I know it is hard to fathom, but there was a time where the Yankees were not known in the light they are now. The run the Yankees had in the late 1930's (winning consecutive World Series from 1936-1939) put the team on the map as the most successful team in the World Series era. When the Yankees completed their fifth straight championship in October of 1953, the team's sixteenth (16th), the next team had won only six (6). The point is, many fans who remember enjoying the run of 1949-1953 are getting to the age of eighty (80) or older. The majority of Yankees fans did not see Joe DiMaggio play.
The Yankees (or the city of New York for that matter) were not part of the original American League in 1901. The competition to the mighty National League, started by Ban Johnson, consisted of eight teams in the cities of Boston, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. Imagine starting a "Major League" and not including a New York team. The National League tried it from the years of 1958-1961. This was not by design as AL Commissioner Johnson wanted to have a team in New York and understood how it would increase the opportunity of success to the league. After the league's first season, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis. But it wasn't until the internal struggles of the Baltimore Orioles that a real possibility existed of a team coming to New York. Johnson feuded with Orioles manager John McGraw, leading to McGraw jumping back to the National League. He took many of his top players with him when he joined the New York Giants during the 1902 season. The financial problems of the Orioles had led to the team being sold to Andrew Freedman, the owner of the New York Giants, and John Brush, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds- both of the National League. Obviously, there was a conflict of interest which led to the before mentioned roster being raided.
The technical wording for the Orioles franchise termination was "contraction," which led the American League with just seven teams. I think it was a bunch of baloney because the league was never going to survive with an odd number of teams. But history recorded it that way, and a new team started in 1903 in the city of New York.
The Highlanders (as they were known from 1903-1912) were led (in 1903) by future Hall of Famer Clark Griffith, who doubled as a member of a solid three man rotation with Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill. The three of them combined to win 50 of the team's 72 games, good enough for fourth place in the American League. During their time as the Highlanders, New York would never win an American League Pennant, finishing as high as second in 1904, 1906, and 1910.
A couple of things happened to benefit the franchise after the 1912 season. They moved from Hilltop Park to the Polo Grounds, the home of the National League's Giants. Also, legendary manager Frank Chance, he of the .664 winning percentage, four National League Pennants, and two World Series Championships with the Chicago Cubs (NL), had become unhappy with the direction of the franchise. When he was released from his contract, the Yankees (as they were known officially as) picked him up. The Yankees would finish with a losing record for five of the next six seasons as their future rival Boston Red Sox started racking up World Series (winning in 1915, 1916, and 1918).
A turning point in the history of the franchise was adding St. Louis Cardinals manager Miller Huggins for the 1918 season. The best future comp of Huggins would be Billy Martin, as Huggins was a baseball genius, but would insist of doing things "his" way. It led to some confrontation from players, many of whom looked down on Miller because he was shorter than they were. But Huggins instilled discipline to a franchise that needed it. The acquisition of Babe Ruth made Huggins' job a little tougher, especially when the owners' would take the side of Ruth during disputes.
It was Huggins' discipline that kept that team together. In spite of losing back to back World Series in 1921 and 1922 to the local New York Giants, it seemed as if this team was starting to turn the corner. Pressure was starting to mount though as the team was expected to be good enough to win a World Series. I know this sounds sacrilegious to say, but the Yankees of 1923 could later be compared to the current Los Angeles Angels teams. The Yankees had the best player in baseball, Babe Ruth, and had not won anything yet. Sound familiar?
The opening of Yankee Stadium in 1923 gave the Yankees a home of their own. They would no longer have to share a stadium with their National League rivals, the team that had just defeated them in consecutive World Series. The Yankees would win 98 games that season, the fourth straight time the franchise won 90 or more games. Ruth would set a franchise record that still exists today with his .393 batting average. He still finished second in the American League to Detroit's Harry Heilmann (.403). Ruth would have a solid cast around him, led by first baseman Wally Pipp (.304 batting average, 109 runs batted in), second baseman Aaron Ward (.284, 10 home runs, 81 RBI), and third baseman Joe Dugan .283, 65 RBI, 111 runs scored). Ruth was complemented in the outfield by Bob Meusel (.313 BA, 91 RBI) and Whitey Witt (.314 BA, 187 hits, 113 runs scored).
What showed the most improvement, though, was the pitching. The Yankees had a pitching staff that featured as strong of a starting five as they may have ever had in their history. The five man starting staff of Bullet Joe Bush, Sad Sam Jones, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Bob Shawkey combined to win 92 of the team's 98 games. In fact, the quintet combined to pitch just over 1254 of the team's just under 1381 innings during the regular season. Jones won 21 games, while Pennock and Bush won 19. Hoyt won 17 and Shawkey won 16.
The World Series seemed to start off a lot like the previous two. The Giants won games one and three on home runs by none other than Casey Stengel. The Yankees would roar to easy victories in games four and five, setting up a game six showdown in the Polo Grounds. Ruth would hit a solo home run in the top of the first, with the Giants scoring a single run in the bottom of the inning. The Giants seemed to have the game under control, building a 4-1 lead with single runs in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. Giants starting pitcher Art Nehf would start to tire in the eighth though, giving up consecutive singles, then walking three straight batters to cut the deficit to 4-3. Meusel would come up with a big two-run single with a third run scoring on an error. All of the sudden, the Yankees were up 6-4. Jones would come in relief of Pennock and get a six out save as the "underdog" Yankees captured their first World Series Championship.
Lou Gehrig did not burst on the scene until 1925, but made his MLB debut in 1923. He did not play in the World Series. Just as interesting, future stars Bill Terry and Hack Wilson played for the first time in the same season. Neither would play in the World Series, but both would be very important pieces for the Giants as they would return to the Fall Classic in 1924. The Yankees and Giants playing in three consecutive World Series would be a first... and last as that has yet to again happen in the history of Major League Baseball. Finally, the Yankees winning a World Series in the first year of their new ballpark would happen two more times in baseball history- the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, and the 2009... New York Yankees.
The reason I put this together is to put a different light on the New York Yankees franchise. They are known for their success and they are always the line of what winning in sports is compared to. But, just like any other winner, there was a time where the Yankees were the underdog. Imagine this 1923 team, a team with 0 World Series victories (0-2 record in the Fall Classic), trailing the Red Sox (5), Athletics (3), Giants (3), Cubs (2), White Sox (2), as well as the Pirates, Braves, Reds, and Indians, all of whom had won one a piece. It is hard to imagine the Yankees ever being the underdog, but they were in 1923.