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Not How You Start – Yankee Beginnings

With the start of the 2018 baseball season highly anticipated by fans of the sport, here for your reading pleasure is a flashback to the meager roots of perhaps the most illustrious franchise in baseball history.


Known as the Baltimore Orioles during the 1901 and 1902 seasons, the franchise went out of business and left their American League brethren much distressed.  Ban Johnson, American League President, sought balm for the wound – new ownership for the franchise and relocation to the major market of New York City.

Despite his energetic efforts, no takers surfaced as the 1903 season loomed. Enter William Stephen Devery, a former New York City police commissioner, and Frank J. Farrell, a professional gambler. The duo was the last and least of choices as owners.

A former bartender and prizefighter “Big Bill” Devery made a lot of money from shrewd real estate investments that he looked after from his estate in Far Rockaway, Queens. He also did quite well it was said, from graft, corruption and from his affiliation with the New York City Police Department. He moved up the ranks and wound up being the first Police chief. Along the way, when he was a police captain, he allegedly told his men: “They tell me there’s a lot of grafting going on in this precinct. They tell me that you fellows are the fiercest ever on graft. Now that’s going to stop! If there’s any grafting to be done, I’ll do it. Leave it to me.”

The word was correct that he was skilled in the art and science of collecting “honest graft” in saloons, brothels, betting parlors and gambling dens and dance hall. Protection was a big part of the daily work of those under him.

The other part of the ownership duo was Frank J. Farrell who was immersed in the New York City gambling world, owned pool halls and a casino. He was called the “Pool Room King” because he controlled over 250 pool halls or “gambling dens,” most of them located in lower Manhattan. The short and stocky Farrell shared a love of baseball with his Tammany Hall cohorts

Devery and Farrell were friends, and made millions through their assorted and sordid ventures and services to Tammany Hall.

A news account of that time described one of them this way:

“MR. FRANK FARRELL is a gambler, the chief gambler of New York City, we suppose. The business to which he owes his bad eminence, and in which he gains his living is carried out in violation of the law. His gambling places have enjoyed the protection of the law (because) he is an intimate, personal friend of MR. W.S. DEVERY, the Deputy Police Commissioner of New York.”

Suppressing his misgivings about Farrell and Devery, Ban Johnson, allowed the pair to purchase on January 9, 1903 the Baltimore franchise for $18,000. With the sale, the new owners were expected to move the team to New York City and build a new ball field for it.

On the twelfth day of March 1903, Johnson presided over a press conference announcing that New York City would have a new team in his American League. Owners Frank J. Farrell and William S. Devery were not identified as the new owners; surprisingly, they were not even present.

In Albany, a few days later, incorporation of the team took place. Again Frank J. Farrell and William S. Devery were not part of the program.

It was no wonder American League President Ban Johnson chose to keep the twosome in the background when and while he could. It was crystal clear they were not the types he sought as owners.  But something was better than nothing, and Johnson had not been overwhelmed with ownership offers.

That’s how it all started  . . .

About Harvey Frommer:

One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. In 2010, he was honored by the City of New York to serve as historical consultant for the re-imagined old Yankee Stadium site, Heritage Field.  A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College where he is known as “Dr. Baseball,” Frommer is the founder of

Some of the material in this article is excerpted from his latest The Ultimate Yankee Book, available direct from the author or at Amazon.

Harvey Frommer
I'm the author of 10 books. If you're looking for autographed copies just go to my Twitter @Sportsology and DM me.

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