— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
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 baseballs immortal scribes (and someone who belongs in the writers wing of the Hall of Fame). You can still find it in the bowels of bigbadbaseball.com, if youre interested.
What you wont find in that tribute, however, is a reference to one of Linns 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 baseballthe Great Staredown between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
As we move toward the 2003 season, Linns 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 Linns earlier work, theres just so much great material hereand from such a wide range of historythat youll be able to overlook the occasional uncharacteristic infelicity that crops up now and then.
Several quotes, as youd only expect, come from the unsinkable Bill Lee, a major player in one of the rivalrys 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 Lees pitching shoulder. He was disabled for nearly two months, and his fastball was never quite the same again.
This one occurred during the Red Soxs 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] Fisks 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 rivalrythe 1978 playoff gameand does a fine job of capturing the opposing points of view in that closet epic. You know youve got a great storyteller when hes able to lead off with his best stuff and manages to keep your attention all the way through to the end; thats just what Linn does, shifting back to the primordial days of the feud1904, when the Yankees werent 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 heres one Id not heard before:
Reasonably ambidextroushe wrote with his right handhe 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 Macks Philadelphia As, Tom Yawkeys pre-free agent buying spree that dwarfed even George Steinbrenners Herculean efforts. His anecdotes about this dysfunctional squad, centering notably around the volatile temperaments of the teams top pitchers (Lefty Grove and Wes Ferrell), are hilarious and piquant. Heres Linn on Ferrell:
Wes Ferrell didnt only beat up on lockers and walls. Wes had been known to beat up on himself. And Wes didnt 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 thats what youd 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. Hes a little shaky on the 50s Yankees, covering ground about Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle thats already well-trodbut, lets 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 skirmishesa 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 Ruths record as a pitcher vs. the Yankees (he was 17-5 against them); comparisons of Ruth and Gehrigs HRs in 1927, a look at how Ted Williams hit while Joe DiMaggio was fashioning his 56-game hitting streak; a chronicle of Carl Yastrzemskis 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 Linns summary of the season series between the two teams from 1903 to 1990. Its 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 didnt 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, theyve actually outplayed the Yanks. (Ill leave it to one of the Primates to bring us up to the present day.)
The other thing we can put together using Linns 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 Linns 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 Linns 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 itand then fasten your seat belts for another snarling staredown in 2003.