With the Dodgers and Yankees set to square off in L.A. tonight, I’ve got a rant at Baseball Prospectus wondering why Major League Baseball has never brought this matchup to the Bronx in 14 seasons of interleague play:
Tonight the Yankees and Dodgers kick off a three-game interleague series in Los Angeles. The two teams have matched up in the World Series a record 11 times, seven of them while the two shared the Big Apple with the Giants, six of them during baseball’s so-called “Golden Decade” between 1947-1956. It matters less that the Yankees have won eight of those World Series than that the two have combined to create what’s undoubtedly the game’s top interleague rivalry, not to mention some of baseball’s most indelible moments: Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike, Al Gionfriddo’s catch to prevent a Joe DiMaggio homer, Cookie Lavagetto’s double to break up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter, Jackie Robinson’s steal of home, Johnny Podres’ gritty effort to bring Dem Bums their first world championship, Don Larsen’s perfect game, Reggie Jackson’s three home runs, Graig Nettles’ Octopus-like leaps, George Steinbrenner’s phantom elevator fight…
Amazingly, it’s just the second interleague series the two teams have played in 14 years, the first coming in 2004, when the boys in blue took two out of three in Dodger Stadium. As if that fact alone — three measly games in 14 years! — weren’t enough of a scathing indictment of the entire misbegotten enterprise of interleague play, the game’s schedule makers have yet to bring the Dodgers back to the Bronx, where they clinched the 1955 and 1981 World Series. Hell, you’d think ESPN or Fox would strong-arm MLB into bringing Joe Torre back to the Bronx just because it provides a readymade storyline.
As a third-generation Dodgers fan living in New York City (Manhattan for nearly 13 years, Brooklyn for past two and a half) and sharing a Yankees ticket package — a conflicting set of priorities I’ve spent the better part of the past nine years documenting at my Futility Infielder website — I’ve admittedly got a vested interest in such a matchup. Not to mention no real qualms about rooting for the Dodgers; blood is thicker than geographic happenstance, after all. So I’ve been pulling my hair out while waiting for Bud Selig and the game’s marketing geniuses to come to their senses and and milk the cash cow by scheduling the most potentially lucrative interleague battle of all time.
As it turns out, Dodgers-at-Yankees isn’t the only site-specific interleague pairing which has evaded the schedule-makers…
In honor of the matchup, I present to you an encore presentation of a thumbnail guide to their 11 World Series matchups, written to commemorate their previous matchup in 2004. While the Yanks have won eight of those Fall Classics, the two teams have been fairly evenly matched; the Yanks hold only a 37-30 edge in games won, four of the Series have gone the distance, and the two teams have split their last six pairings.
This series is dedicated to the two men in my life who suffered through so many of these Dodger defeats and savored the infrequent triumphs while passing their love of the game down to me: my late grandfather Bernard Jaffe and my father, Richard Jaffe. A belated Happy Fathers Day to them.
Prior to this meeting, the Dodgers had appeared in only two World Series in the franchise’s 57-year history, 1916 against the Red Sox and 1920 against the Indians, losing both. By contrast, the Yanks were already well-acquainted with the Fall Classic, having won eight out of the eleven Series (including four straight from 1936-1939) in which they participated.
Skippered by Joe McCarthy, the ’41 Yanks (101-53) ran away with the AL by 17 games. Joe DiMaggio hit a monstrous .357/.440/.643 with 30 homers and 125 RBI, reeled off his 56-game hitting streak, and won the MVP, and the potent lineup featured Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Phil Rizzuto as well as Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Tommy “Old Reliable” Henrich, and Charlie “King Kong” Keller. The rotation was anchored by Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, who tied for the team lead with 15 wins, along with ace reliever Johnny Murphy. Yeah, these guys could play ball.
The upstart Dodgers (100-54) were managed by the fiesty Leo Durocher, who in the span of three seasons had turned around the second-division-dwelling Bums. The Dodgers’ biggest bat was wielded by first baseman Dolf Camilli .285/.407/.556 with 34 homers and 120 RBI, accompanied by a stellar outfield of Dixie Walker, Pete Reiser, and Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, All Star third baseman Cookie Lavagetto and All-Star catcher Mickey Owen, and 22-year-old Pee Wee Reese. Starters Whit Wyatt and Kirby Higbe both won 22 games, while Hugh Casey was the team’s bullpen ace.
The first three games of the Series were all decided by one run, two of them going in the Yankees’ favor. The two teams were scoreless through seven innings of the third game, but the outcome of the Series may have hinged on Yankee starer Mario Russo lining a ball off of Dodger pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons’ kneecap, breaking it. Casey came on in relief and yielded two runs in the eighth on four straight singles before getting the hook. Casey’s fortunes went from bad to worse in the next game. After entering with the Dodgers trailing 3-2 and the bases loaded in the fifrth, he held the Yankee bats at bay while his team rallied. Holding a 4-3 lead with two outs in the ninth and nobody on, he threw strike three to Henrich, but the ball got away from Owen and Henrich reached first base. DiMaggio followed with a single, and the Yanks rallied for four runs to take the game. They wrapped things up the next day for their fifth crown in six years. Though they didn’t start awarding the Series MVP award until 1955, Gordon, who hit .500/.667/.929 with a homer and 5 RBI, would have been a good choice.
The game of baseball had changed forever by the time the two teams next met, as the Dodgers (94-60) had signed Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier which had been in place since 1884. Playing out of position at first base, Robinson hit .297/.383 /.427 with 12 homers. Adding a new dimension to the offense with his speed, he scored 125 runs while leading the league with 29 steals. All of this happened while he endured endless taunting and baiting by racist opponents and hostile crowds and frigid responses from some of his own teammates. That wasn’t the only distraction, as manager Durocher was suspended for the season for associating with gamblers and Burt Shotton took the reins. The team didn’t have much power (Jackies’ 12 homers tied for the team lead with Reese, of all people), but the team’s .361 On Base Percentage easily outdistanced opponents, and the lineup, which still featured Walker and Reiser along with Carl Furillo and Eddie Stanky, was without a glaring weakness. Ralph Branca was tops on the staff, while Casey was still the relief ace.
Piloted by Bucky Harris, the Yanks (97-57) had again run away with the AL pennant, winning by 12 games. DiMaggio had another MVP season (.315/.391/.522 with 20 HR and 97 RBI). Henrich and Rizzuto were still on hand, along with a young Yogi Berra, but the rest of the lineup was a curious collection; Snuffy Stirnweiss, Billy Johnson, Johnny Lindell, and George McQuinn aren’t exactly hallowed names in Yankee lore. Allie Reynolds was the Yankee ace, winning 19 games, and Joe Page was the team’s formidable fireman.
The Yanks took the first two games of the Series in the Bronx, but the Dodgers rallied back to tie it up in memorable fashion. Yankee starter Bill Bevens was one out away from an ugly 10-walk no-hitter — which would have been the first in Series history — when pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto laced a two-run double (oh, those bases on balls!), giving the Dodgers the game and sending the Ebbets Field crowd into a frenzy. But that wasn’t the only classic moment of the Series. The see-saw Game Six began with the Dodgers jumping out to a 4-0 lead, KO’ing Reynolds in the third, but the Yanks rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the inning and chased Dodger starter Vic Lombardi. An RBI single by Berra put the Yankees on top, but the Dodgers put four runs across on Page in the fifth. With two men on and two out in the bottom of the sixth, DiMaggio sent a long fly ball to leftfield which defensive replacement Al Gionfriddo reached for and hauled in at the 415-foot sign for one of the greatest catches in Series history. Halfway to second, DiMaggio kicked the dirt in frustration, said to be his only show of emotion on the ballfield during his storied career.
For all the drama leading up to it, things still weren’t destined to go the Dodgers’ way. Though the Bums took a 2-0 lead in Game Seven, chasing Shea in the second, Bevens and Page held the Dodgers scoreless the rest of the way while the Yanks spread five runs over four innings, taking the lead for good in the two-run fourth inning. The Dodgers’ storybook season ended in defeat at the hands of the damn Yankees. Surprise hero Lindell .500/.609/.778 with 9 hits and 7 RBI, merited MVP honors. It was literally a last hurrah for Lavagetto, Gionfriddo and Bevens; none ever appeared in another major-league game after the Series.
In their first year under manager Casey Stengel, the Yankees (97-57) held off a challenge by the Boston Red Sox which went down to the season’s final weekend, with the Yanks taking a pair from the Sox to win the pennant by one game. DiMaggio missed the season’s first 69 games with a painful heel injury but made up for lost time with a 4-homer, 9-RBI series against the Sox upon rejoining the team and going on to hit .346/.459/.596 with14 homers and 67 RBI. Henrich and Berra were the team’s other big bats, but the season was really a testament to the burgeoning genius of Stengel, who mixed and matched the team through injuries and maximized his players’ production through the use of platoons, not all of which were based on simple lefty-righty matchups. Rizzuto was the only player to appear in more than 128 games. Reynolds and Vic Raschi led the starters, while Page remained the team’s fireman.
Like the Yankees, the Dodgers (97-57) didn’t sew up the NL pennant until the seasons’ final day. Under Shotton, the team which would dominate the NL for much of the next decade began to jell. Robinson’s dominating MVP season (.342/.432/.528 with 122 runs, 124 RBI and 37 steals) was augmented by fellow Negro League grad Roy Campanella, old hands Reese and Furillo, and emergent sluggers Gil Hodges and Duke Snider. Another Negro Leaguer, Don Newcombe, earned Rookie of the Year honors while stepping forward as the ace of the staff, and Preacher Roe put forward a strong campaign as well.
The two teams split a pair of 1-0 games to open the Series in the Bronx. In the opener, Reynolds limited the Dodgers to two hits and Henrich smacking a homer in the bottom of the ninth off of Newcombe to spoil his 11-strikeout gem. The Dodgers recovered to win the second behind Roe, but from there it was all Yanks. Tied 1-1 in the ninth of Game Three, the Yanks rallied for three runs thanks to a two-run single by late-season addition Johnny Mize, and while the Dodgers got solo homers from Luis Olmo and Roy Campanella, they fell short, 4-3. The Yanks rocked Newcombe in the fourth game and jumped out to a 10-1 lead in the fifth one before holding on to win 10-6, giving Casey the first of his seven World Championships. Reynolds, with 12.1 scoreless innings, a win and a save, and Bobby Brown, who hit .500/.571/.917 with 5 RBI in only 12 at-bats, helped the Yanks to overcome a combined 3-for-34 from DiMaggio and Berra.
In the two seasons since their last World Series matchup, the Dodgers had lost a pair of agonizingly close pennant races on the last day of the season. 1950 saw them fall to the “Whiz Kid” Philadelpha Phillies in 10 innings when they could have forced a tie, while 1951 saw them lose a three-game tiebreaker on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run. Had it not been for that, the two rivals might have faced each other eight times instead of six within a ten-year span. The 1952 squad (96-57) under Charlie Dressen took the NL flag handily, the Boys of Summer — this was the first of the two teams chronicled by New York Herald-Tribune beat reporter Roger Kahn in his famous book — outdistancing the Giants by 4.5 games. Hodges socked 32 homers and drove in 102 runs, while Reese, Robinson, Campanella and Snider all turned in their usual stellar years. The balanced pitching staff was led by Rookie of the Year Joe Black, who won 15 games out of the pen while saving 15 more.
The Yankees (95-59) went down to the wire for the AL pennant with the Cleveland Indians, both teams roaring to the finish. The Indians won 18 out of their final 21 games, but the Yanks won 13 out of their final 15 to capture their fourth straight flag under Stengel. But these weren’t the same old Yanks. Gone since their last meeting with the Dodgers were DiMaggio, Henrich, and Page, with the most notable addition to the team being Joe D’s replacement, Mickey Mantle. The 20-year-old put together his first fine season, hitting .311/.394/.530 with 23 homers and 87 RBI, augmenting Berra’s 30 homers and 98 RBI. Reynolds and Raschi led the rotation, with Johnny Sain the big man in the bullpen.
In only his third start of the season, Black won the opener in Brooklyn behind homers by Reese, Snider, and Robinson. The Yanks won the second on the strength of Raschi’s three-hitter, and the Series continued to seesaw, with neither team able to put together back-to-back wins. Roe won the third, Reynolds posted a four-hit shutout in the fourth to best Black, and the Dodgers won an 11-inning thriller in Game Five, with Carl Erskine going the distance and Furillo robbing Mize, who already had three homers in the series of a potential game-tying dinger in the bottom of the eleventh.
The Dodgers headed back to Ebbetts up 3-2, and when Snider homered to break a scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth, they were nine outs away from their first World Championship. Alas, Berra tied up the game to lead off the next inning and the Yanks added two more, including an eighth-inning homer by Mantle, the first of his record 18 Series homers. The finale was another tight contest, with both teams scoring runs in the fourth and fifth, and the Yanks adding runs in the sixth via a Mantle homer and the seventh via a Mantle single. The Dodgers loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh,; Bob Kuzava came on in relief and got Snider to pop out and then got Robinson to pop up as well. First baseman Joe Collins lost the ball in the sun and it looked like the ball would drop, but at the last moment Yankee second baseman Billy Martin snared the ball at his knees, quelling the threat. That was all she wrote. There was no shortage of heroes in this series, Reynolds and Raschi split the four wins while posting ERAs under 2.00, Mantle hit .345/.406/.655 with 2 homers and Mize .400/.500/1.067 with 3 homers, while Snider’s 4-homer, 8-RBI .345/.367/.828 effort went for naught. Hodges’ 0-for-21 performance is one for the annals, but in exactly the wrong way; had he gotten hit or two here and there, the Dodgers might have prevailed.
The Yankees (99-52) rolled to their fifth straight pennant under Stengel. Berra was the team’s outstanding hitter at .296/.363/.523 with 27 homers and 108 RBI, with Mantle putting up a strong season as well. The staff was led by Whitey Ford, a 24-year-old lefty who returned from missing the previous two seasons due to military service. Ford went 18-6 with a 3.00 ERA, and he had plenty of help from Raschi and Eddie Lopat. Swingmen Sain and Reynolds combined to make a formidable bullpen while absorbing plenty of starts as well. Ho-hum, another great managing job by Casey Stengel.
The Dodgers (105-49) put forth the strongest team in the franchise’s history. Campanella won his second MVP award with a .312/.395/.611 season with 41 homers and 142 RBI, while Snider nearly matched him at .336/.419/.627 with 42 homers and 126 RBI. Furillo won the batting title at .344, while Rookie of the Year second baseman Jim Gilliam hit 17 triples. No fewer than six Dodgers scored over 100 runs, and the team hit .285/.362/.474 with 208 homers and 955 runs scored — over 6 per game. The team gave up its share of runs, and Carl Erskine was the only starter with an ERA under 4.00. “Oisk” won 20 games. Clem Labine was the team’s top reliever.
Opening in the Bronx, the Yanks battered Erskine for four runs in the first, thanks to Billy Martin’s bases-loaded triple. The Dodgers tied the game at 5-5 in the seventh, but the Yanks scored four more off of Labine and Ben Wade. They came from behind to take the second game, with Martin tying the ballgame with a solo homer in the seventh and Mantle smacking a 2-run shot in the eighth. The Dodgers clawed their way back into the Series on their home turf, with Campy breaking a 2-2- tie with a solo homer in the eighth and Erskine striking out a Series-record 14. They roughed up Ford with three runs in the first inning of Game Four, and Snider drove in four runs on a homer and two doubles to win 7-3. Game Five was a slugfest, with the Yanks rolling to an 8-2 lead on the strength of a Mantle grand slam and two other homers before staving off a late Dodger comeback to win 11-7. The Yanks rolled out to an early 3-0 lead in Game Six, but the Dodgers tied it up in the ninth with a two-run homer by Furillo. The Yanks clinched their record fifth consecutive title (and 16th overall) in the bottom of the ninth with a rally capped by Martin’s single, his 12th hit and 8th RBI of a remarkable .500/.520/.958 performance.
Having lost four World Series to the Yanks in the previous eight years and gone 0-for-7 in their Fall Classic appearances overall, the Dodgers (98-55) had to wonder if the promised land of “Next Year” would ever arrive. But under second-year manager Walter Alston, they destroyed the rest of the National League, winning the pennant by 13.5 games and putting themselves in a position to test their October fate again. Campanella rebounded from a disappointing season to win his third MVP with a .318/.395/.583 with 32 homers and 107 RBI, and once again Snider gave him a run for his money with a stellar .309/.418/.628 42-homer 136-RBI effort. Furillo, Hodges and Reese had their usual fine years, but 36-year-old Robinson was showing the signs of age, hitting only .256/.378/.363 with a mere 16 extra-base hits while missing 49 games. Newcombe put up a stellar 20-5, 3.20 ERA season that was augmented by an impressive .359/.395/.632 performance with the bat that included 7 homers and 23 RBI and prompted Alston to use him as a pinch-hitter 23 times. Labine remained the team’s ace out of the bullpen.
The Yankees (96-58) won the AL pennant by three games, led by Berra, who like Campy won his third MVP with a .272/.349/.470 27-homer, 108-RBI campaign. Mantle (.306/.431/.611 with 37 homers) was the superior hitter, however, and the team got excellent production from Bill Skowron and Hank Bauer as well. Ford, Bob Turley, and Tommy Byrne gave the Yanks three formidable starters, while 38-year-old former Whiz Kid Jim Konstantny split the fireman role with Tom Morgan.
It looked to be more of the same old, same old, as the Yanks won the first two in the Bronx. Joe Collins’ two homers off of Newcombe paced the Yanks in Game One, though Robinson’s eighth-inning steal of home and Berra’s ensuing argument with umpre Bill Summers remains the game’s signature moment. In Game Two, Byrne five-hit the Dodgers and drove in two runs in a four-run fourth-inning rally, winning 4-2. But back in Brooklyn the Dodgers took the next three. On his 23rd birthday, Johnny Podres went the distance in Game Three while the Dodgers battered Turley for four runs in the first two innings. Campy, Hodges and Snider all homered in Game Four, helping the Dodgers to overcome a 3-1 Yankee lead to win 8-5. Two Snider homers and a Sandy Amoros shot, all off of Bob Grim, put the Dodgers up 4-1, and they survived a late charge to win 5-3 and put them one victory away from their first World Championship.
Their celebration was anything but guaranteed. In Game Six back in the Bronx, the Yanks scored five off in the first off of Karl Spooner, who retired only one batter, with Skowron hitting a three-run blast. Ford limited the Dodgers to four hits and one run, setting the stage for the two teams’ third Game Seven in eight years. It was an experience-versus-youth matchup, with the 35-year-old Byrne facing Podres. The Dodgers struck in the fourth inning with a Campanella double and a Hodges single, and a Skowron error on an attempted sacrifice bunt by Snider (!) led to another run via a Hodges sac fly. In the sixth, Alston inserted Amoros into left field to replace George Shuba, and the move paid off when, with men on first and second and nobody out, Berra sent a drive into the leftfield corner which the fleet outfielder chased down and speared one-handed near the foul line, one of the greatest catches in Series history. The Yanks could do no damage against Podres, who went the distance for his second complete-game win, the first Series MVP award, and more importantly, Brooklyn’s first and only World Championship. “Next Year” had finally arrived.
On the heels of their first World Championship, the Dodgers (93-61) narrowly eked out the opportunity to defend their crown. Not until the season’s second-to-last day did they overtake the Milwaukee Braves for good, and they won the pennant by a single game. Snider had another fantastic season (.292/.399/.598, 43 homers, 101 RBI), and Hodges added 32 homers, but Campanella slumped to .219/.333/.394 with 20 homers. Robinson, playing what would turn out to be his final season, rebounded from his decline to go .275/.382/.412. Newcombe won both the MVP and the inaugural Cy Young award with a 27-7, 3.06 ERA season, though his bat lacked the magic of the previous year. 39-year-old former Dodger foe Sal “The Barber” Maglie came over from the Indians early in the season to give the rotation a boost. Labine still held down the top spot in the bullpen.
The Yankees (97-57) handily won the pennant by nine games, their seventh in Stengel’s eight years. Mantle won the Triple Crown with a monster season (.353/.464/.705, 52 HR, 130 RBI), unanimously winning the MVP award. Berra and Skowron also enjoyed fine years, the latter’s .308/.382/.528 with 23 homers and 90 RBI representing his peak. Ford won 19 games with a 2.47 ERA, while Johnny Kucks won 18. Byrne and Morgan were tops out of the pen.
The Dodgers zoomed out to a 2-0 lead. Hodges’ three-run homer off of Ford backed Maglie’s gritty 9-hit, 4-walk complete game in the opener. The Dodgers knocked Don Larsen out of Game Two in the second inning, but the Yanks did the same to Newcombe, and it was 6-6 after two innings. But Don Bessent stopped the bleeding for the Dodgers with seven innings of relief, while his team punished a succession of Yankee relievers. Hodges had 4 RBI and Snider 3 en route to a 13-8 win. But the Yanks swept the three games in the Bronx, capped by Larsen’s perfect game, the only one in World Series history.
Back in Brooklyn, the Dodgers forced a seventh game when Labine, drawing a rare start, shut out the Yanks for ten innings and Robinson singled home Gilliam in the bottomf of the 10th off of Turley, only the fourth hit given up by the Yankee hurler. Game Seven pitted Kucks and Newcombe, but it wasn’t even close. The Yanks scored five off of the Dodger ace in three-plus innings, including two home runs by Berra and one by Howard. Newcombe was left winless and carrying an 8.59 ERA in his five World Series starts. Skowron added a seventh-inning grand slam, Kucks limited the Dodgers to three measly singles, and the Yanks returned to their familiar spot as World Champions. This would be the last time the two teams would face each other as crosstown rivals; the Dodgers spent only one more season in Brooklyn before embarking for Los Angeles.
Though the Dodgers had a lousy inaugural season in L.A., they didn’t take too long to adapt to their West Coast surroundings, winning the 1959 World Series over the Chicago White Sox in their second season, facing a non-Yankee team in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1920. They nearly had another opportunity to face the Yanks in 1962, but lost a three-game tiebreaker to the San Francisco Giants. The ’63 Dodgers (99-63), still managed by Walter Alston, rebounded to win the pennant by six games. In their second season in Dodger Stadium, the ballpark’s high mound and large foul territory heavily favored pitchers, none moreso than 27-year-old lefty Sandy Koufax, who had a breakout season. Koufax went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, winning the NL MVP and the Cy Young (still given to only one pitcher in the two leagues). He was accompanied in the top of the rotation by Don Drysdale, who won 19. Bullpen ace Ron Perranoski had one of the best relief seasons in baseball history, winning 16 and saving another 21 with a 1.67 ERA. The offense rested on the broad shoulders of 6’7″ slugger Frank Howard (.273/.330/.518 with 28 HR) and Tommy Davis (.326/.359/.457) but was equally dependent on the speed of Jim Gilliam, Willie Davis and especially Maury Wills — who led the league in steals for the fourth season in a row, but declined to 40 from his record 104 the previous year.
Though their perch atop the American League was familiar, the Yankees (104-57), who won the pennant by 10.5 games, were now piloted by Ralph Houk, who took the team to three straight pennants and the previous two titles. In June, Mantle ran into a chain link fence in Baltimore, breaking a bone in his foot and suffering ligament and cartilage damage in his knee, causing him to miss two months. Fellow slugger Roger Maris was beset by a hand injury. When the two could play — almost exactly one season between them — they combined for 38 homers, 88 RBI and a .570 slugging percentage. Catcher Elston Howard helped to pick up the slack, enjoying an MVP season (.287/.342/.528 with 28 HR and 85 RBI), and Tom Tresh (.269/.371/.487 with 25 homers) was key as well. Ford won 24 games and Jim Bouton went 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA. Hal Reniff was tops out of the bullpen.
The Series was no contest. Opening in the Bronx, the Dodgers jumped on Ford for five runs in the first three innings, with Roseboro hitting a three-run homer and Skowron, now a Dodger, driving in two runs. But the real story was Koufax’s dominance, as he struck out a series-record 15 hitters. The Dodgers won Game Two behind a stellar game by Podres, still clutch after all these years. Drysdale bested Bouton in a 1-0 duel in Game Three, and Koufax wrapped up the sweep, the only one in the history of the rivalry, with a 2-1 win over Ford. Typically, the Dodgers managed only two hits in the decisive game, but one of them was a Howard homer. The Yanks scored only four runs in the entire Series, and the two teams combined for only 16. Koufax’s 2-0, 1.50 ERA line made him the MVP.
When Sandy Koufax retired Yankee rightfielder Hector Lopez on an infield grounder to close out the Dodgers’ 1963 World Championship, my parents had been married less than a month. By the next time the teams met in a World Series, they had two sons, including a seven-year-old who was starting to catch on to baseball. The Yankee-Dodger rivalry of this era was my real introduction to major league baseball, with the outsized personalities of characters such as Tommy Lasorda and Reggie Jackson drawing me in long enough to discover the game’s true excitement and drama. The continuity of the two teams’ rivalry from 1977-1981, while its participants came and went, provided me with a sense of the game’s history and up-close introductions to the spectacular extremes of achievement on the ballfield and bad behavior off of it, the revolution of free agency, the vagaries of player development, and the harsh realities of the game’s labor situation. A quarter-century removed from all of this, I simply cannot imagine my childhood without the Dodger-Yankee battles, nor can I imagine a better introduction to baseball.
When Tommy Lasorda took the Dodger helm on the final weekend of the 1976 season, it marked the first time since 1953 that the Dodgers had made a managerial change. Walter Alston’s 23-year tenure had seen the team’s first World Championship in 1955, the team’s move west in 1958, the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962, with eight pennants and four World Championships. Lasorda, who served on Alston’s staff for four seasons, was promoted into some very big shoes. But he’d played an important role in the team’s development, managing many of what would become his key players in the minors, including Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey — the longest running infield in the game’s history, a unit that stayed intact for nearly nine seasons. They were mid-tenure when Lasorda graduated to the managerial seat, and from the season’s first month, when Cey drove in 29 runs and the Dodgers jumped out to a 17-3 start, they gave him a significant leg up in the NL. The Dodgers (98-64) ran away with the NL West by 10 games, unseating the two-time World Champion Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine, and then defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Championship Series. Garvey, Cey, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker all clubbed 30 homers or more, a baseball first for teammates, with the quiet Smith the team’s most devastating hitter at .307/.427/.576. Lopes made for a classic leadoff man with a .372 OBP and 47 steals. The rotation was anchored by veterans Tommy John, who won 20 games, and Don Sutton, but the team went five deep in starters, at the time still a new concept. Knuckleballer Charlie Hough — another Lasorda protegee — anchored a strong bullpen.
The New York Yankees had changed dramatically since the two teams’ last meetings as well. After a decade of oblivion under CBS, the franchise was bought for a song by egomaniacal Cleveland shipbuilder named George Steinbrenner, who took to the game’s new franchise-building rules by embracing free agency. He signed A’s ace Catfish Hunter, coming off of three straight World Championships and granted free agency on a contractual breach, before the 1975 season and then Reggie Jackson before the ’77 season. Brash and quotable, with enough mustard for a ballpark full of hot dogs, Jackson took to the New York limelight like no player before or since, and he delivered on the field as well .286/.375/.550 with 32 homers and 110 RBI. Acrobatic third baseman Graig Nettles contributed 37 homers and 107 RBI, and gritty catcher Thurman Munson drove in 100 as well. Lefthander Ron Guidry developed into the team’s ace, going 16-7 with a 2.82 ERA, and Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award with a stellar season out of the bullpen. With fiesty former Yankee World Series hero Billy Martin skippering the club, this team maintained a link to its glorious past, though the intense media scrutiny quickly created a pressure cooker for Martin, Jackson, and Steinbrenner. The Yanks (100-62) won the AL East by 2.5 games, then beat the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series to face the Dodgers.
Opening in New York, the Yanks won the first game in 12 innings, but three Dodger homers off of Hunter early in Game Two helped even the Series. The Yankees took the next two in LA, with Mike Torrez and Guidry both going the distance for the Bombers. With their backs to the wall, the Dodgers routed the Yanks and Don Gullet 10-4, with catcher Steve Yeager driving in four runs. The Series returned to the Bronx, and in Game Six, Jackson put on an eye-popping display for the ages: home runs in three consecutive at-bats off of three different pitchers, each hit longer than the last. The Yanks overcame an early Dodger lead and took their first World Championship since 1963. Jackson, who hit .450/.522/1.250 with a record five homers for the Series, won the MVP.
A baseball fan could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu in 1978, as all four division winners repeated, and the playoff results were duplicated as well. The Dodgers (95-67) had won the West by 2.5 games with virtually the same cast of characters as the year before, with Garvey (.316/.353/.499 with 113 RBI) and Smith (.295/.382/.559) leading the way. A severe throat injury to catcher Yeager necessitated some juggling (and led to an equipment change around baseball), but aside from a bit of clubhouse dissent — a fight between the All-American Garvey and the more cynical Don Sutton — the Dodgers rolled. Burt Hooton emerged to lead the deep rotation with 19 wins and a 2.82 ERA, while free agent signing Terry Forster took over the top spot in the bullpen.
If the results were the same in the Bronx, the manner in which they were achieved was anything but. The Yanks (100-63) fell as far as 14 games behind the Boston Red Sox while Martin and Jackson feuded, and in late July, the manager was forced to resign. Replaced by Bob Lemon, the Yanks took off, tying the Sox to force a one-game playoff in which Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer to give the Yanks the AL East title. Amid a host of injuries and a clubhouse so raucous with dissent it became known as the Bronx Zoo, Jackson (.274/.356/.477 with 27 HR and 97 RBI) and Nettles (.276/.343/.460 wiht 27 HR and 93 RBI) led the way. On the mound, Guidry dominated with a 25-3, 1.74 ERA Cy Young-winning season, and Ed Figureoa won 20 games as well. Marquee free-agent signing Rich Gossage claimed Lyle’s fireman role, a matter of no small controversy.
The Series opened in LA on a somber note, as Dodger coach Jim Gilliam died of a brain hemorrhage just two days before it began. With emotions somewhat raw, the Dodgers rolled over the Yanks 11-5, with leadoff hitter Lopes hitting two home runs and driving in five runs. In Game Two, the Dodgers, paced by a three-run homer by Cey, clung to a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning. The Yanks got two men on base with one out when Lasorda summoned rookie pitcher Bob Welch, who retired Munson and then struck out Jackson in dramatic fashion to save the game. The classic confrontation, immortalized in a poetic update of “Casey at the Bat,” became a touchstone of my youth.
Back in the Bronx, the Yanks took an early 2-1 lead in Game Three but the Dodgers kept threatening. As Guidry scuffled, Nettles made four incredible plays, directly leading to seven stranded Dodger runners, and Guidry allowed only one run despite 15 baserunners, with the Yanks winning 5-1. In Game Four, the Dodgers rolled out to a 3-0 lead on the strength of a Smith 3-run homer, bu thte Yanks clawed their way back thanks in part to a controversial throwing error by Russell, who in trying to complete a double play hit baserunner Jackson in the hip; the ball caromed into rightfield as a run scored. The Yanks tied the game in the eighth and won in the 10th on a Lou Piniella singe. Game Five was a 12-2 rout for the Yanks, with Munson driving in five runs and Roy White three, and four Yankees collecting three hits apiece among the Yanks 18 total hits. Back in LA, a three-run second inning paced by timely hits from Brian Doyle (subbing for injured Wille Randolph) and Dent helped the Yanks overcome a leadoff homer from Lopes, and Jackson exacted some vengeance on Welch with a seventh-inning homer. The Yanks were World Champions again. Dent hit .417/.440/.458 with 7 RBI to win the MVP award, with Doyle (.437/.437/.500) and Jackson (.391/.462/.696 with 8 RBI) helping to carry the Yanks as well.
The 1981 season was like none before, as a seven-week players’ strike cleaved the season in two, creating an extra tier of playoffs. The Dodgers (63-47), on the strength of 20-year-old rookie pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela, jumped out to a 36-21 start as Valenzuela won his first 8 starts, seven of them complete games, five of them shutouts. Fernandomania took hold, and the Dodgers won the first-half NL West “title” by a mere half-game over the Cincinnati Reds. Guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, the team went on cruise control during the second half. This would be the last hurrah for the longest running infield; as Lopes struggeld, the Dodgers took a long look at rookie Steve Sax. Baker (.320/.363/.445), Rick Monday (.315/.423/.608) and emerging slugger Pedro Guerrero (.300/.365/.464) paced the balanced Dodger attack. Valenzuela ended up winning 13 games to net Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors, helping to offset the departure of free agent Don Sutton from the top of the rotation. Hooton and Jerry Reuss turned in stellar seasons as well. Second-year reliever Steve Howe led the Dodger bullpen. The team took a harrowing ride through the playoffs, escaping from a 2-0 hole against the Houston Astros in a best-of-five, then beating the Montreal Expos in the NLCS after being down 2-1 in another best-of-five. Monday’s ninth inning homer off of Steve Rogers in the cold, wet weather — “Blue Monday,” in Expos lore, put the Dodgers in the Series.
Like the Dodgers, the Yankees (59-48) won the first-half flag and then sputtered in the second. Despite the guaranteed playoff berth, Steinbrenner was so dissatisfied with the Yanks’ sluggish performance under manager Gene Michael — who had only 82 games in the big chair since Dick Howser’s firing the previous October — that he replaced him with Lemon. Trophy free agent Dave Winfield (.294/.360/.464) picked up the slack for the struggling Jackson, but these were hardly the Bronx Bombers of yore, as only two regulars topped a .244 batting average and nobody slugged anywhere close to .500. Guidry, Tommy John, and rookie Dave Righetti led a deep rotation, and Gossage put up a dominant season out of the bullpen, ably aided by Ron Davis. The Yanks beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the Divisional Series after nearly blowing a 2-0 lead, then swept the upstart Oakland A’s managed by Billy Martin to face the Dodgers for the third time in five years. Lasorda claimed that he had been praying for the rematch since the end of the ’78 Series.
The Yankees got of to a good start in the Bronx, KO’ing Reuss in the opener to win 5-3 behind Guidry. John and Gossage combined on a four hit shutout in Game Two, and things look ominous for the Dodgers as the Series returned to LA. Cey poked a three-run first-inning homer off of Righetti, but the Yanks scored four off of Valenzuela over the next two innings. The Dodgers rallied against reliever George Frazier, and Valenzuela survived to pitch a gutty 140+ pitch complete game, allowing 16 baserunners but winning 5-4. In Game Four, the Yanks chased Bob Welch before he could retire a batter, but Yankee starter Rick Reuschel couldn’t hold a 4-0 lead, and a pinch-hit two-run homer by Jay Johnstone capped a comeback that tied the Series. The next day, a six-hit complete game by Reuss, accompanied by back-to-back seventh-inning homers by Guerrero and Yeager off of Guidry — who allowed only four hits — pulled the Dodgers within reach of their first Series victory since ’63. Perhaps in an attempt to ignite his team, Steinbrenner revealed that he’d had a confrontation with two Dodger fans in an elevator, though his claims went unverified.
The Series returned to New York, and things took a curious turn in Game Six when Lemon elected to pinch-hit for John in the fourth-inning of a 1-1 tie with two on and two out. Bobby Murcer flied out to end the threat, and the Yanks rallied for three runs against Frazier (already twice bombed in the Series) and then four more against Davis the next inning. Guerrero drove in five runs with a triple and a three-run homer, and the Dodgers finally had their World Championship at the Yankees’ expense. The MVP award was split three ways between Yeager (.286/.286/.786 with 2 HR), Guerrero (.333/.391/.762, 2 HR, 7 RBI) and Cey (.350/.435/.500 and 6 RBI, not to mention surviving a Gossage fastball to the helmet). Frazier tied a Series record with three losses, all in relief.