Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hilltop Park: home base for NYC's premier baseball team


A few hundred well-dressed men and a few women and children enter Hilltop Park, 1912 (See original photograph at Shorpy)

This weekend marks the end of the regular season in Major League Baseball, as the New York Yankees head to the playoffs, and the New York Mets head to, well, I'm sure many very lovely, well-deserved vacations.

The Yankees, defending World Series champions, were doing okay for themselves a hundred years ago also, when they were called the New York Highlanders, placing second in the American League to the Philadelphia Athletics. Second place was the best the Highlanders would ever do; ultimate victory would only come when they were bought in 1915 by beer mogul Jacob Ruppert and their name changed to the most press friendly 'Yankees'. (Hear more about their history in our 2008 podcast on the history of the New York Yankees.)

Below I'm reprinting my article from March 2008 about the Highlanders uptown home Hilltop Park. And I'll get to the old haunt of the Mets on Friday....

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Before they went by their better known name -- and before they were really any good -- the team that would become 'the Yankees' were known as the Highlanders, from 1903-1913. The name played to a couple dated references. The team captain was named Joseph Gordon, and the name referenced a British military outfit named Gordon's Highlanders. More importantly, the team played on one of the highest points in the city, in a long forgotten ball field called Hilltop Park.

A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds. In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field!




I'm sure it was at that capacity on opening day, April 30, 1903, when the Highlanders played the Washington Senators. Yet despite a cost of $200,000 and arresting views of the Hudson River, Hilltop had a swamp in right field and most of the bleacher seats were uncovered until 1912, making for many a hot, steamy game for fans.

The Highlanders were in equally good shape. In fact, many of the best moments in Hilltop Park's brief history were made by players from other teams against the Highlanders. Cy Young (Boston Americans) and Ty Cobb (Washington Senators), the two best known players from this generation, had spectacular days on Hilltop beating the crap out of the local team.

Hilltop Park is almost completely gone save for one peculiar memorial. In 1914, almost as soon as the Highlanders moved to the nearby Polo Grounds (and thus changed their team name to their popular nickname 'the Yankees'), the field was demolished. Within ten years, the hospital that today is known as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would be built over it, and it stands there still today.

However a small base-shaped plaque can be found in the grass outfront, placed there in 1993. It's on the exact spot of the original home place -- thank God it happened to be in a garden and not somebody's room -- honoring the now-forgotten home of the team that would become the most successful team in baseball.



Reprinted from the Bowery Boys article from March 20, 2008

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