What is Really Baseball's Best Rivalry

As the Yankees and Red Sox play a series at Yankee Stadium this week, the talk of baseball’s biggest rivalry will be in the air again. This assertion is rarely challenged, but it is also rarely defined or explained. Long-term rivalries are not a common thing in baseball. There are many cases of intense but brief rivalries, for example the Mets and Cardinals in the 1980s or the Mets and Braves in the late 1990s. There are also examples of lower key rivalries that are occasionally intense, such as the A’s and Angels, but there are few rivalries that are enduring, intense and competitive. It seems that the rivalry that has been the most intense and competitive for the longest time should be considered the biggest rivalry in the game.

That rivalry may not be between the Red Sox and Yankees, but between two teams that are gearing up for another division race in the NL West, and who are also playing each other this weekend, the Giants and the Dodgers. Both the Yankee-Red Sox and the Dodger-Giant rivalries have had moments of intense competition, memorable games and pennant races, and genuine rancor between the two teams. However, the degree of competition and balance between the two rivals has been consistently stronger between the two NL rivals.

In recent years the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has rightfully gotten more attention. During the wild card era, the Yankees and Red Sox have finished close enough in standings for the two teams to face off in the LCS three times. This has never happened to the Giants and the Dodgers. In the pre-wild care era, however, comparable measures tell a different story with both the Giants and Dodgers and the Yankees and Red Sox finishing first and second in their league or division eight times. This measurement, however, misrepresents the two rivalries in favor of the AL rivalry because the Yankees have won so many pennants that it would be hard for the Red Sox to not have finished second to them a few times. Between 1903-1993, the Yankees only finished second to the Red Sox twice, while the Giants and Dodgers each finished second to the other four times, during those years, suggesting a much more even rivalry.

In some regards, the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has been competitive and intense, but not consistent. The Red Sox were one of the best teams in the decade between 1910-1919, winning four pennants, but between 1921-1964, the period of the mid-century Yankee dynasty, the Red Sox only won one pennant. Thus, to a great extent, the AL rivalry has been limited to roughly 1938-1949, 1975-78 and 1995 to the present; and it is only in the wild card era that the rivalry has been remotely balanced. The Giants and Dodgers, however, while playing in a more balanced league which has never been dominated by any one team, has had periods of strong competition from 1910-1920, 1951-1966 and on and off during the wild card period.

Before the wild card era, a Yankee pennant was followed by a Red Sox pennant the next year twice — 1947 and 1976 — but the reverse never happened. Since 1995 this has happened in 2003 and 2004. A Giant pennant has followed a Dodger pennant five times, but not since 1989 — and only once since 1963. This demonstrates that the periods when both teams were very competitive were roughly equal, but in the Yankee-Red Sox case this has mostly been in recent years.

Over the last fifteen years, there is no question that the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has been the best in baseball. The two teams have had several memorable post-season series as well as individual games, which cannot be matched by anything in recent years. The history of the two rivalries reflects something different. The 1978 pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox, perhaps the greatest in the history of the two teams, was extraordinary, but has nothing on the 1951 race between the Giants and Dodgers. Bucky Den’t 1978 home run has a special place in the memories of Red Sox and Yankee fans, but it was not as dramatic or as widely remembered throughout our culture as Bobby Thomson’s “Shot heard ’round the world” in 1951. Similarly, the fights between the Yankees and Red Sox have been intense, demonstrating the enmity between the two teams, but the Roseboro-Marichal incident was more violent, serious and had a longer impact on the game and baseball history than, for example, Don Zimmer being thrown to the ground by Pedro Martinez. The Dodger-Giant rivalry is also unusual because it survived a move across the country by both teams.

These two rivalries, when taken holistically, are probably more or less equal. The Giant-Dodger rivalry has deeper roots, slightly more memorable moments and is more balanced, while the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has been considerably more intense in recent years and has a number of great moments, including a few going back to the 1940s, as well. However, the awareness of these rivalries among casual fans is undoubtedly much greater for the Yankees and Red Sox. In the next few months the baseball world may be reminded of the great NL rivalries as the Dodgers are just a few games behind the Giants in the NL West; and the two teams could conceivably meet in the NLCS for the first time ever.