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All George Steinbrenner wanted to do was beat the Mets

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

Part II of The Subway Series was released this week and focused on the New York baseball world from the 1950s through today. The big event that shook-up the city was obviously the Dodgers and Giants leaving. It took nearly 40-years for the Yanks and Mets to establish their rivalry, but that was not because the owner didn’t care.

ICYMI — you can listen to Part I here.

It’s just exhibition

The Yankees and Mets didn’t play a meaningful baseball game until June 16, 1997 when inter-league play was introduced. They had however played each other before — during Spring Training and in the Mayor’s Trophy game, an in-season exhibition that dates back to the World War II era.

The game was originally played between the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. The first official record of the Mayor’s Trophy series is 1946, but there was a three-cornered game between the teams that happened on June 26, 1944 to benefit the war effort.

Pulling from BR Bullpen, the New York Times reported on June 9, 1946 that the Giants and Yankees agreed to play a best-of-three exhibition, with the winner to receive the William O’Dwyer trophy. O’Dwyer was the New York City Mayor from 1946-50.

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The series stopped after the Giants and Dodgers moved to California but picked up again in 1963, the year after the Mets were established. Proceeds from the game went to NYC’s Amateur Baseball Federation, but by the late 1970s attendance dwindled. Even though recognizable stars would play, often times Triple-A pitchers were used to protect major league arms.

In the first iteration of the game, the Yankees went 10-3, the Giants 1-7, and the Dodgers 2-3. The Yankees and Mets played 19 times from 1963-79 and 1982-83; their overall record is Yankees 10 – Mets 8, with one tie.

Over the years Steinbrenner tried to make the exhibition a big deal, telling players to treat it like a real game. You can imagine how that was received.

Former Yankees infielder Brian Doyle, who played sparingly (and poorly) for the team from 1978-80, recalled giving “110 percent” to make an impression on manager Billy Martin and Steinbrenner. Doyle said:

That game meant as much to George as the World Series and he was up in the box.

Not all players cared as much as Doyle, never mind Steinbrenner.

There’s an infamous incident in which Graig Nettles allegedly tried to throw the 1978 game, according to Sparky Lyle. In the 11th inning (they actually played extra innings!), Nettles threw a ball 10-feet over first baseman Chris Chambliss’ head allowing the Mets leadoff hitter to reach. They could not score him, and the Yankees won the game in the 13th.

Nettles denied making the error on purpose, but there was no denying that players did not want to be out there in extra innings. To his teammates dismay, Doyle made two spectacular defensive plays to preserve the tie. Apparently when he was giving 110% effort and everyone else 50%, Doyle was pretty good.

The Mayor’s Trophy game had a brief revitalization after the 1981 strike but ended after ’83. Umpires refused to work the game over an AL/NL umpire feud (each league had separate umps back then) and because NL umps were unhappy that commissioner Bowie Kuhn had not suspended Steinbrenner for remarks he made about the integrity of NL crews in spring training. Classic.

George was even psychotic about the Spring Training games between the clubs. One spring, after Mike Griffin pitched poorly causing the Yankees to lose a game to the Mets in Fort Lauderdale, Steinbrenner stood outside his box and screamed “Mike Griffin has fooled us long enough!”

(Tell me you don’t see this image when reading that line.)

George and Billy Martin also reportedly got into a fight (hard to believe, I know) after the Yankees lost a spring game to the Mets.

Exhibition and practice games were important to The Boss’ ego, so you know the real thing was going to be life-or-death.

This one counts, for real

Steinbrenner could not stand living in the shadow of the Mets when they were the superior team in the late ‘80s (it’s part of the reason George loved the idea of bringing in Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden in the ’90s). Even though the Yankees were the defending champs in 1997, he still had to beat the team from Queens.

Before the first inter-league games, David Cone said:

It’s well documented that these games are important to our owner, as they should be. It’s for the bragging rights of New York City.

Most players and coaches treated it like any other regular season game. Fans of course wanted to win for the bragging rights that Cone mentioned, but in 2000 the rivalry kicked into high-gear.

Clemens hit Piazza on July 8, 2000 in the night game of the split-stadium double-header. It was the turning point for the rivalry and cranked the tension up to an 11/10 for their meeting in the World Series 3 months later.

In the 2000 World Series film, Derek Jeter said he hears fans telling him to not lose and to throw the other 3 rings out the window, because this is the one the matters. Whether fans actually said that to him or not, Jeter was buying into the hype that was very real for fans in the city. In typical Jeter fashion, he responded by winning series MVP.

George was also happy.

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The city centered around Yankees vs. Mets for that week in October 2000. For a little while nothing else mattered and fans got a taste of what it was like in the 1940s and ’50s when the Yankees played either the Dodgers or Giants in the World Series seemingly every year.

Podcast – A Brief History: The Subway Series, Part II