by Fine Diner
Reveling in Rivalries
Sporting News Online ( www.sportingnews.com ), recently started running an interesting series on the greatest rivalries in sports, dedicating a week to each sport. Along with the articles, TSN has also been soliciting mail from readers as to what they feel are the greatest rivalries. This past week happens to be TSN's approach to America's national pastime, baseball.
The Giants-Dodgers stand-off, which successfully carried over from the east coast to the west, has gotten a lot of support, as have the standard geographical ones, such as the Windy City's long-time battle (Cubs-White Sox) and the newer Big Apple one between the Yankees and Mets. But while TSN's writers and readers have stoked the fires of these rivalries, there is one greater one, which has never stopped smoldering and where the home fires still burn bright. The greatest baseball rivalry on earth still is the one between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and their fans. I suppose those outside our geography may never really know the intensity of the rivalry, not just between the teams, but the fans as well. It does not just last a particular fan's lifetime, but most of the time is passed on from one generation to the next like family heirlooms. Often, with each new generation, the intensity grows as well.
I grew up with the rivalry. Playing Little League in a small town only 18 miles from Boston, I naturally gravitated toward the BoSox as my favorite team - despite the fact that when I started becoming a fan, just after the retirement of Ted Williams, the Red Sox were perennially in the American League cellar. My friends and I felt it sacrilegious to favor the Yankees, and my disenchantment turned to dislike of the organization the day a feeble-armed, banjo-hitting outfielder named Mickey Rivers bushwhacked pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee from behind during a mound brouhaha and nearly tore his pitching arm off.
When I got to college as a Northeastern University freshman, I got to see the rivalry from the other side. Having to stay in a dorm populated mainly by New York and New Jersey "imports", I not only found their passion was equal to ours, but also got the rare opportunity to put my money where my mouth was. My Empire State buddies and I engaged in endless comparison and discussion ("Who's better, Carlton Fisk or Thurman Munson?") and got equal opportunity to razz each other's heroes.
What I learned about the rivalry amazed me, and I believe it makes other pretenders to the greatest rivalry throne pale in comparison. For instance, any given game involving both teams at either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium finds a third of the usually capacity crowd rooting for the visitors. The geographical buffer Connecticut is far from neutral when it comes to passions. There is a defining line cutting diagonally throughout the state that pretty much divides the commonwealth into pro and anti factions. Finally, during the years that the Red Sox were at their worst (1950s and 1960s) they often had the best record against the Yankees, despite the fact the Pinstripes were (grudgingly) the best team in baseball.
The rivalry is perhaps the longest in baseball history, dating back to the beginning of the AL itself. Plus history, coincidence and parallel fortunes keep the two intertwined. The Yankees, the greatest dynasty in sports outside perhaps the Montreal Canadiens, have won more World Series than the three next best teams combined (St. Louis is second, with 9). Yet, they did not win a Series title until the 21st one, in 1923. By then the Red Sox had won four, including three in a span of six years. What makes the rivalry juicy is that the Sox themselves won the very first World Series, in 1903.
Other things fueled the rivalry over the years. The bad trades the Sox made with the Yanks, starting with Babe Ruth for 125,000 on January 3, 1920, ending with future Fireman of the Year Sparky Lyle for weak-hitting first baseman Danny Cater almost 60 years later. An MVP title Ted Williams should have won being given to a Yankee. A discarded Roger Clemens resurfacing in New York. There is the fact that over the past two decades the Yankees have literally "bought" the pennant, while the thrifty Sox, playing in the smallest park in baseball, have been in just as many pennant races over the span. Most American kids aspired to be Yankees, but most growing up in the Boston area wanted to be Sox. Two locals, Lynn's Harry Agganis and Swampscott's Tony Conigliaro, had possible Hall of Fame careers cut short by tragedies, just as Munson, an all-star catcher, did. The Yankees also had their share of homegrown heroes, like New York native Whitey Ford.
History also magnifies the rivalry. Joe DiMaggio is noted as the greatest player ever, but fellow Californian Ted Williams, a couple of hundred miles north, was and is recognized as the greatest hitter ever. Contemporaries Carl Yastrzemski and Mickey Mantle were recognized as the hearts and souls of their teams during their glory years. The tragic death of Munson in a 1979 plane crash ended the greatest catching rivalry ever between himself and the New Hampshire-bred Fisk.
Then there is the fact that so many of each team's high and low points historically came against the other. The most miserable home run ever hit against Boston was by Bucky "Bleeping" Dent, who stole the pennant in a 1978 sudden-death playoff game. And of course, Boston's Tracy Stallard surrendered Roger Maris' 61st homer in 1961.
The teams are forever intertwined. The fans are conditioned emotionally as powerfully as the Capulets and the Montagues. Each game is played with the fervor of a soccer game between the British and the Germans. When inter-league play was proposed a few years ago, it seemed a good idea at first. But in Boston, nearly everyone turned on the idea for one reason - we discovered it meant fewer games against the Yankees. Don't you dare mess with our rivalry.