One hundred and twenty years ago in 1903, the Baltimore Orioles relocated to New York and became the New York Highlanders. After a couple of seasons, more and more fans and writers referred to the team as the Yankees.
The American League was founded two years earlier in 1901 and New York did not have a team in that league at the time. However, New York had the National League New York Giants playing in an early version of the Polo Grounds located across the Harlem River where Yankee Stadium stands today. (A later version of the Polo Grounds housed the Giants until their move to San Francisco after the 1957 season and the expansion Mets franchise played there also a few years later until Shea Stadium opened.)
The Highlanders, chosen as the name for the team after a famous British army regiment, and because of the location of the small wooden ballpark in upper Manhattan known as Hilltop Park located on high grounds on Broadway from 165th to 168th Streets. Today, New York-Presbyterian Hospital occupies the site. During the season a few miles away, a baby by the name of Lou Gehrig was born.
In 1903, Bing Crosby, the future entertainer who would become one of the richest men in Hollywood and one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates 44 years later, was born. Crosby and Hank Greenberg would become good friends and Crosby would lure Greenberg to play his last major league season with the Pirates. The first box of Crayola Crayons containing five different colors was produced and sold for five cents in 1903, the price of milk was seven cents a quart and the Ford Motor Company was incorporated and Teddy Roosevelt was President of the United States.
Many Russian Jews were trying to get tickets to America in 1903 as anti-Semitism boiled into violence and murder. In April, during Easter, the 2,528 Kishinev Jews were targeted, resulting in 47 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Fires and looters destroyed many possessions and the lucky ones fled. Later in the year, in Warsaw, Poland, a holding of Russia at the time, 80 Jews were seriously injured and many were slaughtered by mobs as authorities stood by.
Samuel Pelty was lucky. He immigrated to the United States to avoid conscription in the Prussian Army. His son, Barney, made his big-league pitching debut in 1903 and quickly became known as the “Yiddish Curver.” Pelty quickly became one of the top pitchers on the lowly St. Louis Browns.
At the time the first player with the last name Cohen was playing in the major leagues. Pitching under the name Harry Kane, he made his big league debut a year earlier in 1902 with the St. Louis Browns of the American League. In July of 1902, baseball’s weekly publication, “The Sporting News” wrote about Kane.
“His name is Cohen and he assumed that of Kane, when he became a semi-professional, because he fancied that there was a popular and professional prejudice against Hebrews as ball players.”
The Browns weren’t impressed with Kane’s pitching prowess and he started the 1903 season in the minor leagues. However, after pitching three no-hitters and winning both ends of a doubleheader with shutouts, the Detroit Tigers offered him a major league contract.
Kane pitched 18 innings for the Tigers, allowed 26 hits and compiled a high earned run average of 8.50 earning him a train ticket back to the minor leagues.
Many recently arrived Jews from foreign lands were hearing about baseball and seeing boys playing the game on streets and empty lots. Many Jewish boys growing up in New York with Yiddish speaking and reading parents spent most of their free time in good weather playing baseball.
An immigrant from Russia couldn’t understand his son’s association with the popular American game and sought advice from the publisher of a prominent Yiddish daily newspaper.
A popular feature of Abraham Cahan’s Yiddish language “Jewish Daily Forward” was Cahan’s “Bintel Brief, meaning a bundle of letters.
The father wrote:
“It makes sense to play dominoes or chess. But what is the point of a crazy game like baseball?
“The children can get crippled. Here in educated America the adults play baseball. They run after a ball like children.
I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner. But he cries his head off.”
The letter and Cahan’s response appeared in the August 3, 1903, edition. Cahan’s answer was to all of the fathers with the same problem. “Let your boys play baseball and play it well,” Cahan advised. “As long as it does not interfere with their education or get them in bad company. Chess is good but baseball develops the arms and legs, and eyesight. It is played in fresh air. Let us not raise the children that they grow up as foreigners in their own birthplace.”
Author, columnist, public speaker Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before accepting a front office position with the Detroit Tigers where he became the first orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring (1984).