January is traditionally a slow month for baseball news. So for the second year in a row, we are showcasing other blogs with a series of pinch hitters.
Next up is Emma, who will be representing Bronx Banter.
Emma is a regular contributor to the Banter. A web editor and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, she grew up in New Jersey worshipping at the altar of Don Mattingly, and has written about baseball for the Village Voice, the New York Press, and Slate, among others. She’s currently writing a book about New York baseball fandom.
Here is her post:
(Before I jump into the post, I just wanted to say a quick word about Todd Drew. Alex and Pete Abraham, among many others, have already written very eloquent and moving remembrances of Todd, and I don’t have too much more to add — but I’m glad that I got to meet him, and selfishly, I’m upset that I won’t get to read any more new posts from him. He will be missed; he already is.)
But whatever you think of the team’s questionable financial dealings with New York City, Randy Levine & Co. are a bunch of fluffy kittens compared to the Yankees’ original owners. As my grandfather used to complain: these modern guys playing today, they just don’t stack up with the old greats.
In 1903, American League President Ban Johnson was in such a rush to get a team into New York that he announced the move before securing either a ballpark or owners. This was a tactical error, since the National League Giants and Brooklyn Superbas (the proto-Dodgers) weren’t keen on the competition, and had enough contacts, friends, and paid-off officials in Tammany Hall to make Johnson’s life difficult: every time the AL tried to buy land for a ballpark, the Giants’ friendly politicians acted swiftly to either turn the proposed site into a protected city park or, failing that, put a road through the middle of it. Eventually, Johnson had to purchase a plot in secret from the New York Institute for the Blind, a feat he pulled off only by bribing his very own brace of Tammany officials.
That’s why the Yankees’ first owners were a shadowy group of Gangs of New York-style political insiders that boasted Frank Farrell and William “Big Bill” Devery as its most prominent members, two gentlemen whose criminal adventures make George Steinbrenner’s illegal contributions to Richard Nixon look like donations to the Jimmy Fund. Farrell, “the Pool Hall King of New York,” was the head of New York’s biggest illegal gambling syndicate; as one historian put it, he “owned 250 pool halls and almost as many politicians.” He had a saloon at Sixth Ave and 30th, where he became fast friends with Devery, a police captain at the station down the street.
Known throughout the city for his talent for graft and astonishing ability to wriggle out of well-deserved criminal charges, Big Bill — who at six feet-plus and 350 pounds was not ironically nicknamed — went on to become New York City’s Chief of Police. (Later he would repay the NYPD by stealing the interlocking NY design it had commissioned for a posthumous medal of honor — awarded to an officer shot and killed in the line of duty — for use as his baseball team’s logo.) Devery was, at various points in his career, charged with neglect of duty, failure to proceed against “disorderly houses” in his district, extortion, and blackmail, but was never convicted; little wonder, since he was also known for a cheerful willingness to bribe juries. As the Times put it, rather delicately, in their 1919 obituary, “Mr. Devery had a most picturesque and stormy career.”
Today’s unethical baseball team dealings, while sordid, are dull as dishwater in comparison. Still, at least some things never change. The soon-to-be-Yankees got off to a rough start in 1903, much to the consternation of outfielder Wee Willie Keeler, who told reporters: “With such an aggregation of stars as we have, we ought to do much better.”
Thanks for the history lesson, Emma. Coming tomorrow: Gary from Yanks And More.