January 9 – Happy Birthday Big Bill Devery
Sort of appropriate that during a week when it was revealed that a whole bunch of crooked New York City policemen scammed taxpayers out of millions of dollars of undeserved disability and retirement income, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant happens to also be one of the most well-known corrupt cops in the history of NYPD. “Big Bill” Devery became one of the first owners of the Yankee franchise when he silent partnered with the notorious saloon owner and gambler Frank Farrell, to purchase the struggling Baltimore Orioles’ American League franchise in 1903 and move it to New York.
Devery was really nothing more than a super-sized Tammany Hall-backed bribe collector with a badge, who demanded tribute from just about every border-line illicit business in his Manhattan precinct. This slob used to stand on a prescribed street corner and accept bribes in full view of the public. So crooked was the Big Apple police force back then that a brazen thief like Devery actually rose to the rank of Chief of Police in 1898 before the decade-long reform movement initiated by Teddy Roosevelt and a team of muckraking New York City newspaper and magazine reporters, finally took hold.
Unfortunately for the cause of justice, Tammany Hall still maintained enough control over the City’s court system to get Devery acquitted of corruption charges and he was able to retire a free man, collect his pension and take full advantage of all the loot he plundered from his policing days.
There was enough of that loot for him to put up half of the $18,000 purchase price he and Farrell paid for the Orioles in 1903 plus finance the hurried construction of a playing venue for the new team in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan that would come to be known as Hilltop Park. The new club’s co-owners had such questionable character that their identity was kept secret for months as negotiations over the sale of the team and construction of the park were completed. Baseball historians are still a bit perplexed over the fact that AL President Ban Johnson, a man who was so concerned with the crystal-clean image of his league, would choose to comport with men like Devery and Farrell. The best answer put forth thus far was that Johnson needed their City Hall and labor group connections to get the new ballpark built in time for the 1903 baseball season.
Whatever the reason, Devery proved to be especially inept as an owner of a baseball team and for the most part, permitted Farrell complete control over all management decisions. His most famous interaction with the Highlanders’ operation occurred during the 1914 season. Farrell had hired the legendary Cubs manager, Frank Chance to skipper the team that season. By that time, Devery had learned enough about baseball to make it a point to publicly criticize Chance for poor decision making after several Highlander losses. The crooked cop-turned owner made the mistake however, of issuing one of his criticisms of the New York manager right after a tough loss while standing in close proximity to the frustrated skipper in the team’s locker room. Chance, who had a well-known reputation as a brawler took a swing at Devery but missed, as onlookers quickly moved in to separate the two.
Can you imagine if Chance was manager at the time Steinbrenner owned the Yankees or if Billy Martin was skipper when Devery owned half the team? There would have been a murder committed in the Yankee locker room.
As it turned out, Chance wasn’t the only guy growing tired of Big Bill. Frank Farrell had grown to hate his crude and hefty partner as well. The two men stopped speaking to each other and Farrell actively started looking for someone willing to buy Devery’s share of the club.
Sure enough two prospective buyers turned up but they weren’t interested in purchasing half a team, they wanted it all. On January 30, 1915, brewery owner Jacob Ruppert and construction magnate Tillinghast Huston paid Farrell and Devery $460,000 for the Highlanders.
Devery died in June of 1919 at the age of 65. Though everyone assumed he had plenty of money, the probate court declared his estate to be in debt at the time of his death.