The resume accumulated by the investor was something less than the model envisioned by Ban Johnson for club ownership in the fledgling American League. Nor was a bankroll amassed via saloon ownership, bookmaking, horse racing stables, casino operation, and service to Tammany Hall the preferred source of the financial wherewithal needed for relocation of the league’s moribund Baltimore franchise to New York. But with the 1903 season on the horizon and no other viable prospect in view, AL President Johnson suppressed his misgivings and quietly admitted Frank J. Farrell into team ownership ranks.
For the next dozen years, Farrell and his partner, the even less reputable William S. Devery, waged the battles required for the junior circuit to maintain its outpost in the nation’s largest metropolis. But apart from perhaps imparting pride of ownership, the New York venture did Farrell and Devery little good. By the time that a lack of success on the field and disappointment at the gate compelled them to abandon the game, Farrell and Devery were nearly tapped out. The rewards and glory of owning the 27-times world champion New York Yankees would be bestowed only on their successors.
A tumultuous life in the political and sporting arenas of New York City was doubtless far from the minds of Irish Catholic immigrants Francis and Sarah Farrell when they brought their only son into this world.i Frank was born on Manhattan’s Lower West Side some time during the mid-1860s.ii The first half of his working life had little, if anything, to do with baseball. Rather, his energies focused on diversions of a different sort, few of which were strictly legal. To the extent that details of his early days are known, it appears that Farrell was employed as a clerk in a dry goods store by age 13.iii While still young, Frank took the first step on the ladder of upward mobility by becoming a bartender at a saloon near the headquarters of Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that controlled the Democratic Party in Gotham. As he poured drinks, Farrell ingratiated himself with the Wigwam foot soldiers who patronized the establishment and soaked up the practical and political wisdom that they dispensed.
In time, Frank was able to open up his own saloon at Sixth Avenue and 30th Street, near the heart of the city’s notorious Tenderloin district and less than a block away from the NYC police station commanded by Captain William Devery. By then, Big Bill Devery was already a formidable presence in the Manhattan demimonde. A large man with a prominent moustache, Devery was a tireless collector of the “honest graft” that hallmarked the reign of Tammany chief Richard Croker.iv Every saloon, betting parlor, brothel, gambling den, dance hall, and other abode of iniquity in the Tenderloin provided Devery and his emissaries in blue with generous protection stipends.v Devery then kicked a healthy percentage of the take up to Big Tim Sullivan, his political benefactor and a Tammany powerhouse second only to Boss Croker himself.
It did not take long for Farrell and Devery to find each other and soon the pair were business partners and personal friends, a relationship that thrust Farrell into Big Tim’s orbit. By means now impossible to confirm but easy to surmise, Farrell parlayed his association with Sullivan and other Tammany bigwigs into a quick fortune. By the turn of the century, Farrell was New York City’s “Pool Room King,” with reputedly 250 off-track betting spots under his control.vi He also became a principal of the protection syndicate, now raking in an estimated $3 million per year.vii In addition, Farrell was a high-stakes racetrack bookmaker (then a legal profession) and a noted plunger in his own right, often wagering thousands on the outcome of a single race. Farrell’s immersion in racetrack affairs was a natural pursuit, for thoroughbred horse racing was the passion of his adult life. First with yeast manufacturing millionaire (and later Cincinnati Reds co-owner) Julius Fleischmann and later with once-renowned hustlers like Sim Diemel and Davy Johnson, Farrell operated his own racing stables. And in time, some celebrated champions would wear the Farrell silks.viii
Although Farrell had become a notable within the confines of Tammany Hall, he remained largely unknown to the public. That would change dramatically during the 1901 NYC municipal election campaign. The myriad scandals of the Wigwam-stocked Van Wyck administration had inspired city Republicans, reformers, and other Tammany foes to combine forces. The soapbox star of their fusion ticket was the candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, William Travers Jerome, a sitting justice on the New York state Supreme Court and a blue nose acutely agitated by the city’s gambling rackets.ix During a large Fusion Party rally at the Murray Hill Lyceum, Jerome pilloried his Tammany-backed opponent Henry V. Unger as a pawn of “Frank Farrell, the head of the gambling combine in this city.”x
The Jerome charge was then endorsed by the New York Times in a blistering editorial captioned “The Case Against Mr. Unger.”xi “It is not Tammany, merely, the patron and protector of the vicious; it is vice itself in the person of FARRELL that has brought about the nomination of Mr. Unger,” the Times raged. To enlighten its readership about this heretofore obscure villain, the editorial declared that “MR. FRANK FARRELL is a gambler, the chief gambler of New York City, we suppose. The business to which he owes his bad eminence, and in which he gains his living is carried out in violation of the law. His gambling places have enjoyed the protection of the law (because) he is an intimate, personal friend of MR. W.S. DEVERY, the Deputy Police Commissioner of New York.” Farrell’s purpose in arranging the Unger nomination was obvious to the Times: Farrell “wants a District Attorney who will not make trouble for him.”xii
Not to be outdone by the Times editorialists, the Citizens Union of New York then published a widely circulated pamphlet that recounted the alleged misdeeds of often-accused but never-convicted commissioner Devery, adding his now exposed connection to gambling honcho Frank Farrell to its bill of particulars.xiii Such rhetoric had its intended effect. In the November 1901 elections, Tammany was swept from office. And the previously veiled activities of Frank Farrell had now become an object of press interest.
The outcome of the NYC elections was not without ramifications in the baseball world. Shortly after the results were posted, Richard Croker resigned from Tammany leadership and took up residence in the British Isles, far beyond the subpoena reach of incoming DA Jerome. The fall of Croker also undermined the power of his subordinates, most notably Andrew Freedman, an able but difficult Croker protégé who had made a fortune on city real estate transactions. Among the local properties acquired by Freedman was a controlling interest in the New York Giants. Unfortunately for the National League, Freedman’s talents did not include the capacity to run a major league franchise effectively. During his eight season (1895-1902) tenure as club president, the Giants were generally a non-factor in the pennant chase and an underperformer at the box office. Freedman compensated for this lack of accomplishment by abusing and, ultimately, dominating his fellow magnates, roiling NL affairs in the process.
In September 1902, Freedman sold the Giants to Cincinnati Reds owner John T. Brush, once a Freedman antagonist in NL owners councils but since late 1898, a Freedman ally, if not a friend.xiv Although formally divorced from baseball and reduced in political rank, Freedman remained a force in New York, serving as a major catalyst for the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit system, the city’s first true subway. Whether acting upon a sense of obligation to Brush, malice toward Tammany rivals reportedly interested in bringing an AL team to New York, or for reasons only known to himself, Freedman decided to use his connection to the subway project to encumber any site that might afford grounds for the building of a new baseball stadium in the city. Ban Johnson received a first-hand demonstration of Freedman’s clout when an all-but-completed transfer of a stadium-suitable site at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue was kiboshed by the IRT Board, acting at Freedman’s behest. This event, however, would have unintended consequences, the foremost of which was the conversion of the city’s Pool Room King into a suitor for the New York franchise.
Given the nature of Farrell’s livelihood, the circumstances of his rendezvous with club ownership are somewhat murky. But a reasonably reliable narrative can still be constructed. No athlete himself, the short and stocky (5’6”, 180 lbs.) Farrell was, like many a Tammany stalwart, an ardent baseball fan. Shortly after the advent of the American League, Farrell began harboring plans for underwriting an AL team in New York, to be led by his friend John McGraw, then managing in Baltimore. But Farrell was jilted when McGraw fell out with Ban Johnson and was induced to take charge of the NL Giants in July 1902. For a time, Farrell returned his attention to other interests, most notably the “Monte Carlo in miniature” gambling casino that he was opening in midtown Manhattan. As noted in the New York Evening World, “only those with deep pockets” would gain admission to this lavishly appointed gambling palace.xv Soon thereafter, raiders from DA Jerome’s office, with reporters in tow, tried storming the premises but were unable to breach the fortified entrance. The thwarted prosecutor then initiated a legal siege on Farrell casino operations.
Back on the baseball front, the futility of AL efforts to gain a foothold in Manhattan provided Farrell a renewed opportunity to extend his sporting interests into baseball. Introduced to Johnson by New York Sun sportswriter Joe Vila, Farrell impressed the league president with his enthusiasm and initiative, as well as the certified check for $25,000 that he proffered as a forfeit if he could not get a New York baseball team off the ground for the AL.xvi With the 1903 season approaching and no other suitors for the bankrupt Baltimore operation at hand, Johnson swallowed his reservations about Farrell’s background. He and silent partner Bill Devery were granted the franchise for a nominal $18,000, it being understood that the real cost to the new owners would be the expense of acquiring a building site in Manhattan and erecting a major-league quality ballpark there.
To forestall public concern about the character of the new team’s backers, an ownership syndicate was formed. The outward face of the New York franchise would be club president Joseph Gordon, a genial Manhattan coal broker and former state assemblyman. Important to Farrell and Devery, Gordon was a reliable Tammany insider of long acquaintance. Important to Johnson, Gordon was acceptable to the Gotham sporting press and public, having once served as president of the 1884 American Association champion New York Metropolitans and as a corporate board member of the New York Giants until 1891. Most important to all concerned, Gordon, until quite recently deputy NYC commissioner of buildings and thoroughly conversant with city real estate, had located a stadium building site that had somehow escaped Andrew Freedman’s notice: a rocky mesa situated in the far north Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights that was owned by the New York Institute for the Blind. Once a ten-year lease on the property had been secured, the Greater New York Base Ball Club of the American League was ready for unveiling.
Conspicuously absent from the March 12, 1903, introductory press conference conducted by Johnson were franchise owners Farrell and Devery. Nor were the two identified as club principals when the New York team was incorporated in Albany several days later.xvii The club was initially capitalized at $100,000 but far more than that would be required to transform the inhospitable Washington Heights site into a venue for major league baseball. In the end, it would take some $275,000 – $200,000 for leveling the craggy terrain and $75,000 for construction of a 16,000 seat wooden ballpark – to find the New York Highlanders a home.xviii Preparation of the site began immediately with the small army of workmen engaged by general contractor (and local Tammany district leader) Thomas McAvoy working virtually around the clock. Most of this expense would be borne by Farrell.xix
In the run-up to Opening Day, Farrell was inconvenienced by a court appearance, being the defendant in a civil suit instituted by one Rogers L. Barstow, Jr. The suit alleged that Barstow had been swindled out of $11,000 at a Farrell casino. On the witness stand, Farrell disclaimed any connection to the affair, professing total ignorance about casino gambling. Why, he had never even seen a roulette wheel, Farrell maintained with a straight face.xx It would take more than a nuisance court date to deter Farrell from making the team’s opener at the still uncompleted Hilltop Park.xxi By the first pitch, he was seated next to Devery in a front row box near the Highlanders bench. The New York team had been preassembled by league president Johnson and featured a competitive level of talent. In uniform for the home side were future Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Keeler, first-rate infielder Wid Conroy, and a pitching corps headed by standouts Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill. Guiding the team would be astute pitcher-manager Clark Griffith. At first home game’s end, a 6-2 victory over Washington sent them all away happy.
In its initial campaign, New York was a respectable fourth-place (72-62) finisher – yet problems were evident. The hastily constructed ballpark needed significant improvement of its playing surface and superstructure. And while club president Gordon put on a brave face about the dividend yielded by the team, attendance had been a disappointment.xxii With an eye toward improving Highlanders performance on both the field and the box office, Farrell adopted a more active role in club governance, formally assuming the title of team treasurer and actively promoting money-making ideas like Sunday baseball.xxiii
Whether coincidental with the emerging dominance of Frank Farrell in Highlander affairs or not, the 1904 season would mark the high point of the club’s founding regime. Paced by Jack Chesbro’s century-best 41 wins, the Highlanders dueled Boston for the AL pennant until an ill-thrown Chesbro spitball snuffed their chances at season’s end. The club’s stirring second-place (92-59) finish produced a surge in attendance, the 1904 gate of 438,919 more than doubling the previous season’s attendance figure. Farrell’s stature in the game grew as well, with press coverage of the club now routinely identifying him as the New York team owner.xxiv Unfortunately for Farrell, his other enterprises were not faring as well. DA Jerome had resumed his anti-gambling crusade and soon Farrell was among the casino operators compelled to shutter their premises.xxv The prosecutor was also cracking down on off-track betting parlors. The pressure being applied by the relentless Jerome took its toll on Frank Farrell and his pocketbook. In time, Farrell would abandon the casino and pool room scene to concentrate resources on his racing stable and baseball team.
Prior to the start of the 1905 season, Farrell publicly battled the Pacific Coast League over a matter that would eventually have momentous consequences for both the New York Highlanders and major league baseball: the rights to a young Californian named Hal Chase. Looking back, Farrell would rue his success in capturing Chase’s services. But in the short run, the slick-fielding first baseman was a godsend, one of the few attractions on a Highlanders team that slipped badly in the standings (sixth place) and at the gate (with 119,000 fewer paying customers).
New York’s fortunes rebounded nicely in 1906. Paced by the hurling of Chesbro (23-17) and Al Orth (27-17), Willie Keeler’s last productive performance (.304), and superb all-around play by Chase (.323), the Highlanders finished second in the pennant chase, a mere three games behind the Chicago White Sox. There was also a resurgence at the ticket window – Highlanders attendance was back up to 434,700, producing a reported $90,000 profit for club investors.xxvi The season also afforded Farrell the opportunity to salve a psychic injury. During the 1904 season, Highlander brass had been stung by the disdain of John T. Brush, who refused to match his NL champion New York Giants in postseason play against “minor league” opposition like the AL pennant winner. Given the prospect that the Highlanders might well be the American League standard bearer, Brush’s putdown was widely viewed as a direct slap at his New York rivals. But public relations fallout from the cancellation of the 1904 World Series and the financial rewards of the Giants’ triumph in the 1905 Fall Classic had effected a change in Brush’s outlook. Now, he was a staunch proponent of postseason games between the New York nines.xxvii But Farrell had also undergone a change of heart. Serving Brush “a dose of his own medicine,” the Highlanders boss vetoed the much anticipated intra-city match.xxviii
Thereafter, Farrell continued to assert himself. Early in 1907, he installed himself as club president, demoting figurehead franchise leader Joseph Gordon to vice-president and later dismissing him from club employ outright.xxix But the year would prove an unhappy one for Farrell. On the racing front, much-touted Farrell colts disappointed in major stakes races, costing the owner a bundle in lost wagers. Then, the New York racing fraternity’s celebrated “Big Three” of Farrell, Big Tim Sullivan, and Davy Johnson dissolved their partnership, with each man to “travel a separate path on the turf in future.”xxx Meanwhile, the Highlanders were also turning also-rans, with the performance of Chesbro, Orth and Keeler in serious decline. The conduct of shortstop Kid Elberfeld had also become a cause for concern. Upon witnessing the disinterested play of Elberfeld firsthand, Farrell indefinitely suspended him from the team. By season’s close, the Highlanders were a second-division club and manager Griffith was nearing the end of his tether.
If 1907 had been a disquieting year for Farrell, its successor ushered in events far worse. In March 1908, the State of New York enacted legislation designed to eradicate off-track betting. Two years later, statutory amendments outlawed all forms of horse race wagering and precipitated the shutdown of New York racetracks. Judicial relaxation of the law’s strictures enabled New York horse racing to resume in 1913, but many of Farrell’s favorite tracks (Gravesend, Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay) would never reopen. This was a bitter blow to Farrell, and not just financially. For horseracing was Frank Farrell’s true passion. Notwithstanding his interest in baseball, Farrell thought that “There is no finer sport than racing. It has a great fascination for one. To see one of your horses dash home the winner in front of a big field of contestants makes your nerves jump and your blood tingle with joy. In that brief period of glory you forget your many previous disappointments and the expenses (owning race horses) have entailed.”xxxi
The play of the 1908 Highlanders afforded Farrell little pleasure. With New York a non-contender by mid-June, Griffith resigned. Farrell then astonished the baseball world by appointing Kid Elberfeld as his replacement. Under its erratic and irascible new skipper, New York went a dismal 27-71 and plunged straight to the bottom in AL standings, with Hal Chase’s late-season threat to jump to an outlaw California league only aggravating the situation.xxxii After the season, Elberfeld was sacked as skipper. His replacement was the well traveled if not yet overly successful George Stallings. To strengthen Stallings’s hand, Farrell, always a free spender when it came to the Highlanders, acquired talented youngsters like Jimmy Austin (3b) and Birdie Cree (of). But the club still had Elberfeld on its playing roster; his on-field antics would lead to another indefinite suspension during the 1909 season, this one imposed by umpire Silk O’Loughlin. This, in turn, provoked the normally circumspect Farrell into public outcry. “O’Loughlin is a competent umpire,’ said Farrell, “but he has convinced me on more than one occasion this year that he is not inclined to be fair to the New York Americans. Just why (O’Loughlin) is prejudiced against my team is a puzzle I am going to try to have solved.”xxxiii
The early part of 1909 saw Farrell back in court again, this time obliged to answer a lawsuit filed by erstwhile Highlanders president Joseph Gordon. In an action filed in the New York courts, Gordon claimed title to half ownership of the franchise.xxxiv At trial, Farrell would prevail, but not before testimony by AL President Ban Johnson, New York Sun sportswriter Joe Vila, and Farrell himself laid bare the public relations fraud that had accompanied the inauguration of the New York club. Back on the diamond, the Highlanders improved to fifth place in 1909. A late-season controversy, however, deprived Farrell of enjoyment of his team’s progress. In September, an elaborate sign-stealing scheme – complete with a binoculars-equipped spy stationed behind the centerfield fence – had been uncovered at Hilltop Park. Although a gambling man his entire adult life, Farrell prided himself on being an honest one and he was livid about his team’s deceptive practices. Although the scheme’s mastermind was never conclusively identified, suspicion fell on manager Stallings and his tenure with New York was thereafter on shaky ground.
Despite the club’s middle-of-the-pack finish, the Highlanders drew well in 1909. Home attendance topped the 500,000 mark and returned the club to profitability. But the inadequacies of Hilltop Park and the looming expiration of the club’s lease on the grounds required Farrell’s attention. With the Institute for the Blind signaling its disinclination to renew, Farrell set about finding new accommodations for his team. In December 1909, it was reported that agents of the owner had acquired building lots a short distance away in the Bronx. The grounds were located along 221st Street and Kingsbridge Road near the Harlem Ship Canal.xxxv As blueprints for a new ballpark were being drafted, the Highlanders continued their climb in AL standings, paced by the pitching of rookie emeryballer Russ Ford (26-6). But the 1910 campaign was marred by strife between manager Stallings and star first baseman Chase. Late in the season, the situation became untenable, with Stallings publicly accusing Chase of malingering and “laying down” during games.xxxvi
While inquiry into the matter by club owner Farrell was still in progress, league president Johnson weighed in with a preemptive statement exonerating the accused. According to Johnson, “Stallings has utterly failed in his accusations against Chase. He tried to smirch the character of a sterling ball player and has utterly failed to injure his character. Anyone who knows Hal Chase knows he is not guilty of the charges brought by Stallings and I am happy to say that the evidence of the New York players … has showed Stallings up.”xxxvii Needless to say, the Johnson pronouncement dictated the outcome of the affair. Stallings was promptly discharged by the Highlanders, replaced as manager by none other than Hal Chase. New York finished a strong 9-2 under Chase’s command and concluded the season a distant second to the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics.
The year’s play, however, was not yet over. The 1910 season had spawned improved relations between the two New York clubs. The Highlanders had even switched several holiday doubleheaders to the more commodious Polo Grounds. At season’s end, the Highlanders and the Giants engaged in their first subway series; the McGraw forces prevailed four games to two (with one tie) behind dominant mound performances by Christy Mathewson. Despite frequently threatening weather, the games drew more than 100,000 fans and brought the management of the two clubs into an era of cordial ties.
That rapprochement came not a moment too soon for John T. Brush. As the 1911 season was set to begin, an early morning fire destroyed most of the Polo Grounds. In response to this calamity, Farrell immediately extended use of Hilltop Park to the Giants, a gracious accommodation that would be amply repaid in the years to come. While construction of the iconic Polo Grounds IV was in progress, the Giants commenced a pennant winning season on the grounds of their AL hosts. The Highlanders – by now, more and more often called the Yankees – were unable to match it. Although Chase (.315), Birdie Cree (.348), and Ford (21-11) were standouts, the supporting crew was pedestrian. The team finished in sixth place at 76-76.
In the off-season, preliminary site work began on the club’s new Kingsbridge Road ballpark, optimistically projected for opening in June/July 1912.xxxviii In a first-person article published that spring, Farrell extolled the virtues of the project, opining that, “When we enter our new park, some time before the close of the present season, I believe that the club patrons and players will find a baseball home that will compare favorably with any in the country.”xxxix In the meantime, the team, now under the direction of new manager Harry Wolverton, would soldier on at Hilltop Park. But the 1912 season would prove a disaster. The team, now officially named the Yankees,xl collapsed into the AL cellar, a sad placement achieved despite the fine points of baseball strategy regularly communicated to Wolverton by Farrell and Devery. Attendance plummeted, as well. The 242,194 paid admissions for the 1912 season constituted less than half the fans that had visited Hilltop Park only three seasons before.
In late 1912, Wolverton was dismissed, and Farrell commenced the search for a new manager. Soon, he was courting Frank Chance, the Peerless Leader just released from a long and successful engagement as player-manager of the Chicago Cubs. Chance played the coquette but ultimately surrendered. “Mr. Farrell offered inducements much better than I had ever dreamed of,” he remarked. “Even excluding my love of the game as a factor, I could not decline them.”xli In return for the owner’s largesse, Chance told Farrell that, “I will win the pennant for you before I get through in New York. That may sound like a bold statement to make at this time, but I ask you to remember my promise.”xlii
The signing of a marquee name as manager did not solve all of the club’s problems, the most pressing of which was securing a playing field for the 1913 season. The ten-year lease on Hilltop Park had now expired and the Institute for the Blind declined to extend the Yankees tenancy, even on a short-term basis.xliii Meanwhile, little headway was being made at the Kingsbridge Road site, the stadium project plagued by an inability to stanch the Spuyten Duyvil Creek or to resolve other construction headaches. Fortunately for the Yankees, the Brush family had not forgotten Farrell’s help in its time of need.xliv The newly constructed concrete and iron Polo Grounds would be at Farrell’s disposal while work on the Yankees’ own new ballpark continued. By mid-March, Farrell was predicting completion of the Kingsbridge Road project by June 1.xlv But that goal would go unrealized. The Yankees would spend the entire 1913 season playing home games at the Polo Grounds.
A familiar New York sporting phenomenon repeated itself that season. The Giants captured the NL pennant while the other Gotham nine was a non-contender. Rather than the promised pennant, the Peerless Leader had guided the Yankees to a dreary seventh-place finish, a campaign enlivened only by Hal Chase’s torment of manager Chance. By June 1, Chance had had enough and engineered a much criticized trade, dealing his star first sacker to the White Sox for a disabled “bunion” (Rollie Zeider) and a useless “onion” (Babe Borton).xlvi This lopsided swap did little to improve New York fortunes but did succeed in planting doubt about Chance in the mind of the Yankees owners.
Nothing much changed in 1914. The Kingsbridge Road project was now an unmistakable boondoggle with no completion date in sight. Thus, the Yankees would remain tenants at the Polo Grounds.xlvii Nor was relief on the diamond in the offing. With the club again mired in seventh place late in the season, a frustrated Chance began airing complaints about the playing talent recommended by chief scout Arthur Irwin, about the club’s unwillingness to spend money, and about ownership interference in matters of player discipline. Following a tough loss to Philadelphia, a clubhouse encounter between Chance and his bosses turned physical, with players and sportswriters needed to separate the husky manager and the even larger, but much older, Bill Devery. Days later, Chance submitted his resignation. Young shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh would complete the season at the Yankees helm.
The remainder of 1914 was a melancholy time for the Yankees owners. The death of Big Tim Sullivan in 1912 had closed off their access to Tammany-related revenue; two years later, both Farrell and Devery were in financial straits. Farrell had squandered a fortune on the now abandoned Kingsbridge Road stadium project and his racing ventures were no longer profitable. Devery, who never had a Farrell-sized bankroll to begin with, was in no better shape, with his Long Island real estate investments producing little income. The two men, longtime friends and business partners, had also begun to quarrel. In October, Farrell strenuously denied that he had been in sale negotiation with the Ward brothers, owners of the Brooklyn team in the Federal League and important financial backers of this newly arrived menace to baseball order. “The report is without a grain of truth,” asserted Farrell. “My club is not on the market at any price.”xlviii
But others, including Giants manager John McGraw, were not convinced. When the wealthy Jacob Ruppert, head of a thriving New York City brewery, and Til Huston, a soldier-engineer who had made millions in Cuba in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, expressed interest in purchasing the Giants, McGraw informed them that the club was not available. He then steered the pair to Frank Farrell.xlix Extended negotiations for acquisition of the New York Yankees ensued, with Farrell demanding $500,000 for the franchise. With league president Johnson serving as broker, the transfer was inked in late January 1915. In return for $460,000 – which Farrell and Devery reportedly split down the middle – control of the New York Yankees passed into the hands of Colonel Ruppert and Captain Huston, the owners who would place the club on the path to glory.
Although they had failed to produce a champion in the game’s most vital locale, not everyone was pleased by the departure of the Yankees founders, particularly of Farrell. “I exceedingly regret that Farrell is out of the American League,” Johnson informed the press. “Mr. Farrell is a perfect baseball man, one who is popular with every club owner in the league and I know that his associates … as well as myself regret his passing from our organization.”l Joe Vila, citing Farrell’s “stout heart and open purse,” also lamented the situation. In Vila’s view, Farrell left the baseball scene “with the reputation of having fought hard and gamely and his departure, while it may open the way to broader possibilities in the American League, cannot be regarded except with regret. May he prosper in whatever enterprise he may enter.”li Sad to relate, attempts by Vila and others to patch up the Farrell/Devery relationship went for naught. By the time that Big Bill was felled by a stroke in June 1919, the two former friends and business partners had not spoken to each other in several years.lii
Once his connection to New York baseball was severed, Frank Farrell received scant press notice. He continued race horse ownership on a modest scale and dabbled in Manhattan real estate. In February 1923, victories by two of his horses at Empire City Racetrack garnered Farrell a fleeting headline.liii But for the most part, he was no longer a figure of public interest. In early February 1926, Farrell sojourned to Atlantic City with wife Annaliv and a private nurse to recuperate from a bout with bronchitis. On the morning of February 10, Farrell was stricken by a heart attack and died in his room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. His age was generally given as 60.lv Days later, a Requiem Mass was celebrated at Manhattan’s Blessed Sacrament Church, with New York Governor Al Smith, an old friend, and numerous dignitaries from the political and sporting worlds in attendance. Interment was at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Without children, Frank Farrell was survived by his wife and his sister, Sarah Farrell Davis. At the time of his death, it was reported that Farrell had “accumulated a fortune and was generally rated a millionaire.”lvi Probate proceedings soon revealed a starkly different picture. Farrell had barely been solvent. He no longer held title to properties bequeathed to Anna and Sarah, and his residual estate was ultimately valued at a mere $1,072.lvii
In the decades since his death, the memory of Frank J. Farrell has suffered. His accomplishments did not survive the passing of his contemporaries and his legacy has been defined largely by modern day commentators who do not approve of the manner in which Farrell made his way in the world. Yet the fact remains that, but for Farrell, the American League would have been stuck with a homeless orphan franchise in 1903. And the events that ultimately produced a baseball dynasty in New York might have followed an altogether different course.
In addition to the sources expressly cited in the notes below, the following works were consulted in the creation of this profile:
Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw, New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1988.
Oliver E. Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall, Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1993.
John Durant, The Yankees: A Pictorial History of Baseball’s Greatest Club, New York: Hastings House, 1949.
Vincent Luisi, New York Yankees: The First 25 Years, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
Luc Sante, Low Life: The Lives and Snares of Old New York, New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1991.
Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball, New York: Doubleday, 1999.
John Thorn, et al., eds., Total Baseball, 7th edition, Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, Inc., 2001.
i According to the 1870 US census, Francis Farrell was a boilermaker. Wife Sarah kept house and tended to son Frank and his younger sister, also named Sarah.
ii Census data and other sources have him born between 1864 and 1867, but the exact date of Frank J. Farrell’s birth was undiscovered by the writer. In accordance with Church precepts, he would have been baptized Francis, not Frank. His middle initial doubtless stood for another popular saint’s name like Joseph, John or James. Regrettably, the documents needed to clarify such matters are now either lost or not accessible to a non-relative.
iii The instant account of Farrell’s earlier years has been drawn from census data and the obituaries/remembrances that followed his death in February 1926. Facts have also been culled from newspaper reportage of Farrell’s activities.
iv Born in Ireland but raised in Manhattan, Croker rose through Wigwam ranks via gang leadership and other brass-knuckle endeavors. Installed as Tammany chief in 1886, Croker was efficient and ruthless, perfecting the cash producing practices that put enormous sums in Tammany coffers and Croker’s pockets.
v Devery was a favorite target of reformers but handily survived efforts to remove him from the force. By 1898, Devery was head of the NYPD, placed in office by Mayor Robert Van Wyck, another Croker vassal who later pronounced Devery “the best Chief of Police New York ever had.” For an excellent overview of Bill Devery’s eventful life, see the New York Times, June 21, 1919.
vi Off-track betting was a lucrative, but technically unlawful, source of income for operatives like Farrell. In turn, the protection money paid by the pool rooms where such wagers were taken comprised a substantial portion of the graft that kept Tammany Hall well-oiled.
vii A systematic breakdown of Tammany’s annual protection booty was published in the New York Times, March 9, 1900.
viii Farrell’s best horses included Roseben, the world record holder at seven furlongs, Bonniburt, Blues, and those given celebrity names from the worlds of opera (De Reszke), politics (Jim Gaffney), finance (James D. Brady), and baseball (Clark Griffith). Jim Gaffney was another Tammany figure who became a major-league owner, with the Boston Braves. He and Farrell were at one time good friends but fell out.
ix In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial-level tribunal and the venue for criminal proceedings. While still seated on the bench, Jerome had been a vocal critic of light sentences imposed on those convicted of gambling offenses. See the New York Times, June 21, 1901.
x New York Times, October 12, 1901.
xi New York Times editorial, October 13, 1901.
xii Ibid. In a lame response, DA candidate Unger allowed that he might have heard the name Farrell but was “not sure whether or not I have the acquaintance of the gentleman.” Otherwise, Unger dismissed the Jerome allegation as beneath notice. See the New York Times, October 13, 1901.
xiii New York Times, October 28, 1901.
xiv Brush financed the Giants purchase by selling the Reds to a syndicate headed by Julius Fleischmann, once Frank Farrell’s partner in race horse ownership and by then mayor of Cincinnati.
xv New York Evening World, August 30, 1902. Like off-track betting, casino gambling was illegal but openly conducted in turn of the century New York. Notice of Farrell’s opulent four story operation, dubbed The House with the Bronze Door, even reached the Midwest. See “New Palace of Gambling Opens; Frank Farrell Entertains His Prospective Patrons in Royal Style,” Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1902.
xvi Vila’s account of the Johnson-Farrell meeting was later published in the New York Sun, February 11, 1926. For a slightly different version of the encounter, see Frank Graham, The New York Yankees: An Informal History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943), 5-7.
xvii New York Times, March 15, 1903. The faceless club directors were John R. Bushong, Samuel C. Worthen, Jerome H. Buck, Bernard T. Lynch, and Henry T. Randall.
xviii The team nickname Highlanders was not an official one and its derivation is unsettled. At times, it has been attributed to the site of the club’s ballpark, popularly, if erroneously, believed to be the highest spot on Manhattan Island. At other times, the moniker was connected to club president Gordon and viewed as an homage to the Gordon Highlanders, a famed Scottish regiment.
xix An authoritative team history suggests that Farrell received at least some reimbursement for construction costs from the American League. See Glenn Stout, Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002), 13-14.
xx New York Evening World, March 18, 1903. The performance was not without precedent. Only four months earlier in another courtroom, New York’s Pool Room King had testified that, while he had an interest in horse racing, he had never been inside a pool room in his life. See the New York Times and New York Evening World, November 27, 1902. Press coverage of such shameless testimony generally affected an amused, rather than an indignant, tone.
xxi Officially titled American League Park of New York, the grandstand roof and much bleacher seating was still missing on Opening Day.
xxii As the 1903 season drew to a close, Gordon rejected the notion that the club had been a financial failure. “We made money,” Gordon insisted. Not a lot but “enough to know that our investment is a good one” and that “next year we will do better,” as quoted in the Washington Post, September 18, 1903. The Highlanders home attendance of 211,808, however, was only half the 422,473 drawn by its nearest AL competitor in Philadelphia.
xxiii Chicago Tribune, January 6 and 10, 1904, and New York Times, February 19 and March 13, 1904. To avoid Manhattan blue laws, Farrell proposed playing Sunday games at Ridgewood Park in Queens, prompting a howl of protest from Giants owner Brush and Charles Ebbets of Brooklyn. In the end, it would be years before the AL played Sunday games in New York.
xxiv New York Times, December 11, 1904. This story reported club owner Farrell’s take on the recent winter baseball meetings. Co-owner Bill Devery was rarely mentioned by the press and took a mostly passive role in Highlanders management.
xxv For more detail, see the New York Times, January 15, 17 and 19, 1905, and the Washington Post, January 17, 1905.
xxvi Washington Post, December 11, 1906.
xxvii New York Times, August 24, 1906, and elsewhere.
xxviii Washington Post, October 4 and 6, 1906. The stories added that Farrell “will make his players a nice little present to make up for the loss of the gate money” that the Highlander squad would have earned by playing the Giants.
xxix When later called to explain his motive for ousting Gordon, Farrell related that “I decided that I should get some of the glory.” New York Times, November 22, 1911.
xxx Washington Post, June 3, 1907.
xxxi New York Evening World, January 9, 1908.
xxxii In vocalizing his displeasure with the young first baseman, Farrell observed that “Chase has repeatedly defied organized baseball and in this way has caused more trouble than any other ball player in the league,” as per the Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1908.
xxxiii Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1909.
xxxiv For more detail on the Gordon lawsuit, see Sporting Life, May 29, 1909.
xxxv New York Times, December 25, 1909.
xxxvi Chicago Tribune and New York Times, September 23, 1910.
xxxvii As reported in the New York Times and Washington Post, September 24, 1910, and elsewhere. It was further reported that “Johnson had been after Stallings ever since the New York manager became mixed up in the alleged spying scandal” of the 1909 season. New York Times, September 25, 1910. The subsequent careers of the drama’s principals cast a poor reflection upon the disposition of the matter. Stallings would go on to guide the Miracle Boston Braves (owned by Farrell’s former pal Jim Gaffney) to a World Series crown in 1914, while Chase would become infamous for corruption. But at least one Yankees historian argues that Stallings deserved his fate. See Stout, 53-58.
xxxviii As per the New York Times, November 12, 1911.
xxxix See “Why I Am Building a New Park,” by Frank J. Farrell, President, New York American Baseball Club, Leslie’s Weekly, April 4, 1912.
xl The team’s formal adoption of the name Yankees coincided with the departure from Hilltop Park.
xli Washington Post, January 9, 1913. This story “guesstimated” the three-year Chance pact at $25,000 per annum, with five percent of the club’s net earnings.
xlii Washington Post, January 10, 1913.
xliii The Institute for the Blind, calculating that it could do better than the $10,000 per season rental paid by the Yankees, razed Hilltop Park in 1914 to make way for the better-paying tenants who failed to materialize. The leveled grounds lay vacant for the next 14 years until it became a hospital site. Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center now graces the property.
xliv Giants owner John T. Brush had died in November 1912 and the franchise was now headed by his son-in-law Harry Hempstead as overseer of Brush family interests.
xlv Washington Post, March 31, 1913.
xlvi Chance later claimed that Chicago manager Jimmy Callahan had concealed Zeider’s physical problems, as reported by the New York Times, July 17, 1913. No explanation was proffered for Chance’s interest in Borton, who flopped as Chase’s replacement.
xlvii The Yankees would remain at the Polo Grounds until the start of the 1923 season.
xlviii New York Times, October 20, 1914.
xlix Graham, 22.
l Unidentified January 15, 1915 news clipping in the Frank J. Farrell file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York.
li New York Sun, January 9, 1915. Similar regrets were expressed by sportswriter Fred Van Ness in a February 13, 1915 New York Herald column.
lii Graham, 23.
liii See “Frank Farrell Scores Double at Empire City,” Washington Post, July 19, 1923.
liv According to US census records, Anna E. Farrell was born in England about 1880, emigrated in 1892, and became a naturalized American citizen in 1901. Other particulars of her life, including her maiden name and the date of her marriage to Frank Farrell, are unknown to the writer.
lv See e.g., the February 11, 1926 obituaries published in the New York Herald-Tribune, New York Daily Mirror, and New York American.
lvi New York World, February 11, 1926.
lvii As per the New York World, March 14, 1926, and unidentified newspaper clippings contained in the Farrell file at the Giamatti Research Center.