Yankees, Dodgers and a War for Baseball Supremacy
Interleague play has lost much of its lustre. Yet, rather like a blue moon, its natural orbit occasionally generates a matchup that fascinates and thrills the baseball romantic. The New York Yankees taking on the Los Angeles Dodgers is one such contest, and we’ll be treated to a three-game set between the two vaunted powerhouses beginning tonight in the Bronx.
Though the Red Sox and Giants may argue, these are the two defining juggernauts of baseball, looming on each coast with dynastic intent. And though the Cubs and Cardinals may contend, it’s difficult to find two more classic franchises than the Yankees and Dodgers. Only a handful of teams transcend the sport, and these ancient rivals are right at the top of that list. Their rivalry has spanned many decades and two different cities, changing culture but never intensity. When they meet, the baseball world stops to watch, for the power struggle captures our imagination like little else.
The juxtaposition between New York and Los Angeles is a central part of this tale. They’re the two largest cities America can conjure, inhabited by millions upon millions of people. One is rough and real and raw, full of Gothic majesty and impenetrable spirit. The other is cool and clear and colourful, defined by glamour and a desire to squeeze every drop of enjoyment from life. One has canyons of steel, the other has palm trees. In their own ways, both are beautiful. Both are wondrous examples of what the human race can create.
As the foremost baseball teams from each respective city, the Yankees and Dodgers define those diverse cultures. Like New York, the Yankees rule with a staid assurance. The fabled pinstripes are defiant and proud, rooted in tradition and bathed in rightful arrogance. Meanwhile, like Los Angeles, the Dodgers strive for growth with brash energy. The pristine white and elegant blue is classy and knowing, founded in hope and symbolising ambition. Yankees versus Dodgers. New York versus Los Angeles. Old money versus new. You couldn’t ask for more.
Though this is now a saga of two coasts, it began firmly within the boundaries of Gotham. The Dodgers originated in Brooklyn, a pastoral team known by a variety of nicknames playing at numerous venues. In 1913, the team moved to Ebbets Field, a jewel sequestered in the working class neighbourhood of Flatbush. Baseball became a fervent pastime in Brooklyn, as fans identified strongly with the National League club shoehorned poetically into its streets, so famously lined with trolley cars. The way local people dodged those cars en route to the ballpark helped give the team it’s iconic name, as the community bond intensified. Though it didn’t always register at the turnstiles, neighbourly goodwill towards the Dodgers in Brooklyn rivalled that of any team in any city. They were the prodigal sons of summer. They mattered.
Meanwhile, the Yankees inspired gargantuan crowds, as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig catalysed an empire. The Bombers moved to a monumental new Stadium in the Bronx in 1923, giving New York three marquee teams in three different boroughs, including the Giants of Manhattan. This set the stage for a halcyon era of Big Apple baseball, as the perfect confluence of time and space delivered a wonderful chapter in the game’s history.
Despite the Dodgers and Giants being National League ballclubs, there was always a sense of rivalry between the three New York teams. Later, it manifested itself in teenage squabbles at school over the skills of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, the defining stars of each team. But first, it was meeting in the World Series that really heightened the feud. And between 1941 and 1958, the Fall Classic would visit New York in all but four years, often for a Subway Series between two of the local stalwarts.
The Yankees and Dodgers first met in the 1941 World Series. Back then, there was no interleague play, except in the Fall Classic. The Dodgers fought hard early in the Series, and they appeared close to tying it at two games each, only for catcher Mickey Owen to drop a third strike on Tommy Henrich and open the floodgates. The Yankees eventually powered to their ninth world championship by four games to one.
Then, in 1947, Brooklyn took Joe DiMaggio and his Yanks all the way to a seventh game, before falling at the final hurdle. The same was true in 1953, while a five-game defeat in 1949 was sandwiched in between. The Yanks’ ’53 triumph secured their sixteenth title and fifth straight. The sense of injustice and inferiority was palpable among Dodgers fans, who felt their team, much like their borough, was forever destined to lurk in the shadows. Wait ’til next year!, they barked, though few had genuine hope.
Finally, in 1955, after ten fruitless pennants, the Dodgers had their day. A see-saw Series went the distance, as 362,310 New Yorkers attended games within one week. Emotions ran high, as David trumped Goliath. Game Seven was played at Yankee Stadium, and it ended when Johnny Podres induced a ground ball from Elston Howard with the Dodgers 2-0 up in the ninth. Pee Wee Reese whirled a throw across to Snider, and, just like that, the ultimate underdogs were victorious. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are champions of the world!,” said Vin Scully. And how the people rejoiced.
A year later, the teams again fought to a bitter World Series end. It took the Yankees seven games to reclaim their superiority, and that Series also included a perfect game from Don Larsen, the only one in postseason history. Unfortunately, this, the seventh October meeting between Brooklyn and the Bronx, was also the last. After the 1957 season, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles when owner Walter O’Malley grew restless in negotiations for a new stadium. Alas, the Giants also moved, finding a new home in San Francisco and concluding New York’s reign as the definitive crucible of baseball.
While uprooting teams from their spiritual homes dampened the rivalry somewhat, the names still evoked greatness. Though 2,700 miles now separated them, rather than a simple bridge, they were still the Yankees and Dodgers, and that meant a great deal. However, the dynamic changed, because with a new market came new ambitions for the Dodgers. Whereas Brooklynites wanted to beat the Yankees to secure bragging rights against the big bully, Angelenos wanted their team to become the Yankees, a vehicle for civil pride through victory.
Just as Los Angeles yearned to fight New York for supremacy in commerce and entertainment, the Dodgers were suddenly expected to morph into a grand organisation fit for modern domination. A palatial new stadium was carved into the gorgeous Chavez Ravine, capable of seating 56,000. A new roster was assembled, centred around the genius of Sandy Koufax and legs of Maury Wills. Out West, the Dodgers were expected to dominate. They were told to build an empire fit to rival that emanating from the Bronx. In some respects, this made the power struggle even more intriguing.
New York got a new team in 1962, when the Mets were spurned in Queens. However, that did little to quell the pain and anger of many Brooklynites. Indeed, when the Dodgers returned to New York for a 1963 World Series rematch with the Yankees, there was great hostility towards them, both from Yankee fans and a faction of disenfranchised Brooklyn diehards. Los Angeles prevailed with a standout sweep, the only time that ever happened between the two teams.
They didn’t meet again until 1977, when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three successive pitches in Game 6 to win the Yankees’ twenty-first title amid great social upheaval in New York City. It was a legendary contest, and one that proved epochal. The Yankees hadn’t won a World Series for fifteen years, so the sight of Jackson’s home runs soaring into the dark of history was hugely significant to an entire generation. Just for good measure, the Yanks also beat the Dodgers to the crown in 1978, winning the final four games after being down 2-0.
Los Angeles prevailed in 1981, hoisting the fifth title in franchise history and heralding the start of a dark period for the Yankees. With George Steinbrenner interfering and the Bronx struggling with crime, power seemed to shift towards Hollywood, where Dodger Stadium provided a sumptuous backdrop for baseball and the home team regularly topped three million fans per season. The Dodgers won another World Series title in 1988, when Kirk Gibson and friends beat Oakland in five games. They’re still waiting for another ring.
The Yankees enjoyed a renaissance around the new millennium, winning four World Series in five years. Another title came in 2009, as New York claimed seven pennants in fourteen seasons. Right now, the Yanks have an unprecedented twenty-seven world championships and forty pennants, while the Dodgers have six world championships and twenty-one pennants. Still, this rivalry has so many more layers than meets the eye, and it will boil to the fore nicely this week at Yankee Stadium.
The two teams have only met ten times outside of World Series play. That’s part of the allure. We simply don’t get to see these two colossal teams collide very often. They’re normally busy surveying their own domain before occasionally meeting in an intergalactic World Series. In fact, since that 1981 Fall Classic, the Dodgers have spent just one day in the Bronx, when completing a rain-affected doubleheader in 2013.
At present, it’s difficult to assess where the power lies in Major League Baseball. We’re experiencing an age of parity, in which even underwhelming teams have a shot at the postseason thanks to expanded Wildcard play. Since bulldozing the old Stadium, the Yankees have lost a certain mystique, but theirs is still the most compelling history of all. By contrast, the Dodgers can’t boast the same heritage, but they have continued to build themselves into a force fit for contemporary rule. They have the stadium. They have the front office. They have all the pieces to dominate for a very long time.
More than ever, the Dodgers also have the money to build whatever team they so desire. Under the lustful guise of Guggenheim ownership, they have pushed the financial envelope further than usual. In recent years, Dodger spending has surpassed even that of the Yankees, for so long considered the very extreme of fiscal outlay. While Hal Steinbrenner has scaled back Yankee expenditure thanks to luxury tax paranoia, his is perhaps the only team now capable of consistently competing with the Dodgers for top free agents. When transformative players like Bryce Harper hit the open market, that capitalist war of attrition should add another chapter to this complex rivalry.
According to Forbes, the Yankees and Dodgers are the two most valuable baseball team’s on earth. The former is worth $3.4 billion, while the latter weighs in at $2.5 billion. Again, it’s worth considering the Red Sox, Giants and Cubs in this regard, but the real battle is between the two seats of power, New York and Los Angeles.
The Yankees still generate far more yearly revenue – $516 million to $438 million – but the Dodgers are making up a lot of ground on social media and at the turnstile. The team is still a long way short of the Yankees’ 1.86 million Twitter followers, but it did surpassed the 1 million threshold this season, while average attendance at Chavez Ravine is 45,329 this year, compared with just 38,274 at Yankee Stadium.
In particular, those attendance trends are worrying for Yankee executives. They speak to a dissatisfaction among fans with the way their team has fallen in recent times. After spending a fortune to field a quality team as the new Stadium opened, payroll commitment has been largely stagnant when compared to revenue. Furthermore, under-performance or age-related decline from players like Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury put the Yankees in a bind that culminated in them selling assets at the trade deadline in July.
Since then, the Bombers have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence, led by a cast of young players. Gary Sanchez has been otherworldly. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge have made occasional contributions. And a pitching staff stocked with live arms has carried the club into contention. After waving a white flag and looking to reload, the Yankees have actually soared back into the postseason frame. Entering play on Monday, they’re four games out of the AL East lead and two removed from a Wildcard berth.
While there’s certainly hope in the Bronx, much of it is tied up in future potential rather than immediate dominance. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are threatening to become what the Yankees once were: an omnipotent force with the players, finances, brand and managerial intellect to win multiple championships.
At 80-62, Los Angeles is three games ahead of San Francisco out West. They’re magic number to clinch a fourth straight division title is now just eighteen. In Clayton Kershaw, they have the greatest pitcher of his era, if not any era, while the everyday lineup is anchored by sublime rookie shortstop Corey Seager, whose poise is Jeter-esque.
Even after battling a slew of injuries these last few years, the Dodgers are a potent force, with multiple layers in a deep farm system ensuring many more years of contention. They still need to win in October, however, to validate all the big dreams and enormous plans. Andrew Friedman still needs to win the World Series, for which Los Angeles has waited twenty-eight years.
So, here we are. The end of a peculiar season is in sight, and one of baseball’s showcase rivalries is about to take centre stage. The Yankees, once so unflinching in command of this sport, have reached an uncertain stage, where the kids are good but a hint of desperation can be detected. Executives and experts can sense a strong challenge to Yankee power, and it’s coming from the West. It’s coming from the Dodgers, that old foe in the joust for baseball authority.
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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!