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,
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
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
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
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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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.
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