Before they went by their better known name — and before they were any good — the team that would become ‘the Yankees’ were known as the Highlanders, from 1903-1913. The name played to a couple dated references. The team captain was named Joseph Gordon, and the name referenced a British military outfit named Gordon’s Highlanders. More importantly, the team played on one of the highest points in the city, in a long forgotten ball field called Hilltop Park.
A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds. In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field!
I’m sure it was at that capacity on opening day, April 30, 1903, when the Highlanders played the Washington Senators. Yet despite a cost of $200,000 and arresting views of the Hudson River, Hilltop had a swamp in right field and most of the bleacher seats were uncovered until 1912, making for many a hot, steamy game for fans.
The Highlanders were in equally good shape. In fact, many of the best moments in Hilltop Park’s brief history were made by players from other teams against the Highlanders. Cy Young (Boston Americans) and Ty Cobb (Washington Senators), the two best known players from this generation, had spectacular days on Hilltop beating the crap out of the local team.
Hilltop Park is almost completely gone save for one peculiar memorial. In 1914, almost as soon as the Highlanders moved to the nearby Polo Grounds (and thus changed their team name to their popular nickname ‘the Yankees’), the field was demolished. Within ten years, the hospital that today is known as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center) would be built over it and it still stands there today.
However a small base-shaped plaque can be found in the grass outfront, placed there in 1993. It’s on the exact spot of the original home place — thank God it happened to be in a garden and not somebody’s room — honoring the now-forgotten home of the team that would become the most successful team in baseball.