Before the Yankees were known as the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers or any other such nickname, baseball fans first called them the Highlanders.
1903 marked the first season for the Big Apple’s third Major League club, following the National League’s Giants and Dodgers.
The ballpark in which this new team would begin its history was known as American League Park located at 168th Street and Broadway, one of the highest spots in the borough of Manhattan.
Because of their literally elevated status, the team became known as the “Highlanders” and their home ballpark dubbed “Hilltop Park” (currently the location of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital).
Though the Highlanders’ debut season saw them fall 17 games out of first place behind the Boston Americans (eventually renamed the “Red Sox”), their sophomore season saw one of the most impressive pitching performances in MLB history from future Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro.
In 1904, Chesbro went 41-12 (yes, you read that right) with a 1.82 ERA over 55 outings, 48 of which were complete games. He pitched a total of 454 2/3 innings that season alone, faced 1,720 batters and posted a WAR over 10. No pitcher in the modern era (since 1900) has ever matched the 41-victory mark.
Several years later the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, was devastated by a major fire that left the Giants without a home for many months. The Highlanders’ owners offered to share Hilltop Park with their team while repairs took place, and two years later the Giants opened their new-and-improved ballpark doors to the Highlanders.
In 1913, the term “Yankees” was beginning to take hold as the preferred team name even though no official announcement of a name change was ever made by the club.
From 1913 to 1922, the Yankees battled their way through year after year until a 25-year-old youngster named Babe Ruth made his way to the club prior to the 1920 season, transforming the Yankees into the most popular team in baseball.
With Ruth’s overnight celebrity status and sensational talent, the Yankees were asked to vacate the Polo Grounds after they started to outdraw the Giants in their own home park, leading to the eventual construction and opening of Yankee Stadium, “The House that Ruth Built,” in 1923, right across the Harlem River in the Bronx.
Most Yankees fans know how the rest of the story goes. Ruth enjoyed the greatest season of his career (and the greatest single season by any player in history) in 1923, helping the Bronx Bombers win their first of 27 World Series championships.
But long before Ruth joined the club, or those 27 titles were earned, there was a team called the Highlanders that kick-started everything and would go on to become the best team in baseball history.