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Perrenial Rivals

These individuals and teams have battled each other throughout sports history, and their antagonism has become legendary
By Ken Shouler | From Michael Strahan, November/December 2014
Perrenial Rivals

It was May 20, 1976. A game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium was about to turn nasty. With Ed Figueroa and Bill “Spaceman” Lee locked in a stingy pitcher’s duel, New York led 1-zip in the sixth. Otto Velez lined a two-out hit to right. Dwight Evans, possessed of an assault rifle for a right arm, nailed Lou Piniella at the plate. Piniella bowled over Fisk. A fight ensued and Lee scrambled into the pile courageously, trying to separate the two. “[Mickey] Rivers hit me in the back of the head, then [Graig] Nettles dropped me,” the Spaceman said.

Lee suffered a torn shoulder capsule and cartridge. Plate umpire Terry Cooney ejected both Lee and Nettles. Oh, and the Red Sox won 8-2. The moment doesn’t matter: view a Yankees-Red Sox game and you are witness to tribal animosity, reaching back in time indefinitely, full of simmering hatred about to boil over.

Rivalries. The best of them never lose that “kill the enemy” intensity. Arch competitors are at each other for years, decades, and, in one instance, more than a century. The buzz starts weeks in advance. Fans migrate to the enemy’s park. Getting a ticket is well-nigh impossible. Each shot, pitch and snap is invested with singular importance and remains the subject of debate for years to come.

New York Yankees - Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers

The Yankees opposed the Dodgers 11 times in the World Series. Usually boasting superior pitching, the Yankees won the first five in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. Brooklyn’s losses were especially galling; the ’41 Series turned on a passed ball; the last four times the Dodgers’ lineup included Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges, one of the best batting orders of all-time. But the Yankees’ pitching, with Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat and, later, Whitey Ford, often subdued Brooklyn’s lumber.

Though separated from New York by a short bridge, for Brooklyn it seemed a bridge too far. Yankee greats Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and pitching overcame their wannabe neighbors to the south. Sportswriters (and fans) began calling the Dodgers by another nickname, “Dem Bums.”

Even when the Dodgers won, as in the sixth game of the 1947 Series when Cookie Lavagetto’s pinch-hit double in the ninth broke up Bill Bevins’ no-hitter and gave Brooklyn a 3-2 victory, the Yankees shrugged it off to win 5-2 in Game 7. The plaintive wail rising up from true believers in the borough of churches, captured on radio and in Daily News headlines, was “Wait ’til next year.”

In 1955, “next year” arrived. An omen for the Bronx Bombers came early, with Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in Game 1, sending Berra into a ballistic stomp at the umpire’s safe call. With the aid of four homers by Duke Snider, Brooklyn took a 3-2 series lead. When the Yankees won Game 6, with the deciding contest at Yankee Stadium, it seemed like business as usual.
The Dodgers’ rookie lefty Johnny Podres—just 9-10 in 1955, but the winner of Game 3—nursed a 2-0 lead. The Yankees had two on in the sixth when Berra hit a fly ball to left field. Sandy Amoros sped toward the line, glove-hand outstretched, snared Berra’s slice, threw to Reese at shortstop, whose relay to first doubled up Gil McDougald. Podres held into the ninth, when an Elston Howard grounder to Reese finished it.

Having begun in 1890 as the “Bridegrooms,” Brooklyn had its first title. The Yankees avenged the loss in 1956. The two great franchises split four more Series after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. All told, the Yankees have won eight of the 11 contests.

Boston Celtics - Los Angeles Lakers

The Celtics and Lakers battled for hardwood supremacy in 12 NBA Finals, seven occurring in the 1950s and 1960s, before the NBA had attained its current stature. The Celts lead 9-3. The pair are ranked one-two in NBA history. Boston’s 17 titles and the Lakers’ 16 make for 33—half of the 66 Finals in NBA history—since 1949.

The 1962 Final went the distance. Los Angeles had Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and little else. Baylor’s 61 points in game five gave the Lakers the series lead, 3-2. In game seven, Bob Cousy gambled on defense and Frank Selvy moved for a pass, but missed an open eight-footer at the buzzer that would have won it for Los Angeles. “I would trade all my shots for that last basket,” he said afterward. The Celtics, behind Bill Russell’s 30 points and 40 rebounds, won 110-107 in overtime.

They met five more times in the decade, two going the agonizing seven games in Boston’s favor. Remarkably, in 1969 the Celtics took their 11th title in 13 years as Russell played his last game, a 108-106 victory over the Lakers and his nemesis Wilt Chamberlain.

The rivalry within the rivalry was Russell versus Chamberlain. The usual verdict—“Boston won so Russell is the superior player”—followed a familiar illogic. The head-to-head numbers belie that consensus. From 1959 through 1969, the Celtics played 142 regular-season games against Chamberlain’s teams (the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers), and Boston won 88 and lost 74 of those games. In those games, Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds to Russell’s 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds.

The adversaries met five more times, including three in the memorable “Showtime” Larry Bird-Earvin Johnson era. It wasn’t until 1985, after losing eight straight to Boston and avenging a Finals’ loss from 1984, that Los Angeles won. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then 38, won the finals MVP with six other Hall of Famers on the parquet floor, including Johnson, Bird, Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and James Worthy.

New York Giants - Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers

In the 1940s and 1950s, New York City was known as the “capital of baseball.” Of the 12 World Series played between 1947 and 1958, at least one New York team was involved 11 times. The Giant-Dodger rivalry commenced over 100 years ago, starting on one coast and continuing strong on another. Each team has dominated in stages.

The Dodgers won the pennant seven times between 1941 and 1956; the Giants, just twice. Before then, the Giants owned bragging rights, taking seven pennants and three World Series titles to the Dodgers lone pennants in 1917 and 1920. Since the teams have moved to California, the Dodgers dominated again, copping nine pennants and five Series titles to the Giants’ five pennants and two Series wins.

They were geographically closer when they competed in Manhattan and Brooklyn—mere subway rides separated the Yankees in the Bronx, the Giants’ home at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, and Ebbets Field in Flatbush—than they are in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

No matter. Proximity or no proximity, the Giants and Dodgers’ relationship has always been icy. In the 154-game slate, the two met 22 games per season. All told, from the 1890s to the present, the Giants lead by a narrow margin, 1,209-1,181. But the overall regular season tally doesn’t begin to capture the Hatfield-McCoy sentiment between them.

“The Giants Use Lifebuoy” read a sign on the wall at Ebbets Field. “And they still stink” a Giants vandal scribbled. “We Dodgers even disliked Halloween,” Duke Snider remarked, “because [the Giants] colors were orange and black.”

In the most remarkable ending of all, in 1951 the Dodgers held a 13 1/2-game lead on August 11, only to lose it as the Giants steamed to a 38-7 finish. A tie required a three-game play-off, and in the ninth inning of game three Bobby Thompson turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 victory with his “Shot heard ’round the world” against Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds. The Giants prevailed in another three-game play-off in 1962.

Infamous incidents followed. In a tight pennant race in August 1965, Dodger ace Sandy Koufax was dueling Juan Marichal, who had drilled two Dodgers with pitches earlier in the game. When Marichal batted, Koufax didn’t retaliate. But Marichal thought that Roseboro’s throws back to the pitcher were close to his ears. Marichal hit Roseboro with a bat. The glancing blow bloodied Roseboro’s face, but the catcher wasn’t seriously injured.

The Giants won the game, but Marichal, who was 22-13 and led the league with 10 shutouts, was suspended for nine games and fined $1,750 of his $60,000 salary. The Giants went on a 14-game winning streak during Marichal’s absence, but the Dodgers won 15 of their final 16 while the Giants slumped. The Dodgers took the pennant by two games. The intensity has carried into the stands, too. In 2011, Bryan Stowe, a Giants fan, was attending opening day at Dodger Stadium. After the game he was jumped and beaten, suffering permanent brain damage.

Muhammad Ali - Joe Frazier

After his gold-medal triumph in the 1960 Rome Olympics (then known as Cassius Clay), Muhammad Ali was still undefeated in 1967, when the boxing commission stripped him of his title after he refused to report to the draft induction center for the Vietnam War. Following an eight-man tournament, Joe Frazier, having knocked out Jimmy Ellis, was the new undisputed heavyweight champion. After three years of ring rust, Ali won a court case and was acquitted of all charges. In the run-up to a March 1971 bout with Frazier, Ali painted his opponent as an Uncle Tom, a white man’s champion, while he was the champion of the black race.

In a fight that drew more stars and fur coats than any in memory—capped off by Frank Sinatra at ringside taking photos for Life magazine—Ali bounded from his corner and leapt ahead in the early rounds. The most graceful heavyweight who ever drew breath, Ali circled in his way, a taunting predator flicking jabs and feinting as he went. The younger Frazier, who never learned the word “retreat,” rained body blows on his 6-foot, 3-inch target and entered the 15th round ahead on points. Now Ali needed to score; Frazier sprung from his crouch, landing a perfect left hook, sending Ali rear-first to the canvas. Frazier scored a unanimous decision.

Ali won the next bout on points in 1973, setting up the deciding “Thrilla in Manila” in October 1975.  Now the racial taunting reached a new level, as Ali punched a rubber gorilla repeatedly during interviews to show what he’d do to Frazier. His sparring partner donned a gorilla suit. An Ali poem emerged: “It’ll be a killa’ and a thrilla’ when I get the Gorilla in Manila!”

Spent in the dense outdoor heat, Frazier could barely see by the end of the 14th round. “His left eye was completely closed; his right eye was closing,” manager Eddie Futch recalled. “It had been a grueling fight and that’s when fighters get hurt. When they get hit with clean punches they don’t see and still don’t go down. I didn’t want Joe’s brains scrambled.” Frazier pleaded to continue, but Futch ended the bout. Had he waited, the result might have changed.

Ali had returned to his corner exhausted after the 14th. He slumped onto the chair, held up his gloves and told cornerman Angelo Dundee, “Cut ’em off.” Dundee refused. Then Futch signaled the referee to call the fight, and Ali and Dundee broke into tears. “It’s the toughest fight I’ve seen in my life,” Ali said after weeks of recovery. “It was the closest I’ve come to death.”

Until his death, Frazier never forgave Ali. His cell phone voice message said it all: “My name is Smokin’ Joe Frazier, sharp as a Razor. (laughs). Yeah, floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. I’m the man who done the job, he knows, look and see. Bye-bye.”

Will boxing ever produce a rivalry to match this one? Don’t hold your breath.

Boston Red Sox - New York Yankees

The competition between Boston and New York resembles a neighborhood soccer rivalry in Europe where the loathing for the other team has been passed down from generation to generation. It never fades.

I was introduced to the Boston-New York brand of warfare in the 1970s. The players would do anything to win. The Red Sox were easy targets then. Yes, they could boast about their regular season records—and future Hall of Famers such as Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk, not to mention All-Stars such as Rico Petrocelli, Fred Lynn and Luis Tiant—but they were always bridesmaids and never brides. Poor Sox, they had won five of the first 15 World Series played between 1903 and 1918, but in 1919 they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Nearly a century of ineptitude followed the sale: 85 years passed between the title of 1918 and the one in 2004. In between there were excruciating Series losses—1947, 1967, 1975 and 1986. That doesn’t include gut-wrenching play-off defeats to Cleveland in 1948 and New York in 1978. Meanwhile, between the Yankees’ first title with Ruth in 1923—when 11 of New York’s 24 Series players were former Sox—and Jeter in 2000 the Yankees ran off 26 world titles to zero for the Red Sox.

In this millennium the rivalry still burns and tilts in Boston’s favor. Not only did Boston win historical bragging rights by winning the 2004 pennant after being down 3-zip to the Yankees, but they won again in 2007 and 2013. By contrast, the Yankees per annum payroll trumps everyone’s, but their return on investment is one lousy World Championship in 13 years. So Red Sox fans still chant “Yankees suck, Yankees suck”—even  during Patriots games in Foxborough—and I once saw a Yankee bleacherite snatch a Red Sox fan’s cap, torch it with a lighter, and pass it around.

The fire will always rage.

Chris Evert - Martina Navratilova

The two looked across the net at each other in 80 matches. Of those, Martina Navratilova, a left-hander by way of Czechoslovakia, won 43 and lost 37. The feminine Floridian with the girl-next-door looks, Chris Evert won 21 of the first 25 matches between them.

Schooled by her father, Evert learned a two-handed backhand since she lacked the strength at five years old to hit with one hand. Churning inside, she remained outwardly cool. “The mental side of the game was my strength,” she averred. “I wasn’t the tremendous athlete that [Steffi] Graf and Martina were; they could be Olympic athletes in any sport.”

Navratilova was the curious import, having defected to the United States during the Cold War in 1975. Before her, few if any female athletes had muscular arms and popping veins. While Evert liked playing ground strokes from the baseline, Navratilova attacked the net, pumped her fist, cussed at herself. If any vestige of that cliché that women had to “play nice” remained, these two ended it. For nearly 15 years, one or the other was ranked No. 1.

As the rivalry drew to a close in 1988, Evert proclaimed, “She wasn’t just beating me, she was killing me.” Between the Toyota Championship in 1982 and the U.S. Open in 1984, Navratilova took 12 straight. In head-to-head Grand Slam finals, Navratilova won 10 to Evert’s four.

The duo proved that competition and friendship weren’t mutually exclusive. After she left tennis to get married and have a family, Evert conceded, “My biggest thrills came in beating her, yet when I lost to Martina, I was disappointed but never devastated. If I couldn’t win a tournament myself, I wanted her to win.” Navratilova was equally gracious. “Even when she beat me, and I’d be sitting in the locker room depressed, she’d come over to cheer me up. We were always empathetic to one another.”

When ESPN voted on the 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century in 1999, Navratilova ranked 19th. The only woman ahead of her was Babe Didrikson. Navratilova was the greatest female athlete that many of us had ever seen. 

Dallas Cowboys - San Francisco 49ers

Since the Super Bowl era began in 1967, the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have met each other seven times in the play-offs, with Dallas winning five. In six seasons the team that won that contest went on to win the Super Bowl. Their rivalry crossed three decades, with three sets of quarterbacks.

In the early 1970s the 49ers boasted John Brodie and speedy wide receiver Gene Washington. Dallas’ Doomsday Defense loomed, with Bob “Mr. Cowboy” Lilly, Jethro Pugh, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan, Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley. Roger Staubach—“Mr. Comeback”—barked signals. In a decade of AFC dominance, Dallas was the only NFC team to win a Super Bowl. They won two.

They dunked San Francisco three straight in the postseason, winning 17-10 in January 1971. The Cowboys stifled the 49ers 14-3 in January 1972, holding them to 61 rushing yards and intercepting three Brodie passes. Then they strangled Miami 24-3 in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys topped San Francisco again the next year, 30-28.

By 1981, Joe Montana took on Staubach’s replacement, Danny White. With time running out and the Niners trailing 27-21 in the NFC Championship game, Montana, nearly pressured out of bounds, threw off his back foot, lofting one to the back of the end zone where Dwight Clark snatched it for a 28-27 victory. Forever known as “The Catch,” it propelled the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and three more in the 1980s.

The third decade of the rivalry witnessed the Dallas triumvirate of Troy Aikman, Emmett Smith and Michael Irvin roll over San Francisco in 1992 and 1993, before Steve Young led San Francisco past Dallas in 1994, 38-28.

The two great franchises have combined to win 10 Super Bowls.

Detroit Red Wings - Montreal Canadiens

The Red Wings were known for their right wing—Gordie Howe. Montreal boasted Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. Each scored aplenty and fans argue over who was better. Back and forth the clubs went, sharing titles throughout the early 1950s. At the time, teams often shared trains during home-and-home series. But closeness only bred contempt. “I never spoke to any of them,” said Detroit Red Wings forward Ted Lindsay. “I hated them, and they hated me. It was the way it was and the way it should be. It was wonderful.”

Detroit owned the cup in 1950 and posted 101 points in the 1950–1951 season, but Montreal eliminated them in the first round of play-offs. Again they met in the 1952 Finals. Detroit’s quid pro quo for the ’51 embarrassment was a sweep of their northern neighbors. Montreal coach Dick Irvin stormed off, not allowing his team to engage in the post-series handshake, an NHL tradition.

The no-handshake practice was repeated in 1954, as Detroit won in seven games. Undistracted, Detroit took another seven-game final in 1955, before Montreal returned the favor in 1956. It was their first of five straight. They have won 23 Stanley Cups, almost as many as the next two teams combined, Toronto (13) and Detroit (11).

New York Rangers - New York Islanders

It is a rivalry known as “The Battle of New York.” The Rangers represent one of the NHL’s “original six” clubs. The Islanders were upstarts. Joining the NHL in 1972, they played, according to Ranger fans, in that sleepy “Nassau Mausoleum.”

In the regular season, the Rangers are ahead 122 wins to the Islanders’ 108. But that statistic conceals more than it reveals. When the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 through 1983, they beat the Rangers in the play-offs three straight years. Here was a new squad, not 10 years into its tenure, running off four straight, while the Rangers were trying to win their first cup since 1940.

These were years when every variety of vile chant came cascading down from the nosebleed seats at Madison Square Garden. To this day, the Rangers can be playing Philadelphia and the faithful might begin chanting “Potvin sucks!” That one dates to a clean hit that defenseman Dennis Potvin put on Ranger center Ulf Nilsson to snap his ankle. At times it goes beyond that to “Beat your wife, Potvin, beat your wife,” deriving from allegations that there was domestic abuse at the Potvin home. But while the Rangers got the best of the verbal assaults, they suffered an unholy butt-kicking on the ice.

The Rangers’ rabid fan base sprawls over the entire metro area, the five boroughs, Westchester and Rockland Counties, New Jersey and even Connecticut. By comparison, the Islander rooters come from their own backyard. No matter.

The Islanders were pure synergism: Clark Gillies, Dennis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Brent Sutter, John Tontelli, Bobby Nystrom and Billy Smith, arguably the greatest play-off goalie ever. As The Beatles were a whole far greater than the sum of their parts, so were the Islanders. No team save one in the history of American major sports has won 19 consecutive play-off series: the Islanders.
Detroit Pistons - Chicago Bulls

Before the Bulls won six titles in eight years, Detroit tested their mettle. Before Michael Jordan became Michael Jordan, the Detroit Pistons had the Bulls’ number. Despite Jordan scoring 59 in one game, the “Bad Boys” dumped their neophyte opponents in five games. The next year the 63-19 Pistons prevailed in six and avenged their Finals loss to Los Angeles with a sweep. In 1990, the Bulls got closer, but their 55-27 mark was second to the Pistons’ 59-23 and Detroit, with a seventh game at home, dumped Chicago for a third time. All the bumping and tackling that comprised Detroit’s defensive tactics known as the “Jordan Rules” came to an end in 1991, with a Chicago sweep of the Bad Boys.

The rivalry was over in a flash, but it was a historical flash. The Pistons had won two titles in a row—and just a game away from three. Now the successor was Chicago. They were one more example of the old saw that teams must be toughened with galling defeats before they are ready to win.

Kenneth Shouler, the editor of Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia, is an associate professor of philosophy at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey.