. 5. The Giants to the Rescue. As in any story, luck usually plays a role, sometimes a major role. The story of the Yankees is no different. After the Highlanders lost their lease in 1912 they should have folded up their tent and disappeared, but a little luck came their way. In the spring of 1911, a mysterious fire swept through the Polo Grounds, where the dreaded New York Giants played. Instead of turning their backs on their cross-town rival, Farrell and Devery extended an olive branch: they invited the Giants to play their home games at Hilltop while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. It wasn’t a stroke of genius, just a gentlemanly offer between rivals. But the gesture saved the Highlanders. Knowing that the Highlanders’ lease wouldn’t be renewed at the end of the 1912 season, the Giants extended their own olive branch, offering the Highlanders a ten-year lease at the Polo Grounds. 6. Ruppert and Huston Step In. Although luck can be a useful thing, still it’s money and power that rule the day. That is especially true of the Yankees’ story. Even though Farrell and Devery had a new lease on life—literally—by 1914 they were broke, so they let it be known that the team was for sale. At the end of the season, they sold the Yankees to two wealthy New York City businessmen—Col. Jake Ruppert, who was heir to his father’s brewing business, and T. L. “Cap” Huston, an engineer by trade who had made a fortune rebuilding Havana after the Spanish-American War. After the purchase was complete, Ruppert and Huston set about rebuilding the Yankees. They did so by stocking the team with men who could hit the long ball.7. Babe Ruth. Ruppert and Huston stocked the team with a key player: George Herman “Babe” Ruth, who joined the team at the end of the 1919 season. By then, major league baseball had transitioned from the “dead ball era,” characterized by stolen bases and nickel-and-dime hits, to the “live ball era,” known for its big innings of extra-base hits and monster home runs. Ruth took full advantage of the changing times, slugging home runs to the delight of everyone, especially the Yankees’ new owners. Fans flocked to the Polo Grounds, but not to see the Giants, who were still the National League’s top team: they came to watch Babe Ruth hit home runs. 8. Yankees vs. Giants. By the time their lease at the Polo Grounds expired, the Yankees were consistently drawing more fans than the Giants, which made the owners of the Giants furious. Hoping they would pick up and move to the farmlands of New Jersey, the Giants refused to renew the Yankees’ lease. But Ruppert and Huston had anticipated as much and were already looking for a piece of property to build a new ballpark. They found one, in the Bronx, a mere stone’s throw across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. We know it today as Yankee Stadium.Many books on the Yankees begin at this point—in 1923—the year Ruppert and Huston opened Yankee Stadium. This was the year they won their third American League pennant and took home their first of many World Series Championship titles. So, it’s quite natural to begin the story of the Yankees here. But when it comes to understanding the origins of the Yankees—their long, arduous climb out of obscurity into the bright lights of major league baseball—we have to go back in time, to the very origins of the American League in the last decade of the 19th century. W. Nikola-Lisa is the author of “The Men Who Made the Yankees: The Odyssey of the World’s Greatest Baseball Team from Baltimore to the Bronx.” Find out more about his published work at gyroscopebooks.