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January:  Major Big Deal Month in Yankee History

All kinds of things take place in baseball in January, but for most teams historically the month is a dead time. That is not the case for the New York Yankees who seem to have a lock on big doings in the first month of the year.

On January 9, 1903 -  Frank Farrell and Bill Devery bought the defunct American League Baltimore franchise for $18,000 and moved the team to  Manhattan. Farrell was a well known gambler; William S. "Big Bill" Devery was a former New York City Chief of Police who bragged that he had never read a book. Farrell and Devery owned hundreds of pool rooms and nearly as many politicians, and they knew their way around town. 

The sordid reputations of the new owners convinced American League prez Ban Johnson that it would be wiser at the start to keep them backstage. Front stage was for Joseph W. Gordon, dealer in coal, ex-state assemblyman, ex-president of the New York Metropolitans of the American Association.  He was installed as the figurehead president of the new team.

The formal name for the park was New York American League Ball Park. But since it was situated at the highest point in Manhattan, it was dubbed Hilltop Park. 

The official name for the team was the New York Americans. But because of its lofty location - fans and sportswriters used the nick-name Hilltoppers. Others preferred Highlanders because of the elevated playing site and because club president Gordon's name was reminiscent of the fabled British Army unit - the Gordon Highlanders. Other names employed to describe the new American League entry included: Hill Dwellers, Porch Climbers, Burglars, Cliffmen.

The team had a decidedly local flavor.  It also had a patch-work look with seven first year performers and an assortment of other players whose roots were with 11 teams. That first season the Highlanders won 72 games, finishing in fourth place - 17 games out of first, and 211,808 came out to see them play.

A slum of a ballpark right off the bat, Hilltop became more and more ramshackle as time passed.  At first players dressed in their hotel since there was not even a clubhouse.   Parking space was minimal, too, until lots were set up in 1906 inside the grounds behind the grandstand for carriages and cars.

There was also a promise by the Highlander owners that there would be no advertising in the ballpark. That promise lasted until 1907 when boards in the outfield were plastered with advertisements for Morocco cigarettes at 15 cents a package, Regal shoes, F.C. Rye. 

Highlander changes in managers and playing personnel were echoed by tinkering with the team's uniform which at the start was black with a N and Y on the jersey front. By 1909, the Yankee monogram was placed on the uniform jersey's left sleeve and the front of the cap. Two years later "NEW YORK" was spelled out in arched capital letters on the jersey front.

In 1912, the Highlanders were frequently being referred to as Yankees in newspapers. The New York Times noted: "The Yankees presented a natty appearance in their new uniforms of white with black pinstripes.  The Yankee nick-name was coined by Jim Price, sports editor of the New York Press. He like other journalists had complained that Highlanders was too long a name to squeeze into newspaper headlines. It was said that the red, white and blue flags that adorned Hilltop Park gave Price the idea for the Yankee name.

Through the first decade of the New York American League franchise's history   - change was the only constant.  But Devery and Farrell out-did themselves in 19l3. Everything was changed.    

For the 1913 season the Highlanders-Hilltoppers officially changed their name to the New York Yankees. That was one change. Another was the abandoning of Hilltop Park. The last game played there was on October 5, 1912.  The Yankees became tenants at the Polo Grounds of the Giants who had won three pennants in a row.

The Yankees were a non prime time organization on the playing field and off it, too.  Farrell and Devery, the co-owners, who had begun as friends, now barely spoke to each other.  With their team a shambles and their varied business forays fizzling, it was time for them to move on.

Enter on January 11, 1915, Colonel Jake Ruppert and Col. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston. They paid the $460,000 price and became  co-owners of the New York Yankees, a franchise that had a 12 year record of 861-937, an average attendance of just 345,000 each season.  Again, that January thing for the Yankees!

There was still one more January jolt looming.

On January 3, 1920 -  Babe Ruth's contract was purchased by the Yankees from the Boston Red Sox for $125,000 and a $350,000 loan against the mortgage on Fenway Park.

Who knows what this January has looming?

#   #   #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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