Yankees’ history prior to Babe Ruth’s arrival tends mostly to be grouped together.
“Their first year was 1903. They were mostly bad. They were called the Highlanders for a while. Then Babe Ruth showed up and the rest is history.”
Before I truly started to dive into Yankees history, that’s generally how I thought of it to. However, there are several interesting teams and many interesting players in those years that shouldn’t be completely overlooked. There were a couple occasions where the franchise nearly broke through and won an AL pennant long before their actual first in 1921.
For example, the then-Highlanders went into the final day of the 1904 season with a real chance at winning the pennant. They got that far thanks in large part to a ridiculous season from pitcher Jack Chesbro.
1904 Statistics: 55 games, 454.2 innings, 41-12, 1.82 ERA, 148 ERA+, 2.11 FIP, 0.937 WHIP, 8.5 fWAR, 11.4 bWAR
Going into 1904, Chesbro was 29 years old, set to turn 30 that June. He had made his major league debut five years earlier, breaking through with the Pirates in 1899. After that season, he had been traded to the Louisville Colonels, then an NL franchise, in a deal that sent Hall of Famer Honus Wagner to Pittsburgh. However, Chesbro would never play a game with Louisville as the franchise dissolved ahead of the 1900 season. In the aftermath, his rights were reacquired by the Pirates. That began a discontentment that likely led to Chesbro ending up in New York.
Ahead of the 1900 season, Chesbro reported late to spring training, which would become a theme over his career. While he started his MLB career with two average seasons, he broke though with excellent ones in 1901 and ‘02, helping the Pirates to NL pennants in both seasons. However with iffy relationship with Pittsburgh and the recently formed American League gaining steam heading into it’s third year, Chesbro jumped ship and joined the AL ahead of 1903, and would be assigned to the New York franchise, known as the Highlanders, set to play their first season that year.
In his first year in New York, Chesbro was pretty good as the Highlanders finished above .500, but in fourth in the AL. During the next year’s spring training, he became interested in the spitball after watching White Sox pitcher Elmer Stricklett use it in an exhibition series. After that Chesbro studied the spitball, but was not allowed to use it as Highlanders manager Clark Griffith was not a fan of the pitch and catcher Deacon McGuire did not enjoy catching it.
Chesbro got off to a fairly middling start in 1904. After allowing seven runs in a loss to Cleveland on May 12th, he sat at 4-3 with a 3.34 ERA, which was above the league average ERA for that season. At that point, McGuire and Griffith acquiesced and gave Chesbro permission to use the spitball, which would turn out to be quite the good decision.
Chesbro first start after the change came on May 14th — two days after his previous start, because 1904. That day he allowed just one unearned run in a complete game victory over Cleveland. That began a run of 14 consecutive Chesbro starts where he went down as the winning pitcher. From May 14th to July 4th, in 14 starts, he went 14-0 with a 1.40 ERA (spooky) in 129 innings. While that run would eventually be snapped, the post-spitball Chesbro was dominant. For the rest of the season after the change, he allowed a 1.58 ERA and a 1.98 FIP as opposing hitters OPSed just .495 off him.
Meanwhile as Chesbro was doing that, the team around him was also on a heater. After playing just above .500 baseball through May, they caught fire in June, going 73-44 from June 1st. That allowed them to go into the final day of the season with a shot at the AL pennant. They were 1.5 games back of the leading Boston Americans — now Red Sox — who they were set to face in a doubleheader in Boston.
Unfortunately for them and Chesbro, all that work ended on an unfortunately sour note. Chesbro got the start in first game of that final day doubleheader, in what was his eighth start in the last 15 days, again, because 1904. He kept the Highlanders in a tight 2-2 battle as the game moved to the ninth inning. However, Chesbro uncorked in ill-timed wild pitch with a runner on third in the ninth. Boston scored as they won 3-2, ending the Highlanders’ chances at the doubleheader sweep and the pennant.
Despite that, Chesbro had an incredible season and set several records that will almost certainly never be broken. His 454.2 innings, 41 wins, and 48 complete games were all league-leading totals that season, and all Yankees’ franchise records. In the World Series era (1903 to present) only one pitcher has thrown more innings in a season than Chesbro — the White Sox Ed Walsh in 1908 with 464. However, Chesbro edged him in wins — 41 to 40 — and it’s hard to imagine a way those figures ever gets topped, unless the way pitchers are used ever drastically changes.
Jack Chesbro’s 1904 was the first truly great season in Yankees’ history. The fact that it came before the era of truly great Yankees’ teams means it’s often lost to history, but never overlook the ridiculous numbers he put up.