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This Day in Yankees History: The American League is born

Before the Yankees even existed, the AL was created on January 28, 1901.

Magnates Western League 1890s
Founding AL president Ban Johnson sits in the main chair; behind him are famous owners Connie Mack & Charles Comiskey

Welcome to the relaunched This Day in Yankees History. Brian Cashman finally fired up the hot stove over the last few weeks and the 2021 Yankees roster has really taken shape with possibly more to come. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us! (Today is light, so bear with us.)

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This Day in Yankees History (January 28)

120 years ago

The story of the Yankees’ origin cannot be told without the story of the American League. Originally a minor league organization known as the Western League, its fate was changed when Cincinnati Commercial Gazette sports editor Byron “Ban” Johnson was selected as its president in 1894. It was struggling at the time, but Johnson soon made it profitable through his willingness to expand to cities the National League had abandoned, a higher quality of play thanks to better pay for umpires, the advice of good friend and eventual White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, and sheer determination.

In 1900, Johnson changed the Western League’s name to its now-well known moniker, the American League. That same year, the NL contracted its number of teams from twelve to eight, and Johnson jumped at the opportunity to make a statement. He coordinated the move of two teams to bigger markets: Comiskey’s St. Paul club to Chicago, and Grand Rapids to Cleveland.

The following offseason, Johnson had no intention of remaining a minor league. On January 28, 1901, he declared that they were a major league, in direct competition with the dubious National Leaguers. In addition to Chicago, Cleveland, and founding Western League members Detroit and Milwaukee, Johnson installed teams in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore. He also helped convince 111 NL players to jump to the AL by offering better salaries.

The gambit worked brilliantly, as more fans flocked to the AL than the NL, and by 1903, the Senior Circuit was forced to acknowledge the AL as a second major league. It was a historic year, as the Boston AL club upset Pittsburgh in the first World Series, while a New York baseball team nicknamed the “Highlanders” grabbed one of the AL’s eight spots, as Baltimore has gone bankrupt. That mediocre group eventually became the Yankees.

Nine years ago

There was once a time when this would have been a bigger deal, but it was January 28, 2012 that the Yankees signed 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Jorge Mateo. Until Gleyber Torres came along, Mateo was considered the Yankees’ future at the position, and he captivated prospect watchers like us by stealing bases with reckless abandon throughout the minors.

The 2015 season was probably the zenith of Mateomania, as he played well in his first taste of full-season ball, hitting .278/.345/.392 with 11 triples and 82 stolen bases in just 117 games between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Entering 2016, Baseball America ranked him No. 26 overall in their top 100, and the best prospect in the Yankees’ system entering 2016 — ahead of future stars Gary Sánchez and Aaron Judge.

Mateo began to stall somewhat in 2016 though, as his stolen base success rate dropped and his hitting stagnated. The Yankees traded for Torres that July, and suddenly, Mateo’s future in New York was cloudier. Sure enough, when an opportunity emerged to improve the starting rotation at the 2017 trade deadline, Brian Cashman sent Mateo to the A’s as part of a package for Sonny Gray, who helped them capture an AL Wild Card spot that fall.

Mateo never captured that same top prospect form in Oakland, and he was dealt again prior to the 2020 season. He did successfully make his MLB debut with the Padres, though the 25-year-old managed just four hits in 26 at-bats. The speed, however, is still there:

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The birthday wishes today are taking an “L,” as we’re celebrating the birthdays of Lyn Lary and Lyle Overbay. Lary has long since passed, but Overbay turned 44.

Lary was an infielder born in California in 1906, and at age 19, he jumped from semipro ball to the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. He played well enough to catch the eye of Yankees’ scouts, and they made a deal to buy his contract for the 1929 season. Lary wasn’t the flashiest player on the field (he was fairly mediocre outside of a 4.8 WAR season in 1931), but he was good at finding the spotlight away from the diamond. Babe Ruth nicknamed him “Broadway” for his love of the theater and flashy attire, and Lary eventually married actress Mary Lawlor.

Lary did win a World Series with the Yankees in 1932, but he didn’t hit well that year and skipper Joe McCarthy elected to keep him on the bench during the sweep of the Cubs. An underwhelming season followed and he was traded to the Red Sox in May 1934. Lary bounced around six other teams throughout the rest of the decade and was forced to hang up his spikes after the 1940 campaign. He worked in the aircraft industry after baseball until passing away at age 66 in 1973.

Overbay’s Yankees stint was much shorter, though far more recent. A longtime doubles machine in Milwaukee and Toronto with a reputation for a fine glove, the lefty hitter thought his career was over when his new team for 2013, the Red Sox, informed him that they would be cutting him as spring training neared its end. Fortunately for him, the Yankees were absolutely desperate for help, as Mark Teixeira was batting a partially torn tendon sheath in his right wrist and would not be ready for Opening Day.

So the Yankees signed Overbay, and he turned out to be one of the few bats even remotely functioning early in the season, notching an .801 OPS through the first month and a half. The offense was so dire that even when it appeared Teixeira would return early in June, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi felt that they had to keep him around, even starting him in right field (ah, 2013). It was wise because Teixeira’s injury limited him to just 15 games, so Overbay hit .240/.295/.393 with 14 homers in 142 contests as the team’s primary first baseman. His hitting was anemic in the second half though, and he lost playing time to trade acquisition Mark Reynolds. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs, and Overbay officially retired a year later after one more rodeo with the Brewers.

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We thank Baseball Reference, SABR, and Baseball America for providing background information for these posts.