Memories & Dreams: Rivalries

By Marty Appel

In baseball – the ultimate team sport – individual rivalries often take a back seat to team goals.  But sometimes, a player vs. player duel will turn into an epic battle within the game.

Such was the case in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series, when the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson, 17-for-41 against the Los Angeles Dodgers with seven homers and 14 RBIs to that point, stepped in to face Bob Welch.

In a nine-pitch at bat with plenty of pauses and walk-arounds between pitches, Welch fanned Reggie in what came to be thought of as one of the most dramatic at bats ever in a Fall Classic.  The drama heightened with every pitch; a rivalry was born.

But then in Game 6, Reggie got Welch back with a first-pitch home run as the Yankees locked down a second-straight World Championship over Los Angeles.

Sometimes baseball rivalries grow from fanciful confrontations.  For years, fans used to hear that the big Boston relief star of the ‘60s, Dick “The Monster” Radatz, “owned” the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, with the associated stat being 47 strikeouts in 63 at bats.  That legend took on a life of its own – until Retrosheet came along and found that the rivalry was only 16 at bats – and 12 strikeouts.  With modern social media leading the charge, that might have been enough for a much-followed rivalry.

When we think of Mantle, we put him together with his New York City centerfield rivals of the ‘50s, Willie Mays of the New York Giants and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  New York fans had at it in that decade arguing who was best, and indeed, one or the other faced each other in seven out of eight World Series from 1949-56, putting the rivalries on full display on national television each fall.  In the end, Mantle seemed to settle it all at the New York Baseball Writers Dinner in 1995, when the three were honored and Mick said: “If you look at the full careers, not any given season, Willie was the best.”

An extension of the Mantle-Mays-Snider rivalry was certainly seen in the New York-Brooklyn rivalries of catchers (Yogi Berra vs. Roy Campanella) and shortstops (Pee Wee Reese vs. Phil Rizzuto), but the four of them were actually great friends who spent much time together in the off-season on the banquet circuit. 

In baseball, individual rivalries can be subtle.  Two legendary pitchers facing each other don’t really “face each other” of course, except for the now-extinct times when pitchers regularly batted. For many years, pitching matchups between aces was regular fare for baseball.  Eventually managers would arrange their rotations so that such matchups were infrequent, preferring to use their ace in starts where victory seemed more certain.

But when those matchups did occur – whether Christy Mathewson vs. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, or Walter Johnson vs. Smoky Joe Wood, the fan anticipation was enormous and the crowds overflowing.  This extended into the years when it was Carl Hubbell vs Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove vs. Lefty Gomez or Juan Marichal vs. Warren Spahn, the latter in a memorable 16-inning duel in 1963, decided 1-0 on a home run by Mays.  Milwaukee’s Spahn, 42 at the time, threw 201 pitches; Marichal 227.  Was it a personal rivalry?  To the fans, it certainly was worthy of a rematch.  That came one more time, on Opening Day, April 14, 1964 and Marichal won again, 8-4, in a far less memorable matchup.  They wound up as teammates on the ’65 Giants.

The Johnson-Wood matchup of Sept. 6, 1912, Washington at Boston, found Johnson with a record 16-game winning streak having recently ended.  Smoky Joe had a 13-game win streak going, threatening to match the Big Train’s mark.  Much was at stake and a famous photo of the day finds fans huddled on the field surrounding the pitchers and their catchers as they warmed up.  Johnson was en route to a 32-win season; Wood won 34.  Wood prevailed in that great matchup 1-0, and went on to run his win streak to 16, matching Johnson.

A much heralded, head-to-head clash between Mathewson and Brown came before an overflow crowd in Chicago on Sept. 4, 1916, as the two faced off one last time in a rivalry that went back to 1903.  It would be the final appearance on the mound for both.   Matty, 36, now also managing Cincinnati, got three hits off his rival. Brown, 39, got two hits off Matty. Both went the distance as the Reds won 10-8 for Mathewson’s last of 373 victories – and only one not with the Giants.

The early part of the 20th century had fans frequently comparing Honus Wagner with Ty Cobb, and later Cobb with Babe Ruth on the “who was better” issue.  Cobb vs. Ruth was also a test of what kind of baseball one preferred, small ball or long ball?  And then there was Ruth and Lou Gehrig, with fans wondering about their relationship, and who would have a bigger year.  Were they true rivalries? Certainly, to the fans they were.  Later variations of these came in the form of Ted Williams (six batting titles) vs. Stan Musial (seven), and more recently Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa when the two were dueling for baseball’s single-season home run title in 1998. 

A Williams-Joe DiMaggio rivalry peaked each fall in MVP voting, (Williams had nine Top 4 finishes, DiMaggio had six; Joe won three, Ted won two), and they were almost traded for each other when their owners thought each might do even better trading home ballparks.  The “deal” was called off the next morning.

For rivalries which were seen by fans as hostile but were generally friendly, one thinks of Mantle and Roger Maris and Jackson-Thurman Munson both on the Yankees.  The latter began as genuinely cold after Jackson criticized Munson in a magazine interview, but the two repaired the relationship and celebrated two world championships together.

Munson had a more robust rivalry with his Boston counterpart Carlton Fisk.  The two embodied the 1970’s team rivalry, and genuinely disliked each other.  Munson felt that Fisk got more media acclaim despite being injured more often, which resulted in more All-Star selections and more of a fan base. 

The modern version of dueling shortstops was probably found in Derek Jeter-Alex Rodriguez-Nomar Garciaparra when the three great players arrived around the same time and adorned magazine covers.

Pete Rose of Cincinnati and Bud Harrelson of the New York Mets engaged in an on-field brawl in the 1973 NLCS and a perceived rivalry carried on for years afterwards, but hard slides or knockdowns becoming rivalries would make for a long list, and would surely include Joe Medwick’s hard slide into Detroit’s Marv Owen in the 1934 World Series, or Hal McRae’s takedown of the Yankees’ Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS.

Finally, there was manager Casey Stengel vs. owner Bill Veeck.  Veeck disliked Casey and was appalled when Stengel was hired to manage the minor league team – Milwaukee – that Veeck owned.  Bill was in military service at the time and couldn’t intervene.  He never forgot his dislike and it carried into Stengel’s years managing the Yankees, when Veeck had a distaste  for everything about the Yankees, especially Stengel.  And the only two years in which the Yankees failed to win the pennant while Casey managed, were 1954 and 1959 – when Veeck-owned teams beat him out.  Sweet revenge.