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First Yankee Home Game
April 30, 1903

Hilltop Park was a slum of a ballpark from the beginning, and it became worse as time went by. Lacking a clubhouse, players at first dressed in hotels. Parking space was minimal too, until 1906 when lots were set up inside the grounds behind the grandstand for carriages and cars.

The formal name for the park was New York American League Ball Park. But its location at the highest point in Manhattan earned it the name 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 evoked the fabled British Army unit - the Gordon Highlanders. Other names to describe the new American League entry included: Hill Dwellers, Porch Climbers, Burglars, Cliffmen.

The franchise had been bought for $18,000 by well known gambler Frank Farrell and former New York City Chief of Police William S. "Big Bill" Devery. The duo owned hundreds of poolrooms and nearly as many politicians. The team had a decidedly local flavor with most players coming from the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. It had a patch-work look with seven rookies and others whose roots were with 11 teams.

There were two former National League stars - Wee Willie Keeler, 31, of "hit 'em where they ain't fame," and ace spitballer "Happy Jack" Chesbro. The 5'4" Keeler brought to the Highlanders his 30 1/2 inch bat, shortest in major league history, a .371 lifetime batting average and all kinds of superstitions. Chesbro brought along his spitball.

Each of the 16,294 that attended the game on the balmy Opening Day of the brand new American League franchise: the New York Highlanders received a small American flag, a gift of the new league president Ban Johnson. Many of the fans arrived at Hilltop Park that day via the new subway station at 168th Street. A seat in the single deck-covered wooden grandstand that extended from first base to third base cost 50 cents. Bleacher seats were 75 cents, box seats a dollar.

Those who sat in the upper seats behind home plate enjoyed a unique view of the Hudson River, two blocks to the east of the ball park, and the Palisades in New Jersey on the opposite side. Located on the west side of Broadway and Ft. Washington Avenue, between 165th and 168th Streets in Washington Heights, the new park was ten blocks north of the Polo Grounds. Its main entrance faced Broadway. The roof of the grandstand was not yet in place. It was estimated that more than $200,000 had been spent excavating 12,000 cubic yards of rock. At a cost of $15,000, the hastily constructed wooden ballpark was created in six weeks on the roughly cleared site.

The surface of the playing field was dirt on rock, dirt on dirt. An unsightly hollow in right field was roped off. Players hitting a ball past the ropes were awarded a double. That June, when a fence was put up in front of the hollow, players hitting a ball over the fence would be awarded a home run. Left field was 365 feet from home plate; centerfield was a monstrous 542, and right field was 400 feet.

At 3 P.M., the Highlanders and Washington Senators marched from the outfield to home plate. The two squads stood at attention as the 69th Regiment band played the "Washington Post March" and then the "Star Spangled Banner." The first ball was thrown out by Ban Johnson, and the game began.

Behind the pitching of Jack Chesbro, the Highlanders won 6-2. The franchise's first home game was in the history books. That first season the Highlanders won 72 games, finishing in fourth place - 17 games out of first.

SIDEBAR: 1903 Highanders Roster

Doc Adkins, Monte Beville, Elmer Bliss, Jack Chesbro, Wid Conroy, Ernie Courtney, Lefty Davis, John Deering, Kid Elberfeld, Dave Fultz, John Ganzel, Paddy Greene, Clark Griffith, Fred Holmes, Harry Howell, Tim Jordan, Willie Keeler, Herman Long, Pat McCauley, Herm McFarland, Jack O'Connor, Ambrose Puttmann, Eddie Quick, Jesse Tannehill, Jimmy Williams, Snake Wiltse, Barney Wolfe, Jack Zalusky

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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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