Ban Takes Manhattan
An Excerpt from Major Leagues: The Formation, Sometimes Absorption
and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations,
1871 to Present
by David Pietrusza
After the 1902 season, jumping to the American League continued. Brooklyn
outfielder "Wee Willie" Keeler, Brooklyn pitcher "Wild Bill" Donovan, Cincinnati
outfielder Sam Crawford, Boston pitcher Vic Willis, Pittsburgh pitchers Jack
Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill, Pirates catcher Jack O'Connor and Pittsburgh
infielders "Wid" Conroy and Tommy Leach all signed with Johnson's league. Even
Christy Mathewson and catcher Frank Bowerman were hopping from the Giants
to the Browns.
The N.L. would later win contract disputes and retain Willis, Leach, Mathewson
The American League's invasion of Manhattan was now--minus John McGraw--
about to occur. Obtaining a field in Manhattan was always the major issue
delaying the incursion, as Andrew Freedman enjoyed considerable favor from the
local politicians, so much so that any site considered would soon have a street cut
through it by the city fathers.
In December 1902 Johnson located a promising site bordered by 142nd and
145th streets, Lenox Avenue and the Harlem River. It was, moreover, near a new
station of the Interborough Rapid Transit subway. Johnson's agents convinced
John B. McDonald. an IRT contractor, to purchase the land and lease it to the A.L.
McDonald persuaded financier August Belmont II to come aboard. However, an
IRT director--one Andrew Freedman--soon killed the plan.
"You know that I am out of baseball, having sold my controlling interest in the New
York club to Mr. Brush," gloated Freedman to the press in early January 1902,
"but you may quote me as saying that someone has been stringing these Western
fellows all along."
That situation was changing, however, and fast. On February 18, 1902, the estate
of one Josephine Peyton had auctioned off 12 parcels of land for $377,800 to
John J. Byrne, a nephew of "Big Bill" Devery. Devery, one of the Big Apple's
foremost gamblers, was a very active Democrat in Manhattan's Ninth District, and
a former city police chief.
Devery soon was in business with Frank Farrell, another major operator. Ex-
saloonkeeper Farrell owned 250 pool halls in the city and was closely connected
to "Boss" Sullivan, an even greater star in New York's underworld firmament.
Coal dealer Joseph Gordon, acting as front man for Farrell and Devery,
approached Johnson, telling him his group could easily arrange for a park to be
built if given a franchise. Devery and Farrell paid $18,000 for the Baltimore
franchise and installed Gordon as president. Devery's name was missing from
those listed as stockholders, although it was well-known he had contributed
approximately $100,000 to the enterprise.
"Me a backer!" Devery modestly, if somewhat dishonestly, exclaimed. â€œI only
wished I did own some stock in a baseball club. I'm a poor man and don't own
stock in anything. Besides, how could I pitch a ball with this stomach?"
That's one version of the story. Frank Graham in The New York Yankees tells
another. According to sportswriter Graham, Johnson and his new ownership
group were brought together by the New York Sun's Joe Vila. Vila had known
Johnson since the A.L. president's own sportswriting days and introduced him to
Farrell was more than eager to purchase the Baltimore franchise, although
Johnson was unsure about his prospective new club owner. His reticence
evaporated when Farrell produced a $25,000 check and handed it over to
Johnson, proclaiming, "Take this as a guarantee of good faith. If I don't put this
ballclub across, keep it."
"That's a pretty big forfeit," replied an amazed Johnson.
"He bets that much on a horse race, Ban," Vila informed him.
In any case the deal was made between the American League and its somewhat
shady triumvirate. For $75,000 in actual construction costs (plus $200,000 in
excavating the rocky, hilly terrain) rickety, wooden, 16,000-seat park was
constructed. A local Democratic politico, Thomas McAvoy, received contracts for
both phases. A full 500 workmen went to work, excavating 12,000 cubic yards of
bedrock, replacing it with 30,000 cubic yards of fill. On May 30, 1903, the
Highlanders opened before 16,243 fans and defeated Washington 6-2 behind
"Happy Jack" Chesbro.
To help shore up the weak New York roster--which after all had finished dead last
in Baltimore--Ban Johnson dispatched reinforcements. Clark Griffith, his pitching
career winding down, would manage. Outfielder "Wee Willie" Keeler was lured
from Brooklyn for a sizable sum. "I signed Keeler myself," boasted Johnson, "and I
found him an easy man to deal with."The strengthened club would finish a
respectable fourth in 1903.