The years from Yankees history prior to Babe Ruth’s arrival and the beginning of the championship runs tend to blend together a bit. They were largely unsuccessful. They weren’t even called the Yankees for a while, going by the “Highlanders” until around 1913.
That’s not to say that New York was bad every year until Ruth though. In 1904, they took the American League pennant race all the way down to the final day of the season, before falling in heart-breaking fashion.
Two years later, the Highlanders again found themselves in contention late in the regular season before coming up short. That one didn’t feature any last-day dramatics, but there was one series you can point to that could’ve changed that season and, who knows, maybe Yankees history.
By August 18, 1906, there were basically four teams in contention for the American League crown. The “Hitless Wonder” Chicago White Sox led the way, but they were closely followed by Connie Mack’s defending AL champion Philadelphia Athletics, those aforementioned Highlanders, and the Cleveland Naps (named for player/manager Nap Lajoie), who were two, three, and four games back respectively. The end result of the pennant race being such a crowded bunch was that the four-game set starting on August 18th in New York between the Highlanders and White Sox had a chance to prove crucial for several different teams.
The Highlanders had their work cut out for them in the series, as the White Sox came into it on the back of a 14-game winning streak, which saw them go from 7.5 games back to in front in the AL. In the series opener, New York fought hard, keeping the game scoreless through six innings. However, a Kid Elberfeld error in the seventh allowed Chicago to get on the board, and took the wind of of the Highlanders’ sails in a big way. In the top of the ninth, New York capitulated. Another five errors — including four by third baseman Frank LaPorte — helped the White Sox eventually tack on nine runs in the ninth, winning 10-0.
After an offday on Sunday, the teams returned to the field on the 20th. That day, the Highlanders committed another five errors (!) in a 4-1 loss. LaPorte avoided trouble this time, but Elberfeld and infamous first baseman Hal Chase committed a pair of errors apiece. New York did get on the board for the first time in the series, but it came in the ninth inning when it was too little, too late.
Rain the next day caused the game the be canned after a few innings, and set up a series-ending doubleheader on the 22nd. In the opener, the Highlanders were much-improved and only made one error. Unfortunately, their offense was held in check once again, as they fell 6-1. In the series finale, the White Sox jumped on New York starter Bill Hogg early, knocking him out after 1.2 innings and six runs. The good news is that the offense showed up, scoring six runs over the course of the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, getting the Highlanders back into the game. The issue was that they made three more errors and would allow five runs in the top of the ninth, dooming them to yet another loss (this one by an 11-6 score).
The four-game sweep saw the Yankees go from three games back to seven, and in fourth place, with just over a month left to go. Mathematically, there was still plenty of time, but it had to feel like a killer blow.
Over the rest of the season, the Highlanders went 32-14, a run that included a 15-game winning streak (tied for fourth-longest in franchise history) that started a week after the series loss to the White Sox. The streak not only got them back into the race, but allowed them to take the lead in the AL at points. They even took three out of four against Chicago in the teams’ final meeting of the season. However in the end, the White Sox proved just a little too good, and won the AL pennant by just three games in the end.
The margin being that small means there are plenty of points throughout the year where if a certain thing went slightly differently, the season could’ve been changed. That being said, it’s hard to look past the August 18-22 series as the biggest one. They were outscored 31-8 over the four games, with six of their runs coming when it was mostly too late. In addition, they committed 17 errors over the series. In several ways, they gifted several of the wins right to Chicago. If they had played slightly better in just two of them, they could’ve won not only those games, but that would’ve been enough to flip the AL pennant.
Beyond that, who knows what kind of butterfly effect, good or bad, would’ve happened if the franchise captured their first pennant a decade and a half before they actually did. The White Sox actually upset the 116-win Cubs in the 1906 World Series, so who knows, maybe the Highlanders do that too.
New York Times - August 19-23, 1906