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Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Great Rivalry

Face facts:  You can’t escape it.

A couple of years back I wrote a tribute to sportswriter and novelist Ed Linn (1922-2000), one of baseball’s immortal scribes (and someone who belongs in the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame). You can still find it in the bowels of, if you’re interested.

What you won’t find in that tribute, however, is a reference to one of Linn’s most engaging works, The Great Rivalry (Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1991). Like most smart guys, Linn wound up here on the left coast, but the bread-and-butter of his career as a beat writer in Boston and New York made him uniquely qualified to provide a loving, colloquial overview to the most overheated ongoing feud in baseball—the Great Staredown between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

As we move toward the 2003 season, Linn’s book needs some updating, but it remains a great place to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of this unique, kinetic, and unyielding skirmish. Linn would doubtless be amused by the off-season shenanigans that have informed our most recent nuclear winter between the curse-crossed Sox and the cursed (in that other sense) Yankees, and he might even wonder aloud how a GM could be named Theo instead of Ted (especially in Boston, of all places).

There are fabulous anecdotes scattered throughout The Great Rivalry that will keep you page turning with gusto for all of its 347 pages. Though the book is coarser in construction than Linn’s earlier work, there’s just so much great material here—and from such a wide range of history—that you’ll be able to overlook the occasional uncharacteristic infelicity that crops up now and then.

Several quotes, as you’d only expect, come from the unsinkable Bill Lee, a major player in one of the rivalry’s most intense periods, the mid-to-late 70s. While the "Spaceman" is known for his expansive vocabulary, his commentary in this anecdote about the roughness of the 70s rivalry proves that he could be a bit more primally articulate:

Bill Lee was pitching the next time there was a brawl at home plate. To his eternal sorrow. The brawl ended with a torn ligament in Lee’s pitching shoulder. He was disabled for nearly two months, and his fastball was never quite the same again.

This one occurred during the Red Sox’s first trip to Yankee Stadium in 1976, when Lou Piniella tried to score from second on Dwight Evans’ arm and was out by 10 feet. The only thing he could do was try to knock the ball out of [Carlton] Fisk’s glove. Or kick it out.. In the tangle of arms and legs, he kicked Fisk instead.

Whereupon Fisk decided to tag him a second time just to make sure. On the head. Hard.

Out streamed the players from both benches. Bill Lee, who had been backing up the plate, was grabbed, spun around, and belted in the head from behind by Mickey Rivers. As Lee was trying to clear his head, [Graig] Nettles picked him up and threw him down on his shoulder. When Lee got up, holding his pitching arm, he realized that his season was probably over. "You sonofabitch!" he screamed at Nettles. "How could you do this to me? How could you be such an #######?"

By way of explanation, Nettles belted him flush in the eye, knocking him down and giving him a shiner to go with his crippled arm.

Linn begins with the ne plus ultra of the rivalry—the 1978 playoff game—and does a fine job of capturing the opposing points of view in that closet epic. You know you’ve got a great storyteller when he’s able to lead off with his best stuff and manages to keep your attention all the way through to the end; that’s just what Linn does, shifting back to the primordial days of the feud—1904, when the Yankees weren’t even the Yankees yet and the Curse of the Bambino was not even a gleam in the pinkeye of a drunken Irish beat writer.

Along the way, Linn tosses off some wonderful vignettes that add new flavor to well-seasoned legends. Fresh material on Babe Ruth is pretty hard to come by, but here’s one I’d not heard before:

Reasonably ambidextrous—he wrote with his right hand—he would entertain the fans, particularly on the road, by warming up the pitcher right-handed. Bob Meusel, who is generally acknowledged to have possessed the greatest throwing arm ever hung on mortal man, was also ambidextrous, and they would occasionally entertain the home crowd by warming up in the outfield with Babe firing the ball across the field with his right hand and Meusel firing it back left-handed.

As Linn moves at a leisurely pace toward the present, he lingers over the 30s Red Sox, providing an indelible portrait of a team assembled from the debris of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, Tom Yawkey’s pre-free agent buying spree that dwarfed even George Steinbrenner’s Herculean efforts. His anecdotes about this dysfunctional squad, centering notably around the volatile temperaments of the team’s top pitchers (Lefty Grove and Wes Ferrell), are hilarious and piquant. Here’s Linn on Ferrell:

Wes Ferrell didn’t only beat up on lockers and walls. Wes had been known to beat up on himself. And Wes didn’t even have the excuse of being left-handed.

The year before Messrs. Ferrell and [Jimmie] Foxx came to the Red Sox, Foxx had hit a grand slam home run off him. Now, giving up a homer to the most prolific right-handed home run hitter of all time was not exactly a disgrace, especially since Ferrell was still coasting along with a 10-5 lead in the eighth inning. Never mind, Handsome Wes came back to the dugout and began to chastise himself by banging his head against the wall. Finding that punishment to be insufficient, he knocked himself down with a wicked punch to the jaw and was beating the hell out of himself on the dugout floor before his somewhat bemused teammates decided to break it up…if that’s what you’d call it.

But the book is not simply a string of amusing but disconnected anecdotes. Linn is solid when he gets to the 1940s. covering the compressed history of the Sox’ triumphs (’46) and sorrows (’48, ’49) with apt and pertinent details. He’s a little shaky on the 50s Yankees, covering ground about Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle that’s already well-trod—but, let’s face it, these were pretty fallow years for the rivalry anyway. He gets back on the beam with a nicely honed chapter on the ’67 Sox, and dishes out a stream of engaging details on the 1977-78 division skirmishes—a couple of showdowns that stand up well in comparison with the great 1948-49 pennant wars.

In the back of the book, Linn doles out some entertaining and informative stats, including Ruth’s record as a pitcher vs. the Yankees (he was 17-5 against them); comparisons of Ruth and Gehrig’s HRs in 1927, a look at how Ted Williams hit while Joe DiMaggio was fashioning his 56-game hitting streak; a chronicle of Carl Yastrzemski’s contributions to the Red Sox in 1967; and a summary of the two "Boston Massacres" (the all-but-forgotten first one, in which the Red Sox outscored the Yankees, 30-9, in a three-game sweep in June 1977, and the legendary second one, where the Yanks pummeled the Sox for four games to the tune of 42-9).

Most interesting, though, is Linn’s summary of the season series between the two teams from 1903 to 1990. It’s presented in the book on a year-by-year basis, with an 88-year summary showing that the Sox have a .450 WPCT against the Yanks. We can break it down a bit further, though, and look at it by "eras"—the Red Sox "era" of 1903-19, the long "Yankee era" from 1920-64, and the free-for-all years of 1965-90.

Years       W    L  WPct
1903-19   191  167  .534
1920-64   375  593  .387
1965-90   208  186  .528
TOTAL     774  946  .450

As you can see, the Red Sox didn’t fare too well against the Yankees in the Bombers’ major glory period, playing less than .400 ball during that 45-year time frame. In the other 43 years, they’ve actually outplayed the Yanks. (I’ll leave it to one of the Primates to bring us up to the present day.)

The other thing we can put together using Linn’s season series data is a chart of the Red Sox’ running five-year WPCT against the Yankees, beginning with the 1903-07 seasons and concluding with 1986-90 (again, one of you Primates can plug in the post-1990 data). It shows the Sox’ early success, the calamitous downfall that followed, and the return to a tough, balanced head-to-head rivalry in the more recent past.

The Great Rivalry is not Ed Linn’s best book; that honor could go to Veeck As In Wreck, or Nice Guys Finish Last, or his book on Ted Williams (Hitter), or possibly even his (non-baseball) collaboration with bank robber Willie Sutton (Where The Money Was). Its engaging looseness, however, makes it a fine low-key guide to this richly chromatic rivalry, a never-ending war co-populated by the most blinding glare of big-city bright lights and the deepest, most harrowing shadows this side of a hard-boiled detective story. The abiding value of Linn’s work here is that he keeps his narrative sunny and unfettered, a refreshing alternative for a story too often told with punch-drunk bombast. Enjoy it—and then fasten your seat belts for another snarling staredown in 2003.


Don Malcolm Posted: January 21, 2003 at 05:00 AM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: January 21, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608463)
Quite a rivalry. 26 championships to 0 since 1923, and not one truly significant head-to-head Red Sox win since 1904. (You might make an exception for 1948, but the Red Sox were just saving their choking that year for the Indians.) But it's still a great book, though a better title would have been "The Christians and The Lions."

Polemics aside, it would be interesting to track their head-to-head records in those years in which one of the two teams won the pennant (or ALE) while the other team came in second. September and October results would be even more interesting.
   2. Flynn Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608471)
I'll ignore the first comment - it's a hilariously stupid one anyway. (The Red Sox have many significant wins against New York, to say that is not so smacks of crass ignorance. The Red Sox killed the Yankees more than once in mid 1980's pennant races.)

I have the Great Rivalry and while not a great great book, it is a pretty good one and would be a welcome addition to any Red Sox or Yankee fan's bookshelf. It covers the players as well as the rivalry, stopping by to recount certain seasons that, while not integral to the rivalry, are important to a fan of each team. (For the record, they're 1927, and 1967.) The best part of the book is probably the beginning, the 1978 playoff.

It's a B grade book, which means as I said before, you'll only like it if you're a fan of the Sox or Yankees. But it's definitely not a bad read.
   3. Ephus Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608473)
The 1978 playoff race was the seminal season for Generation X fans like me. It had:

1) Billy Martin & Reggie Jackson's fight over bunting, which led to the immortal line about Reggie & George "One's a born liar and the other's convicted",

2) Billy Martin's tearful resignation,

3) Old Timer's Day - Billy Martin announced last (after Joe DiMaggio) as the Yankee manager in 1980,

4) Jim Rice's MVP (?) season,

5) Ron Guidry's 25-3 season, featuring an 18K performance against the Angels,

6) the Boston Massacre,

7) the Yankees make up a 14.5 game gap to take a 3 game lead going into the last week of the season,

8) Red Sox win out the last weekend to force a playoff because Yankees lose 2 out of 3 to the Indians, and

9) the Playoff game, featuring a) Pinella's blind stab in right field, b) Bucky ****ING Dent (using Mickey River's bat) and c) Yaz's pop-up to Nettles.

Hard to get more memorable.
   4. Brian Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608482)
Read this somewhere recently :

Can a nail truly have a rivalry with the hammer ?

Don't flatter yourself Flynn, 80 years of being the nail has warped your perspective.
   5. Devin has a deep burning passion for fuzzy socks Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608483)
Volunteer Primate reporting for duty!

First, here's the 5-year splits for the years ending in:
1991 0.585
1992 0.585
1993 0.538
1994 0.500
1995 0.435
1996 0.452
1997 0.410
1998 0.400
1999 0.468
2000 0.484
2001 0.418
2002 0.446

And some overall records:
1991-2002 0.441
1965-2002 0.503
1903-2002 0.449

By the way, here's a fun question: Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants are clearly the 1-2 rivalries in baseball history. What's #3? Cubs-Cardinals? Tigers-Indians? One of the inter-city rivalries?
   6. bob mong Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608484)
Here is the year-by-year update from 1991-2002:
Red Sox W/L vs. Yankees
<font>Year W L
1991 6 7
1992 7 6
1993 6 7
1994 3 7
1995 5 8
1996 7 6
1997 4 8
1998 5 7
1999 8 4
2000 6 7
2001 5 13
2002 9 10
Total 71 90</font>
That 19 game deficit is enough to make the Red Sox record vs. the Yankees, post-1964, almost even at 279-276.
   7. damn okies Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608486)
You yankee fans are ridiculous! There is a reason nobody likes you. To say that the sox are no rival to the yanks is the hieght of arrogance bleeding into sheer stupidity. If not the sox, then who? or would you all suggest that somehow george and the boys are ABOVE such earthly trivialities as actualy relishing the beatiing of a particular foe? If that's true, then prove it! when the sox come to town, just stay away. treat like you might a k.c. royals series, or the d-rays (whom the sox don't care for all that much either). don't even watch. you guys can tune back in in october to see if you made it. or just wait for the New Milenium version of the Great Rivalry to see how you fared. That is of course, if you care at all.
   8. blue Posted: January 22, 2003 at 01:25 AM (#608494)
Cool it, okies. I can't speak for all Yankee fans any more than you can (though you did try) because Yankee fans, like any other fan base or other group of people, are a diverse bunch. But I'll tell you that plenty of the Yanks fans I know have a healthy hatred of the Red Sox.
As for me, I respect the Red Sox as a division rival that's always going to give the Yankees a challenge, but I don't really despise Boston or anything. I'm not into the rivalry because I'm a self-taught fan, and even though I'd read about it before, I never understood the extent of the enmity until my first visit to Fenway, where there were dozens of vendors selling "Yankees suck" merchandise.
The game was against the Rangers.
   9. Ephus Posted: January 23, 2003 at 01:25 AM (#608501)
In response to J, I too was a graduate student in Boston and I think that the presense of large numbers of NY-area students in Boston is a big part of what makes the rivalry so bitter on the Red Sox side. It reminds of a scene from "Breaking Away" - Every year there are new young Yankee fans in town, with money to spend at Fenway and bars making grand noises about 26 World Championships, No No Nanette and the like, and every year the Red Sox fans are getting older and watching another team fall by the wayside.

   10. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: January 24, 2003 at 01:25 AM (#608536)
Flynn, what I mean by "truly significant" is this: At no time since 1904 have the Red Sox beaten the Yankees late in the season in a game which eventually was to prove decisive in a pennant or division race for the Red Sox, in a year when the Yankees were Boston's closest rival. The near exception was 1988, when the Sox beat NY in 5 of 7 September games and won the ALE by a game. But the Yankees were fifth that year. It is a great "rivalry" in that each game is looked upon in both cities with more general anticipation than any other game. And since Yawkey arrived the Red Sox have probably given the Yankees more consistent competition over the long haul than any other team, though the 48-56 Indians (1 WS, 2 pennants, 5 seconds) and the 66-83 Orioles (3 WS, 6 pennants, 7 ALE) had much better short term runs than the Sox ever did.

But they just don't get there, Flynn. They have the mad nobility of King Canute, but they never beat back the ocean. They never arrest the cop. They're always in jail in October. They're the Boston Red Sox, Flynn. And Yankee fans love them, too, the way a Lion loves a big, fat, tasty Christian.

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