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New York Yankees 1913 | © Bain News Service, publisher/WikiCommons
New York Yankees 1913 | © Bain News Service, publisher/WikiCommons

Byron Bancroft 'Ban' Johnson & The Origins Of The New York Yankees

Picture of Vincent Amoroso
Updated: 26 June 2016
In the late 1800s, baseball was far from the national pastime. At this time in America, college football was the sport of choice. Baseball was not nearly as popular, and games were usually played on poorly maintained fields with ad hoc, wooden construction that often caught fire. Plagued by gambling, violence, and general drunken carousing, ballparks were unsuitable places for the public. But with the creation of the New York Yankees, baseball took on a recreational, national, and cultural significance.

Political corruption and double-dealing were the backbone of baseball’s early history. Baseball officials, often referred to as ‘magnates’, had no love for the game, the players, or the fans. Baseball clubs were simply business ventures, and with the rules on the field not clearly taking shape, games were often just as shady as the corruption that hovered over it. Players would commonly curse at, spit on, and even physically fight with umpires. John Thorn, author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, wrote, ‘They matched skill, daring, and inventiveness with extraordinarily dirty play, vile language, and relentless umpire baiting.’ 

Some magnates became infamous for their exploits as well as their political connections, like Andrew Freeman, one-time owner of the New York baseball Giants, and Tammany Hall cronies, who pulled his team off the field when a former player of his, Ducky Holmes, made an anti-semitic remark. The National League was the dominant force in major league baseball, and owners like Freedman and John T. Brush of the Cincinnati Reds protected their turf using political contacts and backroom deals to bully other fledgling leagues into submission.

Byron Bancroft ‘Ban’ Johnson was a sports reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, whose idea for the sport was one more suitable for women and children to attend. So in a strange twist of fate, a unique trio was formed. Ban Johnson, who was a longtime friend of Charlie Comiskey (the future famed owner of the Chicago White Sox), was approached with the idea of heading up the Western League (then a minor league). The idea was presented to John Brush; however, he and Johnson were anything but friends. As a sportswriter, Johnson was a tireless critic of the way Brush ran the Reds. Nevertheless, Brush agreed mostly because putting Johnson in charge of the Western League would take his harshest adversary out of the press.

Still a minor league five years later, Ban Johnson renamed the Western League to the American League. Johnson focused his league on better treatment of umpires, players, and fans. He also hoped to bring the league’s status up to ‘major’, but the National League would not easily back down. Author of The National League Story, Lee Allen, wrote, ‘It became a fight to the death that lasted over two years and the National lost the fight.’

Initially, Johnson wanted a parity between the two leagues, but National League President Nick Young rejected the idea. Johnson was prepared to be just as ruthless as his counterparts. Using higher salaries and the allure of better contracts, Johnson was able to entice National League players to jump ship. He also planned to establish rival organizations in National League cities such as Philadelphia and Boston. However, Johnson’s true goal was to settle a team in New York.

In the National League, the sport was falling quickly out of favor with the fans. A depressive economy, high unemployment, a war with Spain, coupled with the unsettling atmosphere at ballparks, caused a severe drop in attendance. In addition, the National League planned to consolidate from 12 teams to eight, which would leave quite a few ballplayers out of work – aiding Ban Johnson in his cause.

In an ironic twist, when the American League scooped up the Baltimore Orioles (formerly of the National League), he kept player and manager John McGraw at the helm. McGraw was known as one of the chief umpire baiters in the league. Johnson at once wanted to both curtail McGraw and improve baseball’s image. Johnson also hoped to move the Orioles to New York. Unfortunately, after only a short time, McGraw went back to his old ways. Johnson was forced to remove him from the league indefinitely. He brought in Clark Griffith – one of the first superstars of the game to head the team when they moved to New York.

Andrew Freedman, wanting to keep Johnson from moving the team, used his political allies to thwart the effort to find a field for what would eventually be known as the New York Highlanders. Ban sought the financial backing of Frank Farrell, a racehorse owner with political connections, and Big Bill Devery, a former police chief. Together, they secured a location at Manhattan Field in Washington Heights in 1903. The high elevation of the field was one reason the team got its name. Eventually, bad management of the Giants had them vacate the adjacent Polo Grounds, which was a bigger and better ballpark.

When the Highlanders moved into the Polo Grounds, the lower elevation of the field left the team with a name that no longer applied. Sports editor from the New York Press, Jim Price, nicknamed the team ‘The Yanks’. The new team and atmosphere in the American League became very appealing for fans of every age and gender. In 1913, the Highlanders were officially dubbed the ‘New York Yankees’. Of Byron Bancroft Johnson, Thorn writes, ‘Johnson thought that what baseball needed to draw fans was not the constant threat of impending violence and language unsuitable for delicate ears, but instead the rule of law and the practice of decorum.’