Thursday, April 22, 2021

Scores On This Historic Day: April 22, 1903, The New York Highlanders (Yankees) Debut

The original Yankees. No pinstripes here.

Note: I had considered doing this feature for the date of the Wright Brothers making the 1st heavier-than-air flight. But December 17, 1903 was in the off-season for baseball, and the other sports were barely even being played professionally, much less at a major league level. So there were no games.

But there is an event for 1903 that I can use.

April 22, 1903: A new baseball season begins. Among the games played this day is one at American League Park in Washington, D.C. The Washington Senators host the New York Highlanders.

The Highlanders had entered the American League, taking the place of the dissolved Baltimore Orioles. Their name came from 2 sources. Their home field, Hilltop Park, was at the highest elevation on Manhattan Island, on Broadway between 165th and 168th Streets.

And the owners, 37-year-old gambling impresario Frank J. Farrell and 49-year-old former Chief of Police William S. "Big Bill" Devery -- having controversial team owners was nothing new in New York sports, not even then -- had hired a team president named Joseph Gordon (no relation to the later Hall of Fame 2nd baseman for the team), and brought to mind the Gordon Highlanders, a Scottish military unit that had distinguished itself in British military actions over the preceding 20 years, including the recent Boer War.

Many early sports-page cartoons showed team figures, often the manager, in Scottish garb, including a tam o' shanter cap, a kilt, and argyle socks. Had the Highlanders name survived until 1986, when the film Highlander premiered, it might have changed the image of the team.

At any rate, the team's first game was on the road, against the Senators. Here was the starting lineup:

LF Alphonso "Lefty" Davis
RF Willie Keeler
CF Dave Fultz
2B Jimmy Williams
1B John Ganzel
3B William "Wid" Conroy
SS Herman Long
C Jack O'Connor
P Jack Chesbro

The team's manager was Clark Griffith, and behind Chesbro the team's best pitcher. He had starred with 2 different teams named the Chicago White Stockings: As a pitcher for the National League team that had become the Cubs, and as ace pitcher and manager of the team that won the 1st American League Pennant in 1901, eventually known as the White Sox.

With some irony, Griffith is now best known for being the longtime owner of the day's opponents, the Washington Senators. When American League Park burned down in 1911, he built a replacement on the site, and named it Griffith Stadium for himself. He, former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chesbro, and former Orioles (NL version) and Brooklyn Superbas (Dodgers) hitter Keeler would all go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, although only Griffith would live to see its establishment, let alone his own induction.

The Senators team they played on this day was nothing special. The most interesting players on it were William "Boileryard" Clarke, a teammate of Keeler's on the Orioles' 1894, '95 and '96 Pennant winners; and their starting pitcher that day, Al Orth, who would later pitch for the Highlanders, well enough, but with only a fastball, to be known as "The Curveless Wonder."

The attendance on this Wednesday afternoon was listed at 11,050, a sellout. Not among the crowd was the District of Columbia's most famous temporary resident, and New York City's most famous permanent resident, the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Although he loved all kinds of competition, TR was not a baseball fan. His successor, William Howard Taft, had played baseball at Yale University, and, in 1910, would begin the tradition of the President going to the Senators' home opener and throwing out the ceremonial first ball.

Aside from it being the Highlanders' debut, the game itself is only noteworthy to modern eyes for one reason. Early AL rules allowed the home team to choose whether to bat first or, as usual, last. This time, the Senators chose to bat first.

So the Highlanders batted in the bottom half of each inning. They scored a run in the bottom of the 1st, but that would be it for them. The Senators tied the game in the top of the 4th, and scored 2 more in the top of the 5th, and held on for a 3-1 win. Not an auspicious beginning for the New York club of the American League.

The next day, April 23, with Harry Howell pitching (no relation to the later Rangers Hockey Hall-of-Famer of the same name), the Highlanders won for the 1st time, 7-2. On April 30, after going 3-4 in away games in Washington and Philadelphia, they played their 1st home game at Hilltop Park, also against the Senators, and beat them 6-2, with Chesbro winning.

Like most of the other AL teams, they were often called "the Americans" in the newspapers. In addition to identifying their league, it was a way of getting around the fact that, at 11 letters, "Highlanders" is a long name to put into a headline.

In late 1904, shortly after the Highlanders ended their 2nd season by losing a close Pennant race to the Boston Americans, George M. Cohan's musical Little Johnny Jones opened on Broadway, including the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

It was still running as the 1905 baseball season began, and, making the connection between "Yankee" and "American," some papers began calling the Highlanders "the Yankees." It's a 7-letter word that fits more easily into a headline. It can be shortened further, to the 5-letter "Yanks." (This was also one of the reasons why "Mets" was chosen for the later National League team: Brevity for headlines.)

By 1912, pretty much everybody was calling the Highlanders the Yankees. So for 1913, the team made it official. It still hadn't done well, competitively speaking: They'd finished 2nd in 1904, 1906 and 1910, but was usually far from the Pennant.

That would change in 1915, when Farrell and Devery, fed up with each other and with running the team, sold it to brewery boss Jacob Ruppert and engineer Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston. Ruppert began throwing money around, eventually bought Babe Ruth, and the rest is history.

Today, the name "Highlanders" is mostly forgotten, although there's a Mets' fan blog that calls the Yankees that, to remind them of the days when they were unsuccessful. As opposed to the Mets, who are nearly always unsuccessful.

*

April 22, 1903, unofficially the date of birth for the most successful franchise in the history of North American sports, was a Wednesday. And the Highlanders'/Yankees' debut was 1 of 7 games played that day:

* The New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Superbas, 7-2 at Washington Park in Brooklyn. The Superbas had been managed by Ned Hanlon, bringing to mind a famous circus troupe, Hanlon's Superbas. They became the Dodgers in 1911, short for "Trolley Dodgers." In 1914, they hired Wilbert Robinson, an 1890s Orioles teammate of Keeler, Clarke, and Giants manager John McGraw, and became the Brooklyn Robins. He led them to Pennants in 1916 and 1920, and nearly in 1924, but was fired after the 1931 season, and they became the Dodgers again.

* The Boston Beaneaters beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1 in 12 innings at the South End Grounds in Boston. They became the Braves in 1912.

* The Philadelphia Athletics beat the Boston Americans, 6-1 at Columbia Park in North Philadelphia. The Americans took the Beanaters' former name of Red Stockings, and became the Boston Red Sox in 1907.

* The Detroit Tigers beat the Cleveland Naps, 4-2 at Bennett Park in Detroit. After the 1911 season, Bennett Park was torn down, and what would eventually be named Tiger Stadium was built in the site. The Cleveland team was named for its manager and 2nd baseman, Napoleon "Nap" Lajoie. They became the Cleveland Indians in 1915.

* The Cincinnati Reds beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-3 at West Side Park in Chicago.

* And the Chicago White Sox beat the St. Louis Browns, 14-4 at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. That park would be torn down after the 1908 season, and a new part with the same name was built on the site.

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