The Yankees organization did not win their first pennant until 1921, the 19th season in team history. The first championship came two seasons later. Since then, they’ve become the most successful team in baseball.
While Babe Ruth’s arrival is rightfully attributed to a change in the franchise’s fortunes, they nearly won a pennant more than a decade prior to that. Just two years into their history, the the Highlanders came extremely close to making history.
The New York Highlanders started off the 1904 season slowly. Coming out of May, they found themselves already 5.5 games back of the Boston Americans in the American League. Over the course of June, they trimmed four games off that deficit, and took two of three against Boston to wrap up the month.
The deficit fluctuated over the next couple weeks before the Highlanders tied Boston for the lead on August 8th. Eleven days later, they took the lead by themselves for the first time all season.
The Highlanders were able to do this thanks mainly to the contributions of pitcher Jack Chesbro. No matter what stats you look at, it’s clear that Chesbro was by far the team’s best player in 1904. He won 41 games with a well below league average 1.82 ERA. His 11.2 Baseball Reference WAR is more than double what anyone else on the team put up. He was even only a slightly below average hitter. Were MVP awards given out back then, he probably should’ve won it.
Throughout September, the Highlanders and Americans traded the AL lead back and forth. Over the course of one week, the Highlanders went from two up to two back. Just three days after that, the teams were tied again. It was that close all month long.
As it happens, the schedule shook out so that the two teams would wrap up the season with a five game stand against each other. Boston went into the set with a 0.5 game lead.
Chesbro took the mound in the opener at home on October 7th. He pitched the Highlanders to a 3-2 win, giving New York a 0.5 game lead. All they had to do in the final four games was split them.
The first game of that series on Friday was at home, as was the doubleheader on the final day of the season on Monday. The Saturday doubleheader, however, was not. The two teams went up to Boston to play a pair of games that day.
That was not scheduled that way. It wasn’t a quirk of the schedule. The games were supposed to be played in New York. Back during the summer, presumably during one of the stretches where the Highlanders looked to be falling out of the race, team owner Frank Farrell agreed to rent out Hilltop Park for a Columbia football game for that Saturday. Months later, that came back to bite him as his team suddenly had make an unscheduled road trip for the two biggest games of the season.
Manager Clark Griffith reportedly told Chesbro to stay home and rest up for Monday. However, the Highlanders’ star decided to not only go with the team to Boston, but demanded to pitch on Saturday. He was the team’s best player, it was 1904, and pitcher usage was obviously vastly different. Griffith acquiesced and Chesbro got the start in the first game.
That backfired spectacularly. Chesbro got hit around, and the Yankees lost the first game of the day 13-2. In the second game, New York’s second best starter, Jack Powell, put in an excellent outing. Unfortunately, Boston started some guy named Cy Young, who shut out the Highlanders. Going into the final day, New York was not only no longer in front, but they had to sweep both games.
Again, it was 1904, so Chesbro was brought back for the first game of Monday’s doubleheader. This time, he was much improved, and threw six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. Meanwhile, the Highlanders had a lead, with one of the runs coming on a Patsy Dougherty hit. Dougherty had started the season in Boston, but had been sent to New York in a controversial trade in June.
Things started to unravel in the seventh. The Highlanders’ defense let Chesbro down, committing two errors, which allowed two runs to score and tie the game.
After narrowly getting out of the eighth, Chesbro came back out for the ninth with the game still 2-2. Lou Criger led off the ninth for Boston with an infield single, putting the go ahead run on. A sacrifice and a ground out then moved Criger to third, but also got Chesbro an out away from escaping another jam.
Freddy Parent came to the plate for Boston, and Chesbro got within a strike of finishing things off. However, Chesbro then sent one over the head of catcher Red Kleinow. Criger scored and Boston moved out in front.
The Highlanders had their chances in the bottom of the ninth. However, Dougherty struck out with two on to end the game. Boston clinched the American League with one game to play. New York won the second game of the day, but it was too little too late.
The 1904 World Series wouldn’t actually be played. The NL Champion Giants had long been stating that they wouldn’t play, as they considered the AL “inferior.” It probably had more due to with the Giants not wanting to play the crosstown Highlanders. Even though Boston won, it was too late for them to reverse their stance.
Chesbro had a good season in 1905, but he would never match his 1904 campaign again. His major league career would be over after 1909. Meanwhile, the Highlanders dropped to sixth in the AL the following season.
If Chesbro’s wild pitch doesn’t happen, who knows what happens. Maybe the Yankees end up breaking through before that, setting off a chain of events that would alter team history. However in the long run, things have worked out just fine.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jack Chesbro.