- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

In the winter of 1902-03, a notorious New York gambler named Frank Farrell turned up unexpectedly in the office of Byron Bancroft Johnson, founder and president of baseball’s American League.

“My partner and I want to buy the Baltimore franchise and move it to New York,” Farrell said. “Here’s a certified check for $25,000 as a token of good faith.”

According to “The Yankees,” John Durant’s 1949 history of the franchise, “Ban’s eyebrows went ceilingwards at the sight of the paper and remained there when Farrell told him that he often bet that much on a single horse race.”

Today a known gambler can’t get near a Major League Baseball official, but the rules were looser in the early years of the 20th century. A few days later on Jan. 9 — 105 years ago this week — Farrell and partner William “Big Bill” Devery became owners of the struggling Baltimore Orioles for a mere $18,000, summoned the moving vans and created what would become the most successful professional club in sports history. Meanwhile, major league baseball was dead in Baltimore until the former St. Louis Browns arrived there in 1954.

At the outset, nobody could have anticipated what lay ahead. The Orioles, terrors of the National League in the mid-1890s, were lopped off in 1900 when that league cut back from 12 to eight teams. Johnson promptly added Baltimore to his newborn American League in 1901 and declared war on what then was known as the Senior Circuit. But the Orioles floundered, especially after manager John McGraw jumped to the NL’s New York Giants in 1902.

Johnson had planned all along to shift the Orioles to New York because he knew his league would never truly gain equality until it had a team in the nation’s largest city. That could not be done, however, until he found wealthy owners with enough political clout to battle the Giants, McGraw and owner John Brush.

Brush, well connected within New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, had vowed to have the city cut streets through any prospective American League ballpark. But Devery also had politically powerful friends, and when he and Farrell selected a site far uptown at 165th Street and Broadway, the Giants could not interfere.

The first game at wooden Hilltop Park was played that April with the Highlanders (so known because they played on one of the highest spots in Manhattan) defeating the Washington Senators 6-2. The New York club’s manager was Clark Griffith, later the longtime owner of the Senators.

With such future Hall of Famers as Wee Willie Keeler and Jack Chesbro in the lineup, the Highlanders were briefly formidable. They finished fourth in 1903 and second in 1904, when a wild pitch by 41-game winner Chesbro cost them a pennant. Then the club declined precipitously as players and managers revolved through their doors.

Perhaps demonstrating that nothing under the sun is new, Farrell and Devery were meddlesome owners long before George Steinbrenner was born. The two sat in a box behind the dugout at every home game and shouted instructions, then invaded the clubhouse afterward for more second-guessing. Griffith couldn’t stand it long. Neither could Frank Chance, once renowned as the Chicago Cubs’ “Peerless Leader.” All told, the Highlanders had seven managers in their first 12 seasons.

In 1913, purportedly to satisfy frustrated headline writers on New York’s many newspapers, the club officially changed its name to Yankees and became tenants of the Giants at the Polo Grounds. But the Giants continued to rule the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of most Gotham fans. Two years later, broke and discouraged, Farrell and Devery gladly sold the club for $460,000 to Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston.

A few years after that, with their millionaire owners buying Babe Ruth and other stars from the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees became the Yankees. They won their first pennant in 1921 and their first World Series in 1923, and for the rest of the century their accomplishments and stars dominated the sport: Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, et al.

And it all started, in one sense, on that momentous day when Frank Farrell strolled into Ban Johnson’s office and took a check out of his wallet.

There was a bit of irony here. When gambler Farrell died in 1926, as his former team was barreling toward its fourth pennant in six seasons, his entire estate amounted to $1,072.

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