Ideally, the first person to ever do a thing for a franchise would be a renowned player in franchise history. In the case of the Yankees, a lot of them aren’t really. Founded as the Highlanders in 1903, it took quite a while for the now Yankees franchise to resemble anything close to what they are today. They didn’t appear in the postseason until 1921, and they didn’t break through and win one for two years after that.
The franchise taking so long to truly get going means a lot of the “firsts” in team history are players that are far from household names. That includes the man who made the first ever plate appearance in Yankees’ history.
Alfonzo DeFord “Lefty” Davis was born in 1875 in Nashville. He first starts appearing in minor league stats on Baseball Reference in 1896. After several seasons in the minors, he was picked up by the Philadelphia Athletics. However, before playing a single game for the AL team, he jumped to the the Brooklyn Superbas before the season, in a sign of things to come.
Davis played 25 games for Brooklyn in 1901, but didn’t have much success and was released in June. Just a few days after that, the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up, and it was there that Davis found a home.
In 87 games over the rest of 1901, Davis hit .313/.415/.421 (139 OPS+), helping the Pirates win the 1901 NL pennant. Still two years away from the creation of the modern World Series, that was as good as it got for a team in 1901. The following year, Davis helped the Pirates win the NL again, as they finished 27.5 games ahead of second place, his former Brooklyn Superbas team. However, Davis missed a good chunk of time that year after dealing with a broken leg.
Ahead of the 1903 season, the American League had finally managed to get a team into the New York market, despite the protestations of the New York Giants. Once in their new location, the new team, initially dubbed the Highlanders, targeted the two-time reigning NL champion Pirates to fill out the roster.
From the 1902 Pirates, the Highlanders managed to get Jesse Tannehill, Jack Chesbro, Tommy Leach, Wid Conroy, Jack O’Conner, and Lefty Davis to jump to them and the AL. Leach eventually changed his mind after things became public, but the rest of the players represented a combined 860 plate appearances and 517.1 innings from the champion Pirates.
In the first game of the 1903 season, Davis, Conroy, and O’Conner were all in the lineup as Chesbro took the mound. Davis was inserted into the leadoff spot, and became the first hitter in Highlanders/eventually Yankees’ history when he came to the plate in the bottom of the first. He grounded out, but forever goes down in the history books as a fun fact.
You might think that the person slotted into the leadoff spot on Opening Day might be someone of note, but that didn’t really end up being the case for Davis. He did end up playing in 104 games for the 1903 Highlanders, but wasn’t particularly good. He hit just .237/.319/.263, apparently still very much hampered after breaking his leg the season prior. There were also reports that Highlanders manager Clark Griffith was looking to get rid of Davis, and he would never appear for the franchise again after the 1903 season.
Davis wouldn’t play for any major league team over the next couple seasons. He didn’t make it back until 1907, when he appeared in 73 games for the Cincinnati Reds. He wasn’t great that year either, and that would be the end of his career in the bigs.
Ideally, the fun fact of “first ever batter for the Yankees” would be someone fun from team history. Instead, it’s Lefty Davis whose career with the team is essentially just that fun fact.
“The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia” by David Finoli, Bill Ranier
“New York Yankees Openers: An Opening Day History of Baseball’s Most Famous Team, 1903-2017” by Lyle Spatz
“The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates: Treachery and Triumph” by Ronald T. Waldo