Most Yankee fans know that the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1920 began a run of success unmatched by any other franchise in American sports. And while they are likely aware that from their founding until Murderer’s Row, the teams were mostly mediocre, they may not realize that in many ways the origin story, while short on winning, was long on characters, from mercurial owners to popular players and managers who set the foundation of what would come next.
In A Franchise on the Rise (2018, Sports Publishing, 308 pps, $27.99), longtime baseball writer Dom Amore brings some of these now forgotten personalities to life, chronicling not just the stats and standings but highlighting the people that defined the era. From names unfamiliar to many fans like Hal Chase, Kid Elberfeld and Cap Huston to those that have earned more lasting fame like Willie Keeler, Miller Huggins and Jacob Ruppert, Amore digs into many contemporary sources to paint more complete pictures of what were all household names at the time.
It’s not that those early Highlanders, as they were mostly called before 1913’s move from star-crossed Hilltop Park to a shared Polo Grounds arrangement with the regal Giants, were devoid of standout players. Between Keeler, Chase, Jack Chesbro, Ray Caldwell, Russ Ford and others, the team boasted some of the league’s top performers. But there weren’t enough of them, or, as in the case of Ford and Caldwell, they burned brightly for a relatively short period of time. Football fans will enjoy how a star of the nascent professional league, George Halas, first seemed destined for fame right before another right fielder (the aforementioned Bambino) arrived from Boston.
And when they tasted the first division, like in near-miss second place finishes in 1904 and 1906 and a more distant runner-up status in 1910, instead of building on that momentum, each of those squads fell back into mediocrity or worse the following year. Lacking direction from the top down (in many ways similar to a certain Queens-based outfit more than a century later), it took the intrepid owners, Cols. Ruppert and Huston, which led to the acquisition of names like Wally Pipp, Frank Baker, Bob Shawkey, Herb Pennock and of course Ruth to turn things permanently around.
Even fans who have read the many books chronicling individual seasons or players in the era, or Marty Appel‘s definitive Yankee history will enjoy Amore’s look at these early teams who one day would be Yankees.