The Greatest Rivalry Since (Long Before) Sliced Bread

It is a rivalry that defies description.

The animosity between the Dodgers and the Giants can’t technically be described as having started as an intracity squabble. When they first played each other in 1889, the Giants hailed from Manhattan, while the Dodgers (known as the Bridegrooms at the time) were based in Brooklyn, which wouldn’t become part of New York City for another nine years.

A subway series? No, that 1889 championship between the clubs was 15 years before New York City’s subway existed. To put things in (ridiculous) perspective, they had already played each other 757 times when sliced bread was invented in 1928.

But however you choose to characterize their relationship, the longstanding feud will be in full force over the next week as the teams, now located in Los Angeles and San Francisco, face off in a best-of-five division series that will end the season for one of the two winningest teams in baseball this year.

When considering if this is the peak of the rivalry you first have to consider some biggest moments of their relationship over the last 133 seasons (with many other tense moments left on the cutting-room floor).

The first nine games between the clubs came in 1889. Brooklyn, which had been crowned champions of the American Association, agreed to face the Giants, champions of the National League, in what some referred to as the World Series.

Official statistics between the clubs don’t begin until the next season, when Brooklyn joined the N.L., but the championship was taken fairly seriously. Coverage of the games in The New York Times pointed out that Arthur Dixwell, considered by many to be the most prominent baseball fan of the era, came down from Boston to celebrate the Giants beating the Bridegrooms, six games to three.

“As soon as the New-Yorks won yesterday, he went to the clubhouse and presented each of the players with pretty scarfpins,” the Times reported of Dixwell. “In making the presentation he said that he admired skill, gameness, and honesty, and he felt certain that the New-York players possessed all these elements. He spoke of the drawbacks that the New-Yorks had to contend against this season, and he declared that, for various reasons, greater credit is due the Giants than if they had won under ordinary circumstances.”

In January 1934, Bill Terry, the player-manager of the Giants, was asked for his thoughts on the upcoming season. Among his remarks was a quip that would come back to haunt him: “What has become of the Dodgers?” he asked. “Are they still in the league?” Terry’s Giants were terrific in the first half, but a second half collapse led to a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals going into the last two days of the season, and the Giants had to face the Dodgers twice. Fans from Brooklyn, looking to play spoilers in an otherwise disappointing season, packed the stands at the Polo Grounds and watched their Dodgers win both games, handing the pennant to St. Louis.

Much was made of Terry’s comments, but Ed Hughes, a columnist for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, defended the quote, as he believed it brought some spice to a sport that was getting bland.

“Personally I think it is a sad thing for baseball there are not more bon mots and repartees of the sort,” Hughes wrote. “Of late years the game has become entirely too orderly, the thoughts and actions too prosaic and rule-of-thumb. There is a preponderance of gold, silver and paper, and not enough red blood and romance to it. The result is dullness for the fan and weakened business for the promoter.”

The Dodgers were riding high, leading the National League by 13½ games on Aug. 11. But the wheels started to come off for Brooklyn, and the young Giants kept improving. The teams ended up being tied for first, necessitating a three-game tiebreaker. They split the first two games, and in the third one, Bobby Thomson, who hit 32 homers that season, crushed one of the most famous in history: The Shot Heard ’Round the World.

The situation would grow complicated decades later when it was revealed that the Giants had used a complicated signal system to steal signs from other teams, but on that day in 1951, Russ Hodges, who was on the Giants’ radio broadcast, blurted out one of the most famous calls in sports broadcasting history.

“There’s a long drive … it’s going to be, I believe … The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”

With the Dodgers frustrated by their lack of ability to build a new ballpark in Brooklyn, and the Giants struggling financially, the teams began exploring other opportunities. The league’s owners voted in May 1957 to allow them to relocate to California, provided they did so together. The Giants made their initial home at Seals Stadium, previously the home of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. The Dodgers went far larger, moving into the oddly configured (and cavernous) Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which set a regular season attendance record of 78,672 in the first game there — which the Dodgers played against the visiting Giants.

After that first game at L.A. Memorial in 1958, the reports in The Times were positive:

“The novel experiment of big league baseball in a vast stadium designed for track and football seemed an unalloyed success.”

Just 11 seasons after the Shot Heard ’Round the World, the Dodgers and the Giants, firmly entrenched on the West Coast, once again had to play a three-game tiebreaker series to determine a pennant. Once again the tie in the standings came after the Dodgers faded badly down the stretch. And once again, the Giants triumphed, going ahead dramatically in the ninth inning to win Game 3 and capture the pennant. The list of parallels wouldn’t have been complete without a subsequent World Series loss to the Yankees, and the Giants delivered that as well. But not before humiliating their most fierce rivals.

Arthur Daley’s Sports of the Times column did not hold back.

“The ignominious crack-up of the Dodgers reached splintering force today, leaving shattered hopes behind. They had the pennant as good as won weeks ago and let themselves get tied by the Giants. They had the final playoff game as good as won in the final inning. They lost it, 6 to 4.”

On Aug. 11, 1965, the Dodgers were leading the National League while the Giants were one and a half games behind them. With emotions running high, Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax took turns throwing at star players for both teams and when Marichal came to the plate as a batter in the third inning, he fully expected Koufax to back him off the plate. Instead, it was Dodgers catcher John Roseboro who threw a ball back to Koufax in such a way that it either nicked Marichal’s ear or came close to doing so. Marichal responded, as a person holding a large piece of wood might, by walloping Roseboro over the head with it a few times.

Marichal earned a hefty suspension and fine, while the Dodgers went on to win the pennant. Marichal finally explained his side of the story a few days after the incident:

“First of all I want to apologize for using the bat. I am sorry I did that, but I was afraid of him.”

In 1982, the Dodgers and Giants were in a fierce battle with Atlanta for the N.L. West crown, with the three teams separated by one game. A three-game series at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park proved disastrous for both teams. The Dodgers won the first two games, thus eliminating the Giants from contention, but then the Giants returned the favor, with help from Joe Morgan’s three-run homer in the eighth inning, beating the Dodgers on the season’s final day and handing the division crown to Atlanta.

Morgan’s role as a spoiler was not lost on him, but the former Reds superstar had a bit more perspective than is typical in this rivalry.

“I know people are going to say how the Giants live to beat the Dodgers,” he said. “That’s not the case with me. I’m not jumping up and down because we knocked the Dodgers out of the race. I’ve learned some humility in my life.”

In 1993, the last year of straightforward division races before the wild card was introduced, the Giants put on a show. The season had been an endless battle with Atlanta for the N.L. West crown (side note: Atlanta was in the N.L. West), and Atlanta had made itself far stronger down the stretch by adding the slugger Fred McGriff in a midseason trade. Still, the Giants were a force to be reckoned with thanks to the sluggers Barry Bonds, Matt Williams and Will Clark.

Atlanta led the division by four games on Sept. 17, but at the end of the games on Oct. 2, the second to last day of the season, the teams were tied on top. On Oct. 3, Atlanta took care of its business, beating the Colorado Rockies by 5-3. The Giants, meanwhile, were absolutely demolished by the Dodgers, who seemingly relished playing spoilers against their rivals in an ugly 12-1 game.

Peter Magowan, then a co-owner of the Giants, had the line of the day when asked about the defeat coming on the 42nd anniversary of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer.

“Oct. 3 is still a historic day in Giant history,” he said. “It’s just some days in history are bad days.”

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