"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Some Kind of Anniversary

Book Excerpt

The Yankees lost to the Red Sox in exquisite fashion in 2004. It was horribly painful for Yankee fans and amazingly wunnerful for Red Sox Nation. Although the Sox haven’t made a custom of beating the Yankees (when both teams have been good) during the past hundred years, they did send New Yorkers home unhappy in 1904, in spite of the considerable efforts of Ban Johnson and Jack Chesbro. The following excerpt–the first of two parts–from Yankees Century details that fateful season, when the Boston-New York baseball rivalry was just beginning.



By Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson

“I would have given my entire salary back could I but had the ball back.”
Jack Chesbro

If the Yankees failure to contend in 1903 had caused some joy among some factions of Tammany Hall, elsewhere there was only frustration. Ban Johnson, Frank Farrell and William Devery were not happy. The new club had proven problematic, a failure in almost every way. All interested parties were determined not to let that happen again. They’d invested too much in the immigrants to let them flounder.

Fans were less than impressed. American League baseball in New York, while cheaper than National League ball, hadn’t been very impressive. The Yankees had failed to create their own constituency, or steal substantial numbers of fans from the Giants. Yankee rooters were foundlings who couldn’t afford to attend games at the Polo Grounds, gamblers who would bet on anything, anywhere, anyhow, or political cronies of Farrell and Devery taking a day off.

They weren’t drawing fans from downtown. Getting to the ballpark was inconvenient, and would be for several more seasons until the subway opened. By and large, the Yankees were fighting the Giants for the same group of fans – and losing badly.

The Giants were clearly the better team. They’d finished second in the National League in 1903. Manager John McGraw was the toast of New York, feisty and combative, and New Yorkers of Irish heritage turned out at the Polo Grounds to see the McGraw and fellow Irish players like Dan McGann and Roger Bresnahan.

In most major league cities the majority of fans were either Irish, or, in the Midwest, German, as were most of that games’ first generation or two of stars. Fans came to the ballpark more to see their countrymen succeed than representatives of their city.

The Yankees lacked both ethnic appeal and the cache that comes with success. They would have to draw fans from elsewhere and appeal to America’s next wave of immigrants, those from Italy and elsewhere in Europe. But for now, the Yankees needed to win in order to give fans a reason to see them play.

Fortunately for the 1904 Yankees, the American League, like Hilltop Park, was not yet a level playing field. Nor would it ever be, a situation the club eventually would learn to exploit. For now they still needed the help of Ban John son and he did everything he could to ensure a championship for the immigrants in 1904. The result would be one of the most compelling pennant races in league history and the beginning of one of professional sports greatest rivalries.

While the Boston Americans were asserting American League superiority by besting the Pittsburgh Pirates in the very first “world’s series” in 1903, the Yankees retooled. Tannehill, despite a record of success in Pittsburgh, had been a disappointment in 1903, finishing with a record of only 15-15. Meanwhile in Boston, young Long Tom Hughes had come out of nowhere to go 20-7 for the American League champions.

To Johnson, a swap of the two pitchers between the two clubs made perfect sense, for it would serve to strengthen New York by weakening Boston, giving the Yankees a shot at a championship by sending Boston back into the pack. With one of his toadies, Henry Killilea, in charge of Boston but already looking to sell out, Johnson made the transfer in early December.

The New York press smiled broadly while their Boston counterparts screamed foul. The deal looked like a steal. Hughes was an emerging star, five years younger than Tannehill, who had looked for all the world as if he were beginning a precipitous decline. But Johnson wasn’t finished.

He cut another deal, disguised as an outright purchase with the Browns, sending hurler Harry Howell to St. Louis and delivering Jack Powell to New York. While Howell had pitched relatively well in limited duty in 1903, side-armer Powell was the poor man’s Cy Young, one of leagues’ great ironmen. He’d finished fully 33 of 34 games he’d started for the sixth place Browns in 1903, winning fifteen. In essence New York had traded their fourth and fifth starters for two of the league’ better pitchers, much more for a lot of less. With Chesbro anchoring the staff, and Griffith himself still valuable, the Yankees appeared to have the best pitching in the league. No less an authority than former National League great Cap Anson quickly pronounced them “a great team, one of the best.”

And on opening day, April 14, that pronouncement appeared to be confirmed. Fifteen thousand curious fans braved the cold and saw the Yankees make the defending champion Boston Americans look like amateurs. New York erupted for five first innings runs off Cy Young as Boston threw the ball around the infield and dropped fly balls. Jack Chesbro easily out-dueled him the rest of the way, giving up only two runs on inside-the-park home runs that that on another day Keeler and Dave Fultz might well have caught. The Yankees won easily, 8-2, in a victory that seemed symbolic. They seemed poised to supplant the Bostonians as A.L. champions and relished the opportunity.

There was already some bad blood between the two clubs. In only their second meeting in 1903 Dave Fultz had run down Boston pitcher George Winter in a play at first base. That set the tone. Subsequent meetings between the two clubs had been marred by rough play, and the trade of Hughes for Tannehill caused Boston to eye the New Yorkers warily – they knew full well that New York was Ban Johnson’s current favorite. The rigged deal that cost them Hughes sparked a feeling of martyrdom in Boston that only swelled in ensuing decades.

But after opening day New York stumbled. They dropped the next two to Boston as Hughes was raked by his former teammates and crowds were disappointing. The opening of the subway station adjacent to the ballpark was delayed as Tammany grappled over the profits. It was still little more than a hole in the ground, connecting to nothing. Fans were tiring of the long trek uptown, a journey that took them directly past the Polo Grounds, where McGraw’s Giants were a powerhouse. Many chose to end their journey there. Thus far, Ban Johnson’s Manhattan well was coming up dry.

By the time the two clubs met again in the first week of May, New York trailed 13-3 Boston and seemed poised to drop even further back. They hoped to use the series to turn their season around and gave it special emphasis. Clark Griffith told the press “We are not afraid of the world champions.” They weren’t, but they weren’t as good, either. The Yanks lost the first game of the three-game set when Tom Hughes continued the make the Tannehill trade look bad by misplaying a series of Boston bunts into defeat.

But the next day Jack Chesbro pitched for New York. No pitcher since has ever done what Chesbro did in 1904. It is impossible to overstate his value to the team in the 1904 season. No pitcher ever – not Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Joe Wood, Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, or Roger Clemens has ever had the influence on a team and on a pennant race to match that of Jack Chesbro in 1904. And none ever will.

After Powell pitched New York to a win in the series finale, Griffith bristled with confidence. “We did what we said we would,” he commented. “Keep your eye on the Invaders. We took two from the world champions and can do it again.” By season’s end, his desire would prove prophetic.

Yet not even Chesbro could stop the Boston juggernaut on his own. With the exception of Powell, no other pitcher on the staff could pitch well enough often enough to help, and injuries to key players like Elberfeld slowed the Yankees. Over the next month Boston stretched out their lead while New York struggled to keep pace.

Ban Johnson grew concerned. Another Boston runaway could be devastating to attendance league-wide, but nowhere more so than in Manhattan. The Giants were killing the Yankees at the gate.

The new club needed still more help. Devery and Farrell were already upset at the result of the Hughes-Tannehill trade. It had backfired and only made Boston stronger. They insisted on an adjustment. Johnson agreed.

He first gave them some help on the mound. In mid-June he arranged the acquisition of Harvard University’s Walter Clarkson, baseball’s reigning phenom, brother of the great John Clarkson, who had won 327 games from 1882 thru 1894. The Sporting News favorably compared him to the Giant’s young star pitcher Christy Mathewson. But Johnson was just getting warmed up. With another big series with Boston on the horizon in late June, New York needed help now.

They got it. On the morning of June 18, New York fans awoke to discover that star Boston outfielder Patsy Dougherty was now the property of their Yankees, acquired in exchange for an undisclosed amount of cash and a sickly rookie infielder Bob Unglaub. Unglaub, too ill to play, was hitting .211, while Dougherty, who could run and hit with anyone in the league, entered the season with a career batting average of .336. In contemporary terms the transaction was the rough equivalent of getting an Ichiro Suzuki for a Clay Bellinger. It left a gaping hole in Boston’s outfield and provided New York with some instant offense. Over the remainder of the year, New York had the best record in the league, and, finally, a player who appealed to New York’s Irish. No deal in American League history had ever been so one-sided, and few since have approached it.

Yankees fans snickered and nodded knowingly at one another as all Boston howled. The effects of the deal were immediate and dramatic.

One week later the Invaders made their initial foray into Boston, led by Dougherty, leading off and playing left field. He was, as The Sporting News described him, “The central figure of the game.” New York took two of three to draw to within a game and a half of Boston. Ban Johnson had his pennant race, and with the Giants running away with NL, there was the possibility that the New York clubs might meet in another lucrative “world’s series.” That promised mind-boggling profits for Devery and Farrell, no matter which team won. After all, the house is always the biggest winner.

For the remainder of the season, Boston and New York were dance partners in a marathon neither wanted to share with the other. In early July, the two clubs met again in a four-game set. Boston took the first three, defeating Chesbro twice to stop his win streak at fourteen. But in the finale Dougherty continued to cause Boston to rue his transfer, going 4-for-5 as New York averted disaster by winning 10-1 and keep Boston’s lead down to a still manageable 3

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver