Sorry Red Sox fans. You too, Yankee lovers. Baseball’s best rivalry is right here in California.
Giants vs. Dodgers is as good as it gets.
Most fans think today’s West Coast rivalry goes back to the days when both teams played in New York, the Giants in Northern Manhattan and the Dodgers in Brooklyn. That’s true. But, technically, the two teams began competing with each before Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1898.
That competition continues in the Golden State, over 120 years later. Shockingly. Amazingly. This is the first time the two will meet in the postseason, facing off this weekend for the start of the National League Division Series.
As crowds fill Oracle Park, and later Chavez Ravine, what better time to look back at the history of this rivalry?
As we all know, real San Franciscans are taught to hate the Dodgers from a very young age. I know I was. And Los Angelenos have never had any love for the Giants. But back in the New York days, the hatred ran deeper. The two teams played each other 22 times a year. The two ballparks were a subway ride away from each other. Opposing fans rubbed shoulders in workplaces, bars, restaurants, subways and the streets of New York every day. Sometimes they did more than rub shoulders.
In 1938, Dodgers fan Robert Joyce shot and killed a Giants fan sitting a few barstools over who was giving him a hard time about his team.
In those early New York days, when the Giants, not the Yankees, were the best team in town, and therefore in America, the hatred was often personal. Legendary Giants manager John McGraw, who won more games than any manager in the history of the National League, and longtime Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson had a longstanding feud, stemming from when Robinson was one of McGraw’s coaches on the 1913 Giants who lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics.
The New York version of the rivalry peaked in the post-war years when the Dodgers, led by Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and the other “Boys of Summer,” and the Giants found themselves competing for the National League pennant with some frequency. The Dodgers had more stars, but the Giants had Willie Mays. These were the days when baseball was at its height of popularity in New York and locals argued over who was the best team, and best centerfielder in town. The Yankees were pretty good in those days, too, winning the World Series seven times from 1947-1956.
The most famous moment of the rivalry during this period, and perhaps in baseball history, occurred on Oct. 3, 1951.
The Giants had started slowly that year, but eventually, with the help of Willie Mays, who joined the team in May, closed a 13-game Dodgers lead and forced a three-game playoff for the National League pennant. In those days, there were no Division Series or League Championship Series. The two teams split the first two games forcing a third and deciding game at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ uptown ballpark.
Most baseball fans know what happened next. The Dodgers led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. The Giants pushed a run across and got two runners on bringing up Bobby Thomson with the rookie Mays on deck. Thomson hit a three-run home run and the Giants had won the pennant. It became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” The moment was forever embedded in our consciousness with the near-hysterical radio call, “The Gians win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
After the teams moved to California in 1958, they were no longer in the same city, but they easily fit into the longstanding natural rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also helped that in the 1960s Mays was still starring for the Giants, while Brooklyn-born Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers became the best and most famous pitcher in the game.
Eleven years after the Bobby Thomson game, the two teams again ended the season tied for first place, again split the first two games of the tie-breaker series, again the Dodgers took a lead into the ninth inning and again the Giants beat them. This time the Giants were the visiting team and the key hit was a single by Mays. Interestingly, 20 years to the day after that, Giants second baseman Joe Morgan knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs on the last day of the regular season with a big three-run home run at Candlestick Park.
Those 1960s Giants and Dodgers found themselves in several close pennant races, with the Dodgers usually winning. So, personal animosity between the teams was strong. This reached its apex in a 1965 game that saw the bloodiest on-field fight in baseball history. In the midst of a close pennant race, Giants ace Juan Marichal was at the plate. He grew angry when a throw back to the pitcher by Dodgers’ catcher John Roseboro buzzed too close to his ear. So he clobbered Roseboro with his bat. The subsequent melee would have been worse had not Willie Mays acted as the peacemaker.
During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the rivalry took an unfortunate turn for Giants fans as the Dodgers were usually the better team. In those years, the best memories for Giants fans were of the spoiler variety. Like Morgan’s home run, or a big grand slam by Mike Ivie in 1978. It was more about beating the Dodgers than the Giants success. Even though the Giants were pretty bad in many of those seasons, the series against the Dodgers could be counted on to bring big crowds to Candlestick Park, often the only well-attended games during the whole season. In more recent years, the rivalry has continued with the two teams dominating the National League West for much of the 21st century.
In all the years of the rivalry, from Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds to Oracle Park and Dodger Stadium, from John McGraw and Wilber Robinson to Don Mattingly and Bruce Bochy, to Brandon Crawford and Mookie Betts today, the two teams have never had a year like this one. The Giants won the division on the last day of the season winning 107 games, one more than the Dodgers. Those 213 combined wins were more than in any year in their very long history.
This rivalry has seen numerous Hall of Fame players and managers, some of the greatest moments and biggest fights in baseball history. It has enthralled millions of passionate fans in both New York and California.
The two best teams in the game, the greatest rivalry in professional sports and a historic postseason first. This is baseball at its best.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.