Hilltop Park is nothing but a baseball memory and only the most die-hard New York Yankee fans remember the stadium that started the greatest franchise in sports history. Long before the current home of A-Rod and Jeter and even before the days of the "House that Ruth Built", Hilltop Park was home to the New York Highlanders and it was here that both the famous and infamous roamed the field: "Prince Hal" Chase, "Happy" Jack Chesbro, and "Wee Willie" Keeler were just a few of the earliest stars of the team that would become the greatest Dynasty in all of sports. The occupancy of Hilltop Park by the Highlander/Yankee teams would only last from 1903 through the 1912 season, but if not for this park the New York Yankees might not exist.
Baseball in New York at the turn of the last century was a booming and corrupt business. The formation of a club to compete with the New York Giants and to flesh out the fledgling American League was logical, but not everyone wanted a team here. Club investors and politicians made sure that any tract of land suitable for a stadium was unavailable. Finally, with a bit of luck and dedication the Washington Heights neighborhood welcomed the groundbreaking on a rough and rocky piece of land. Hilltop Park was born.
The early New York Yankees were a rough mix of talented players and bush-leaguers. The rough and still-under -construction stadium paralleled the team on the field perfectly. These were not yet the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, Dimaggio and Berra, or Mantle and Maris, but a mix of cast offs, has beens and never were players mixed with a few genuine stars. Even the stars of the teams came with strings. Old hit 'em-where-they-ain't Keeler was nearing the end of this Hall of Fame career, Hal Chase the handsome Californian was the best defensive player in the league...when he wanted to be. Gambling accusations would haunt Chase throughout his career and leave many wondering at what could have been. Chesbro would be haunted, too, but by a wild pitch that cost the Yankees the 1904 pennant. The hint of greatness was flashed occasionally, though, and a loyal following was building year by year.
The initial bad blood between the Yankees and National League Giants eventually cooled and in 1911 when the Polo Grounds caught fire, the Yankees shared Hilltop Park with the Giants. This favor would be returned after the Yankees left Hilltop Park, but before the first Yankee Stadium was constructed.
During its short life, Hilltop Park had its share of great and sometimes controversial baseball moments. This is the park where Ty Cobb launched himself into the stands to pummel a fan who was later revealed to have no hands! Cobb would factor into another iconic moment when at Hilltop Park his slide into Jimmy Austin at third base was capture by famed photographer Charles Conlon. This image is one of the most widely seen and famous photos in baseball history.
The Highlanders had transformed fully into the Yankees by the time their lease expired at Hilltop Park. The old ballpark was in a bustling area and was quickly torn down. Within a decade, the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center was built on the site where it remains today. In recent years through careful research and mapping, fans have placed a plaque in the shape of home plate at the approximate location of the original base. This remains the only tangible reminder of Hilltop Park besides some photographs and the occasional odd bit of film. In today's world where each retired stadium is carefully disassembled practically brick-by-brick to sell off, it is a shame that almost nothing remains of the first Yankee's stadium. Today's state of the art stadium means that cheap Yankees tickets are a thing of the past, but the legacy of the Yankees will surely fill that stadium to capacity with baseball memories.