Ban Johnson was about to see his wish come true. He had been hoping he could get a team for his infant American Baseball League located in New York City and when the AL’s Baltimore Orioles franchise collapsed financially, he saw his chance. The only problem was timing. The 1903 season opener was just months away and not only was Johnson without an owner for a Big Apple franchise, the City didn’t even have an available ballpark.
If the self-righteous Johnson had more time to find the right guy to purchase the Orioles there would be no way he’d agree to partner with a saloon-owning, bookmaker with a notorious reputation for bribing Tammany Hall political hacks to look the other way. But Frank Farrell had both the cash and political muscle necessary to overcome the ballpark building obstacles that forces friendly to the National League’s New York Giants’ ownership were throwing up to block any competitive League or team from putting down roots in their neighborhood.
So Johnson accepted both Farrell’s $25,000 certified check and his even more unsavory partner, a former crooked New York City cop named Bill Devery. Together, the two got a 16,000 seat ballpark built in the Washington Heights section of the City in less than six weeks and American League had a foothold in the most important professional baseball market in the world.
Farrell would then spend the next decade fighting with Devery but he also made a sincere attempt to turn his ball club into a World Champion. When he was pretty much forced to sell the club to Jacob Ruppert after the 1914 season, he had no AL Pennants to boast about and little if any profit to show for his efforts. Farrell, Devery and CBS are the only owners of the Yankee franchise who failed to win a Pennant or World Series during their reigns. Frank Farrell died in 1926 at the age of 60.
Sort of appropriate that during a week when it was revealed that a whole bunch of crooked New York City policemen scammed taxpayers out of millions of dollars of undeserved disability and retirement income, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant happens to also be one of the most well-known corrupt cops in the history of NYPD. “Big Bill” Devery became one of the first owners of the Yankee franchise when he silent partnered with the notorious saloon owner and gambler Frank Farrell, to purchase the struggling Baltimore Orioles’ American League franchise in 1903 and move it to New York.
Devery was really nothing more than a super-sized Tammany Hall-backed bribe collector with a badge, who demanded tribute from just about every border-line illicit business in his Manhattan precinct. This slob used to stand on a prescribed street corner and accept bribes in full view of the public. So crooked was the Big Apple police force back then that a brazen thief like Devery actually rose to the rank of Chief of Police in 1898 before the decade-long reform movement initiated by Teddy Roosevelt and a team of muckraking New York City newspaper and magazine reporters, finally took hold.
Unfortunately for the cause of justice, Tammany Hall still maintained enough control over the City’s court system to get Devery acquitted of corruption charges and he was able to retire a free man, collect his pension and take full advantage of all the loot he plundered from his policing days.
There was enough of that loot for him to put up half of the $18,000 purchase price he and Farrell paid for the Orioles in 1903 plus finance the hurried construction of a playing venue for the new team in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan that would come to be known as Hilltop Park. The new club’s co-owners had such questionable character that their identity was kept secret for months as negotiations over the sale of the team and construction of the park were completed. Baseball historians are still a bit perplexed over the fact that AL President Ban Johnson, a man who was so concerned with the crystal-clean image of his league, would choose to comport with men like Devery and Farrell. The best answer put forth thus far was that Johnson needed their City Hall and labor group connections to get the new ballpark built in time for the 1903 baseball season.
Whatever the reason, Devery proved to be especially inept as an owner of a baseball team and for the most part, permitted Farrell complete control over all management decisions. His most famous interaction with the Highlanders’ operation occurred during the 1914 season. Farrell had hired the legendary Cubs manager, Frank Chance to skipper the team that season. By that time, Devery had learned enough about baseball to make it a point to publicly criticize Chance for poor decision making after several Highlander losses. The crooked cop-turned owner made the mistake however, of issuing one of his criticisms of the New York manager right after a tough loss while standing in close proximity to the frustrated skipper in the team’s locker room. Chance, who had a well-known reputation as a brawler took a swing at Devery but missed, as onlookers quickly moved in to separate the two.
Can you imagine if Chance was manager at the time Steinbrenner owned the Yankees or if Billy Martin was skipper when Devery owned half the team? There would have been a murder committed in the Yankee locker room.
As it turned out, Chance wasn’t the only guy growing tired of Big Bill. Frank Farrell had grown to hate his crude and hefty partner as well. The two men stopped speaking to each other and Farrell actively started looking for someone willing to buy Devery’s share of the club.
Sure enough two prospective buyers turned up but they weren’t interested in purchasing half a team, they wanted it all. On January 30, 1915, brewery owner Jacob Ruppert and construction magnate Tillinghast Huston paid Farrell and Devery $460,000 for the Highlanders.
Devery died in June of 1919 at the age of 65. Though everyone assumed he had plenty of money, the probate court declared his estate to be in debt at the time of his death.
Over a half-century before George Steinbrenner came on the scene, another son of a wealthy German-American businessman purchased New York City’s American League baseball franchise and wheeled and dealed his way to World Championships and a brand new Big Apple stadium for his team. But instead of building ships like George’s dad, this guy’s father made beer.
His name was Jacob Ruppert and he took over the family business when his Dad died in 1915 and immediately began looking for ways to get his brewery’s name in the newspapers more often. He accomplished that by purchasing a baseball team. Originally, Ruppert was co-owner of the Yankees along with partner Cap Huston. He bought out Huston in 1923 to become sole owner of the ball club.
In a series of astute business and hiring maneuvers, he turned the Yankees into the most valuable brand in all of sports. He brought Babe Ruth to New York. He hired Ed Barrow to build baseball’s best farm system and he put managerial legends, Miller Huggins and then Joe McCarthy in the Yankee dugout. During his 23 years owning the franchise, the Yankees won the first ten of their World Series championships. Though I’ve never been a big fan of the guy, I agree with those who felt George Steinbrenner belongs in Baseball’s Hall of Fame but only if they put Jake Ruppert in their first. Rupert received that honor in 2013, when he was the choice of the Hall’s Veterans’ Committee.