|From windows of the buildings that surround the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center garden you see a rose garden, lines of benches, and a gathering of lofty trees. Anyone with a more historical eye, however, sees the genesis of one of the greatest baseball teams of all time.
In the early part of the 20th century, the land now occupied by the garden, the chapel, and other facilities was Hilltop Park, the home of the Highlanders, the first American League team in New York. We know them best as the New York Yankees, the name the team took years after leaving Hilltop.
Hilltop Park, spanning between 165th and 168th Streets and between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue, was constructed in only six weeks. It was huge by todays standards: Left field, facing north to 168th Street, extended 365 feet from home plate; center field, 542 feet; and right field, across from Broadway, 400 feet.
The Highlanders leased its Washington Heights location from the Institute for the Blind, which was located on Fort Washington Avenue at 163rd Street. The team played in Hilltop Park for 10 seasons until its lease expired.
The stadium, officially named New York American League Park, opened April 30, 1903. People called it Hilltop because the field was built on one of the highest elevations in the city. A roofed single-deck wooden grandstand stood along Fort Washington Avenue. Next to it by the foul lines were the open bleachers that were covered up in 1911. Along left field at 168th Street were fences about 20 feet high. The center field bleachers, erected in 1912, were on the corner of 168th Street and Broadway. By 1906, Hilltop seating could hold 18,000 fans, with standing room for 8,000 more. The entrance was at Broadway and 166th Street, with a sign on the east wall that read American League Park.
The park is not regarded highly by baseball historians. Hilltop Park was a slum of a ballpark from the beginning, wrote historian Harvey Frommer, and it became worse as time went by. He notes that the team didnt have a clubhouse and had to dress in hotels.
The armory was built behind the park fences in 1909. Three apartment buildings from the Hilltop days are still standing on 168th Street, east of the armory.
From Baltimore to New York
The Highlanders, officially named the New York Americans, began as the short-lived Baltimore Orioles in the National League, only playing one season from 1901 to 1902 before the owners decided to accept an offer to change leagues and head to New York City. They were to compete with the already established New York Giants whose stadium was at the Polo Grounds on Eighth Avenue at 155th Street.
Frank Farrell, a professional gambler, and Bill Devery, a former New York City police chief, purchased the franchise for $18,000 in 1903. Farrell and Devery, who were partners in the pool hall business, sold the team in 1915 to Jacob Ruppert, who worked in his familys brewery business, and Tillinghast LHommedieu Huston, an engineer, for $460,000.
Depending on which baseball historian you believe, the teams nickname was a nod to either the high elevation of Hilltop Park or the Scottish Gordon Highlanders regiment.
Opening day tickets cost between 50 cents and a dollar. Small American flags were given out to each of the 16,294 fans who entered the stadium.
The Highlanders won their first home game against the Washington Senators, 6-2, but were not regarded as the great team they were to become years later in the 1920s when they acquired legendary players such as Babe Ruth. During their first season, the Highlanders came in fourth place, 17 games out of first. The team came close to winning the pennant in 1904 against the Boston Pilgrims, but lost in the ninth inning of the last day of the season. They had an exceptional pitcher named Jack Chesbro, who holds the American League pitching record to this day for most wins in a season41 games. Baseball historians also point to Willie Keeler, Birdie Cree, Hal Chase, and Roger Peckinpaugh as outstanding players.
In 1912, the Highlanders moved to the Polo Grounds, where they shared the stadium with the Giants until 1923 while Yankee Stadium was being built. Hilltop was demolished in 1914 and replaced by the one-story tabernacle of Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned evangelist. Following the demolition of the tabernacle, groundbreaking ceremonies for Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center took place in 1925.
Returning to Home Plate
Highlander pitcher Chet Hoff, at 102 years old, returned to his old stadium grounds on Sept. 30, 1993, to dedicate a bronze plaque from the New York Yankees. The plaque, which is placed in the medical center garden in the approximate spot where home base was located, is dedicated to the medical center and the community of Washington Heights. At the dedication, Mr. Hoff recalled the day 82 years ago that month when he struck out Ty Cobb on three pitches. Mr. Hoff died five years after the dedication at age 107.
The Fall 2003 issue of P&S Journal will be devoted to the history of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, 75 years old this year.