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Yankees History: The story of the first ever Yankee winning pitcher

The first ever pitcher to record a win for the franchise now known as the Yankees didn’t go down as good player for the team, nevermind a great.

Howell Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The franchise now known as the Yankees first came to New York in 1903. Some sources will say the team moved from Baltimore, where they were the first major league rendition of the Orioles in 1901 and ‘02. However, they’re really two distinct teams, with the new New York Highlanders franchise picking up many of the players from that Orioles’ team.

One of those players was pitcher Harry Howell, who would go down as a franchise history maker.

Howell had first broken through into the big leagues in 1898 as a member of the then-Booklyn Superbas. After making two starts and throwing two — although both complete — less than stellar games, he was assigned to the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles before the next season. He eventually made it back to Brooklyn and threw 209.1 just above average innings in 1899. He was similarly average the next season, as he split time between the Superbas’ rotation and bullpen in 1900.

Ahead of the 1901 season, Howell took a chance and jumped to the newly formed American League, joining that version of the Orioles. There he was reunited with John McGraw, who had also managed him with the minor league version of the Orioles previously.

Howell spent the 1901 and ‘02 seasons with Baltimore and was a lot like he was with Brooklyn — just right around average. After the latter season, McGraw jumped ship and left for the NL’s New York Giants. With his leaving, the Orioles’ franchise folded. American League president Ban Johnson had previously clashed with the NL over having an AL team in New York, but after Baltimore’s departure he got his wish. The New York Highlanders were born, and Howell — along with several others — were picked up by the new team.

The franchise’s first ever game came on April 23rd on the road against the Washington Senators. They fell 3-1, failing to keep things going after they had taken a 1-0 lead in the first inning. In the second game of the season the following day, Harry Howell was given the start.

Howell got things started on a good note, starting with five scoreless innings. As that was happening, the offense picked four runs, giving him a 4-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Washington fought back with two runs to get on the board against Howell, but the Highlanders then added two more themselves in the top of the seventh.

In the eighth inning, Howell even helped himself. He hit a triple — his second hit of the day — which drove in a run to make it 7-2. Howell then returned to the mound and threw two more scoreless innings to finish off the New York Highlanders’ first ever win. Howell would go down as the team’s first ever winning pitcher, having allowed two runs on eight hits in a complete game.

The rest of Howell’s 1903 season wouldn’t go as well, as his 3.53 ERA equated to a 88 ERA+. Ahead of the 1904 season, manager Clark Griffith and the Highlanders traded Howell to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Jack Powell. There, he started used a spitball — which he learned in part thanks to New York teammate Jack Chesbro — and became a very nice pitcher. However, he also used the spitball so much that it was said that the errors for fielders playing behind him went up with them occasionally unable to get a grip on the loaded balls Howell threw.GF

Howell would play in St. Louis through the end of the 1910 season. In his last year, he became involved in a controversy over the batting title race between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The Browns deliberately played with the infield back in a final day game against Lajoie with the hope that he could record bunts for hits and beat out Cobb. After one particular bunt was ruled a sacrifice instead of a hit, Howell reportedly attempted to bribe the official scorer with new clothes. While he never confirmed that he did that, Howell’s days in the AL were done after that. He played one more season in the minors before his playing career ended.

Harry Howell wasn’t a particularly good Yankees’ player, nevermind a great one. However, he’ll forever have the distinction of being the first ever winning pitcher in franchise history.


New York Times, April 24, 1903