If not for the ingenuity of a turn-of-the-century newspaperman searching to save letters, the subway station at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue might be better known as the stop for Highlanders Stadium.
Many believe that the Yankees shed their original Highlanders nickname in 1913, when they abandoned rickety Hilltop Park in favor of the Polo Grounds. They shared that ballpark with the Giants until 1923, when the team moved to a state-of-the-art facility that showcased the game’s greatest attraction in Babe Ruth.
Yet the first published reference to the upstart American League franchise as the “Yankees” occurred on April 7, 1904, when the New York Evening Journal reported on a successful Spring Training camp under the headline: “YANKEES WILL START HOME FROM SOUTH TODAY.”
One week later, the same newspaper’s coverage of the season opener was headlined: “YANKEES BEAT BOSTON,” with the term also appearing in the lead sentence of an article chronicling New York’s 8-2 victory over a team that was not yet known as the Red Sox. There were numerous references to the ballclub as the Yankees before 1913, including advertising and tobacco cards.
Historians believe that the name “Yankees” owes its success to the newspapermen, who were grateful to find a more succinct option than “Highlanders” or “Hilltoppers.” Marty Appel’s excellent franchise history, “Pinstripe Empire,” unearthed a 1922 issue of Baseball Magazine in which writer Fred Lieb reported:
“[Highlanders] was awkward to put in newspaper headlines. Finally, the sporting editor at one of the New York evening papers exclaimed, ‘The hell with this Highlanders. I am going to call this team the Yanks. That will fit into heads better.’”
A 1943 history of the franchise credits sports editor Jim Price of the New York Press for being the first to refer to the team as the Yankees.
The name Highlanders had never grown popular with fans, who found the Yankees moniker's patriotic symbolism more appealing, calling upon the Yankee Doodle days of the American Revolution. It should be noted that this was less than 40 years removed from the end of the Civil War.
Other nicknames of the time included the “Greater New Yorks,” “Invaders” and “Griffiths,” the latter of which was a reference to Clark Griffith, the club’s manager from 1903-08.
No formal announcement was made to confirm the full-time adoption of the nickname, but by 1913, it was generally accepted that the team would forever be known as the Yankees. Joe DiMaggio’s proclamation that he wanted to “thank the Good Lord for making me a Highlander” just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.