The New York Yankees have existed as a baseball franchise since 1901. But they have only been the Yankees as we know them for just over a century. First, they were the original iteration of the Baltimore Orioles when the franchise was founded. Then, they were the New York Highlanders, dubbed such because of their home park, built at the highest elevation point in Manhattan.
Finally, on April 10, 1913, New York played their first game as the New York Yankees, kicking off a century of success for perhaps the most prestigious franchise in MLB.
The main reason the name was changed was because the team's location also changed. They moved from Hilltop Park to the Polo Grounds. The move occurred because of a swap of favors between the Yankees and the New York Giants. The Polo Grounds basically burnt to the ground in 1911, and the Yankees were kind enough to let their crosstown rivals use Hilltop Park while the Grounds were being repaired. Once everything was rebuilt, the Giants let the Yankees sublease the Polo Grounds and leave Hilltop Park, which was decrepit and falling apart.
At the time, the Giants were the city's premier ballclub. The Yankees were perennially average, and finished seventh out of eight teams in the American League. The Yankees would not take the town until their trade for Babe Ruth in 1918.
The term "Yankees" had been used as a nickname for the Highlanders for years until it became official. Media originally called the team the New York Americans instead of the Highlanders. Jim Price, then the editor for the New York Press, correctly deduced that the Highlanders (or Americans, for that matter) was quite a long name to fit into newspaper headlines. Thus, he decided to start calling New York the Yankees, often the "Yanks" as shorthand to make his job easier, a very relatable decision.
One hundred seven years later, the Yankees are the most recognizable brand in baseball. The pinstripes have become the gold standard of baseball uniforms. They've won 27 World Series titles and 40 pennants. But, as history shows, many a fan was close to revering the Highlanders, a name that does not quite roll off the tongue.