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The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss
By MARTY APPEL
BLOOMSBURY Copyright © 2012 Marty Appel
All right reserved.
Chapter One Phil Schenck walked gingerly across the soupy ground that would soon become Manhattan's newest baseball diamond. As the newly appointed head groundskeeper of what would be, after all, a major league facility, he had to be intimidated by what lay ahead. Opening day was April 30.
This new franchise had only been approved on March 12, 1903, and a playing field was a hurried afterthought. So difficult had been the struggle to get an American League team stationed in New York that the playing field, with so much barren space available in New York, seemed somehow less important.
Unless you were Phil Schenck.
"There is not a level spot on the whole property," reported the Sporting News in its March 21, 1903, edition. "From Broadway, looking west, the ground starts in a low swamp filled with water, and runs up into a ridge of rocks ... The rocks will be blasted out and the swamp filled in."
Joe Vila, thirty-six, approached Schenck and sympathized with his plight. The New York Sun sportswriter had played a significant role in bringing this franchise to reality. Now he wanted to see how "his" field was taking shape.
It wasn't very impressive. It would be a haul for fans to get to this field, and they would expect something worthy of the journey, worthy of a paid admission. The new team had to give them a product that felt big-time. And the clock was ticking.
Vila was born in Boston and had spent two years at Harvard before quitting to become a brakeman and baggage handler on the B&O Railroad. He joined the New York Morning Journal in 1889, and moved to the New York Herald a year later. He had been with the Sun since '93.
As a Harvard man he was well aware that in July, ground would be broken for a grand concrete structure in Allston, Massachusetts. It would be home to the Crimson football team, an edifice worthy of being called a stadium. The idea of building a "stadium" for a baseball team was just silly. The small wooden structures cropping up around the country were not up to the name. Hell, they were burning down with regularity and befit the smaller position baseball held in the American consciousness. College football was the big sport of the land, and Harvard Stadium, the first to be called a stadium in the U.S., deserved it. When it opened in the fall, it would seat more than fifty thousand.
Still, Vila's enthusiasm was genuine. It was exciting to have played such a prominent role in the birth of a franchise, and he could honestly say he did. In 1892, he was in New Orleans for the John L. Sullivan–Jim Corbett heavyweight championship fight. It was a most important sporting event, the first staged under the Marquis of Queensbury rules, with both fighters wearing gloves and a sense of civility in the brutal sport. It was the fight that made boxing "acceptable."
The nation's newspapers sent reporters to cover the event. There Vila met a stocky, cigar-smoking reporter from the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, one Byron Bancroft Johnson. The two formed a friendship.
While Vila continued to work as a New York journalist, Johnson, better known as Ban, harbored other ideas. As baseball grew in popularity, he saw an opportunity to develop a second major league that competed with the existing National League, putting franchises in the major cities of the day and winning over enough fanatics ("fans") to make money for the owners. For the most part, Johnson would hand-pick the owners and put his own stamp on his league.
Just a year after the Corbett-Sullivan fight, Johnson was elected president of the Western League, placed there by John T. Brush, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and by Charles Comiskey, the manager of the team. He would lead that minor league for six years, giving up his conflicting role as sports editor of the paper after the first one.
With his wide girth, Johnson looked every bit the picture of prosperity as the nineteenth century drew to a close. The U.S. presidents of the era—McKinley, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Taft—all looked well nourished and prosperous. It was a look that represented success and confidence, recaptured years later by George M. Steinbrenner III, who would not have been Steinbrenner in Woodrow Wilson's frail frame.
Disgusted by the National League's inability to curtail drinking and gambling in the ballparks, by the blatant abuse of umpires by rowdy fans, and by the ballparks themselves offering environments unfriendly to women and children, Johnson saw the opportunity for a more civil league with a friendlier ballpark atmosphere, and enough star players for a second major league.
By 1899, his Class A Western League included Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Paul.
In 1900 he renamed it the American League, replacing Columbus and St. Paul with Chicago and Cleveland. It was still a minor league but Johnson had the full intent on converting it to a major league by raiding National League players for 1901.
Showing no fear of Johnson's ambition, the twenty-five-year-old National League decided to establish a salary cap at this time. The league's wage ceiling was $2,400 (around $60,000 in 2011 dollars), small even by 1901 standards.
This was the opening Johnson needed. He declared his league to be major and induced players like Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, and Clark Griffith to jump leagues for higher pay. Baltimore and Washington replaced Buffalo and Indianapolis. Connie Mack came in to manage Philadelphia; John McGraw Baltimore.
The league was an immediate hit. In 1901, the American League drew a reported 1,683,584 fans without even having teams in New York or Brooklyn. The National League, with New York and Brooklyn, drew a reported 1,920,031. It was a remarkable success story.
Then as now, New York was the biggest city in the country. More than 3.4 million people resided there, 1.8 million of them in Manhattan. Philadelphia, with almost 1.3 million in the 1900 census, was the second-biggest city. New York was a glaring absence if the American League was to be big-time.
The history of New York and baseball had been charmed. The "New York Game" was the dominant amateur game as rules began to take form in the mid-eighteenth century. Firemen from Manhattan would sail across the Hudson and play at Elysian Field in Hoboken, New Jersey, likely the true birthplace of the game. The ninety-foot distance between the bases, about as perfect a concept as mankind has ever produced, was established in New York. The game's first superstar was Jim Creighton of the Excelsior team of Brooklyn. Candy Cummings, also an Excelsior, is generally credited with discovering the curveball—a tactic that relied on the seams on the baseball, making one wonder whether the game's creators stumbled onto it by accident or had planned it all along. The first great chronicler of the game, the inventor of the box score, was Henry Chadwick, a New Yorker.
The National Association, both amateur and pro, started in 1857 and featured teams largely based in Brooklyn. (Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City in 1898.) The National League was formed in 1876, and the New York Giants joined in 1883. The American Association, born in 1882, featured the Metropolitans.
But of course one didn't need rules to pick up a wooden stick and hit a round object, as many children did in the streets of New York, inventing their own versions as fit the terrain. New York was in love with base ball. (It was two words back then.)
In his American League, the problem franchise for Johnson proved to be Baltimore. It was not a city he truly wanted, with its population of only half a million. In its favor was its rich tradition: The Baltimore Orioles had been a great championship name while playing in the National League and included John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, and Kid Gleason. Johnson managed to bring Robinson back into the fold for his American League entry in 1901 and tapped McGraw as manager.
But McGraw's legendary temper and antics, popular with the rowdy fans of the day, translated poorly into what Johnson sought to accomplish with his more genteel game. His scrapes with umpires and incitement of the fans played poorly with the American League's aspirations.
Frequently Johnson had to suspend McGraw for inciting riots against the umpires. On June 28 he again went into a crazed argument, and was again suspended, this time indefinitely.
Incensed, McGraw asked for his release. "Johnson's down on Baltimore and would like to see it off the map," he said. "I am sick and tired of the whole business, and I don't care if I never play in the American League again."
He was playing both ends. He had been negotiating with the New York Giants to manage their team, and in a sense arranging for his own departure. But Johnson was glad to see McGraw get his release and depart for New York. "Let the National League have this maniac," he must have thought. "It better makes my point."
"Johnson's ultimate ambition was to get a club in New York," wrote McGraw in his memoirs. "If he succeeded, this meant, of course, that Baltimore again would be dropped and someone would be left holding the bag. Baltimore was the weakest team in attendance. If it failed to hold its own, that would be a good excuse to the public for dropping it."
The McGraw action set in motion a series of events essentially rendering the Orioles impotent. Six more players were released, among them Roger Bresnahan, Joe McGinnity, Kelley, and Robinson, and a majority of stock in the team was transferred to Andrew Freedman, owner of the Giants. Freedman now had a piece of the American League.
Decimated, the Orioles were restocked with players essentially given away by the other teams in order to play out the schedule. Not surprisingly, they limped to a last-place finish and were done.
Rather than rebuild in Baltimore, Johnson set about putting a team in New York. He would have eight months to get a franchise established, stock it with players, find owners, locate grounds for a ballpark, hire a manager, and start selling tickets.
In 1902, Johnson's league drew more than two million fans, almost four hundred thousand more than the National League, even without New York. He was ready for a fight.
After the 1902 season, Freedman sold his Giants to the Reds' own er, John Brush, who in turn unloaded his Cincinnati stock. But Freedman, with his strong political connections, would remain a nuisance to Johnson as a member of the Giants' board of directors.
The sale came about despite the efforts of another suitor for the Giants, a young Manhattan congressman named Jacob Ruppert Jr. He would be heard from again.
With just days left in the 1902 season, James C. Kennedy, a sports promoter, of "whom no better man could be found to manage successfully a rival baseball club in this city," emerged as a man to possibly head a new team.
"I am not at liberty to say where they will locate," said Kennedy. "For the present, let me tell you that we have options of three sites, one of which is admirably situated, and when its location is made known will cause no little surprise. New York is not a sentimental city, it is a business center, and its people will demand the best article and support those who give it."
Kennedy had been working hard, traveling to Chicago to meet with Ban Johnson, beginning to make plans to run the new team should it become a reality.
"Kennedy's name should be a sufficient guarantee to the baseball public that the American League means business," said someone with knowledge of the American League's thinking.
Jimmy Kennedy, thirty-five, was considered by most to be the new team's logical owner. He was a boxing promoter at the Seaside Athletic Club in Coney Island and ran the very popular Six-Day Bicycle Races at Madison Square Garden in partnership with Patrick Powers.
Kennedy was all set to take command of the team, and his name began appearing more and more in the newspapers as the logical choice. Yet he seemed wedded to playing home games on Manhattan Field, presenting it as if it were already a fait accompli.
Manhattan Field had actually been a major league facility in 1889–90; the Giants played there prior to moving into the newly constructed (and adjacent) Polo Grounds. But despite Kennedy's plans, Manhattan Field had been leased to the National League as parking and the American League was unlikely to secure it. Furthermore, although it was now unused land, the free vantage points overlooking it hardly made it a worthy site for paid admissions. There wasn't enough time—or money—to build a grand structure to block the views.
Kennedy left by steamship for Europe at the end of October, noting, "I have not seen Ban Johnson this week, but that fact of my going away on a business trip does not mean that I have abandoned the idea of managing the new club. Matters are at a standstill regarding that venture, and nothing can be done for a few weeks toward a definite settlement as to its management. I will be back again within four weeks, and when I return, things may have shaped themselves so that they can be given publicity."
Yet Kennedy's opportunity to own the team was gone in a week. (And, as fate would have it, Kennedy was found dead in a subway car in lower Manhattan in April 1904.)
While he was abroad, Ban Johnson was spotted looking at other sites. South Field, on 116th and Broadway, was land owned by Columbia University. But Columbia would lose its tax break if admission was charged on its property. No good. One Hundred Twenty-sixth Street and First Avenue would require a road closing. No good. One Hundred Forty-fifth Street at the Harlem River merited a look. It was just two blocks from the elevated rail. But, no good. At 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue was the Curtis estate; the wealthy August Belmont Jr. (who would build Belmont racetrack in 1905) was willing to buy the property and an adjacent piece of property owned by the Rapid Transit Company and lease it to the American League. But Andrew Freedman, serving as a director of the Rapid Transit Company, refused to lease the strip of land, causing Belmont to step aside.
The American League had a ten-year option on land on Berkeley Oval, in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx (the site of all the city's top track meets), and there was talk of Ambrose Park in south Brooklyn. Both Kennedy and Johnson found them too far removed, and the search continued.
Johnson, meanwhile, focused on lining up players. Johnson later wrote that
Jack O'Connor, catcher for Barney Dreyfuss' Pittsburgh team, had been on friendly terms with us for some time and had kept us posted on the desires of the players to switch to our league.
When we decided to ... form the New York club, I wired O'Connor that we were prepared to raid the Pittsburgh team, and for him to make arrangements to let me know how the land lay. I was going to Atlantic City with Charley Somers [owner of the Cleveland team and a major benefactor of the American League] and ... the train took us through Pittsburgh.
In the train station O'Connor found us and as he passed us he spoke out of the corner of his mouth, pretending not to see us.
"They are wise to us," he said. "Get in a cab at once and go to the Lincoln Hotel."
My telegram [to O'Connor] had gone astray. It had fallen into the hands of the Pittsburgh club officials or an operator had tipped off Dreyfuss that the American League was prepared to strike.
We met O'Connor at the Lincoln Hotel and he urged us to take immediate action if we wanted to sign any of the Pittsburgh players. The Pittsburgh club, forewarned by the telegram, was trying to forestall our raid, he informed us, by getting the signatures of the players on iron-clad contracts. [O'Connor would be suspended by Pittsburgh.]
We realized that it was the time to act and before the next day dawned we had scoured Pittsburgh for the stars we wanted and had signed ... [Wid] Conroy, [Jack] Chesbro, [Jesse] Tannehill, [Lefty] Davis and several other players, seven or eight in all.
Excerpted from Pinstripe Empire by MARTY APPEL Copyright © 2012 by Marty Appel. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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