The Yankees and Red Sox Players Who Defined MLB's Greatest All-Time Rivalry

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 4, 2020

The Yankees and Red Sox Players Who Defined MLB's Greatest All-Time Rivalry

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    Welcome to Rivalry Week at B/R, wherein there's no better place to begin than with what has made the long-running feud between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees so special.

    Or, more accurately, who has made it so special.

    Rather than simply recount the biggest moments or games from the long, intense and (sometimes literallybloody history of the Red Sox and Yankees, we thought we'd tell the story of their rivalry through those of the players who were at the center of it over the years.

    Specifically, we focused on 14 players who began, who were key parts of and who ultimately ended the "Curse of the Bambino," which defined the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry for nearly a century between 1920 and 2004.

    To this end, you can take a wild guess who's up first.

Babe Ruth

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    With World Series wins in 1903 and 1912, the Red Sox were already a powerhouse by the time a young hurler named Babe Ruth debuted in 1914. His pitching helped them win three more titles in 1915, 1916 and 1918.

    Come 1919, however, Ruth had hit his way off the mound with a record-setting 29 home runs. Accordingly, he demanded a raise from $10,000 to $20,000 and threatened to retire if his demands weren't met.

    Instead, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. He had to go, Frazee said, because he was "selfish and inconsiderate," and the club "could no longer put up with his eccentricities."

    The mood in New York, meanwhile, was ecstatic. Though typically an also-ran club through 1918, the Yankees were coming off a promising 80-59 season when they acquired Ruth. With him aboard, pitcher Bob Shawkey predicted the club would be a pennant winner as soon as 1920. 

    That didn't pan out, but Ruth's 54 home runs turned the '20 season into a watershed event for him and for all of Major League Baseball. He ultimately hit 659 home runs with the Yankees, who won four of the seven World Series to which he led them.

    For their part, the Red Sox went on to suffer 14 losing seasons between 1920 and 1935. As time would tell, that was just the beginning of what would eventually be known as the "Curse of the Bambino."

Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams

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    Even after Ruth's time with the Yankees ended in 1934, they still ripped off four straight World Series wins between 1936 and 1939. At the heart of those teams was a veteran Lou Gehrig and his youthful accomplice, Joe DiMaggio.

    The legend goes that the Yankees could have had Ted Williams, too, if only they'd been able to sign him in 1936. But instead of being teammates, he and DiMaggio were destined to become rivals when Williams opted for the Red Sox.

    Williams debuted in 1939, and he and DiMaggio were the toast of baseball by 1941. Williams made his case for the American League MVP by hitting .406 with 37 home runs. But '41 was also the year of DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, which one reporter wrote "doubtless clinched the verdict" for him in the MVP voting.

    Albeit with a three-year absence for World War II for both players, Williams was frequently DiMaggio's offensive superior between 1939 and the latter's final season in 1951. DiMaggio, however, held the ultimate trump card: He led the Yankees to six more World Series between '41 and '51, winning all but one of them.

    By leading the Red Sox to 15 winning seasons between 1939 and 1959, Williams did much to change the ant vs. boot nature of Boston's struggle with New York. But even he was powerless to end the Bambino's curse. His one and only World Series appearance in 1946 was marked by him struggling and the Red Sox losing.

Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk

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    As the Yankees—now led by Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford—played in 11 more Wold Series between 1952 and 1964, the Red Sox didn't see the sequel to their World Series run in '46 until Carl Yastrzemski led the "Impossible Dream" club to the Fall Classic in 1967.

    Shortly thereafter, two young catchers named Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk got the rivalry going again.

    Munson arrived as the American League Rookie of the Year for the Yankees in 1970, and Fisk followed with his own Rookie of the Year triumph for the Red Sox in 1972. So began a neverending game of one-upmanship that notably featured the two splitting starting duties for the American League All-Star team between 1973 and 1978.

    Though Fisk later insisted he and Munson had the "utmost respect" for one another, they certainly weren't friends. Their bad blood even spilled over in nasty brawls in 1973 and 1976. In the first of those, Munson proudly proclaimed that it was he who "threw the first punch."

    The constant strife between Munson, who died in a plane crash in 1979, and Fisk was certainly a microcosm of where the Red Sox and Yankees were in the 1970s. To wit, the Red Sox averaged 90 wins while the Yankees averaged 89.

    But true to form, the Yankees raised the Red Sox's zero championships with two of their own in 1977 and 1978. To boot, the latter of those was won at Boston's expense.

Bucky Dent

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    Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

    For a while there, it looked like 1978 was finally going to be the Red Sox's year.

    By July 19, they were 34 games over .500 and on pace for 111 wins. Even after something of a cool stretch in the ensuing weeks, they still held an 8.5-game lead in the AL East on Aug. 20.

    But the Yankees, who had been as far back as 14 games at one point, began a hot streak on Aug. 22 that saw them go 30-10 through the end of the regular season. The Red Sox sputtered to the tune of a 21-18 record in that same span, resulting in the two teams finishing tied with 99-63 records.

    That necessitated a tiebreaker at Fenway Park on Oct. 2, and the Red Sox initially had control with a 2-0 lead through six innings. After putting two runners on in the seventh, Boston starter Mike Torrez only needed to retire Bucky Dent—a fielding specialist who had hit four homers all season—to get out of the jam. 

    Instead, Dent stunned the Fenway Faithful by flipping a fastball over the Green Monster for a go-ahead three-run homer. The Yankees tacked on two more runs on a double by Munson and a home run by Reggie Jackson and thwarted late rallies by the Red Sox to win 5-4. A few weeks later, they were champions again.

    Thus did the legend of Bucky "Bleeping" Dent" begin, and the Yankees' uncanny domination of the Red Sox continue.

Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra

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    In the wake of the oh-so-heated 1970s, the batting title battles between New York's Don Mattingly and Boston's Wade Boggs was as good as it got for the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in the 1980s. But by the mid-1990s, both clubs had built winners around young shortstops.

    Following in the footsteps of Munson and Fisk, Derek Jeter won the AL Rookie of the Year for the Yankees in 1996, and Nomar Garciaparra followed with his own Rookie of the Year-winning campaign for the Red Sox in 1997. From then through 2000, each maintained a place among the American League's brightest stars.

    "These guys are MVP-type players who play shortstop, which is normally a defensive position," Yankees starter David Cone said in 1999. "I don't know how that's going to impact our future generations, but I know there's a lot of kids who are playing shortstop because of those guys."

    Contrary to Munson and Fisk, Jeter's and Garciaparra's rivalry was more of the friendly variety. Jeter even imitated his counterpart's idiosyncratic batting style during the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. For his part, Garciaparra once deemed it an "honor" to even "hear my name in the same sentence" as Jeter's.

    Even still, the usual Red Sox-Yankees rules still applied. Between 1996 and 2000, Jeter won the first four of the five World Series rings he collected throughout his Hall of Fame career. The Red Sox remained cursed through 2003, and a past-his-prime Garciaparra more or less sulked his way out of town in 2004.

Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez

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    As Jeter and Garciaparra staged their friendly competition at shortstop, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez had a less wholesome rivalry on the mound during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    Clemens, who originally came up with the Red Sox in 1984, was a five-time Cy Young Award winner by the time he landed in New York in 1999. Martinez, meanwhile, was fresh off winning his first Cy Young Award with the Montreal Expos when the Red Sox acquired him in 1997.

    Between 1999 and 2003, Martinez (two) and Clemens (one) took home three AL Cy Young Awards. They also had several memorable head-to-head battles, most notably their epic duel at Yankee Stadium in May 2000.

    By virtue of being the former prodigal son who was now with the enemy, Clemens was taunted with "Roger! Roger!" chants every time he returned to Fenway Park. Though the Red Sox typically hit him well between '99 and '03, Clemens' last laughs featured a key win opposite Martinez in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS.

    Because it was the occasion of his notorious bout with then-72-year-old Don Zimmer, that same game elevated Martinez from a mere foil to an outright villain in the minds of Yankees fans. A year later, Martinez turned their boos into jeers with his frustration-fueled remark that the Yankees had become his "daddies."

    In between the Zimmer incident and "daddies," of course, Martinez also started a game that seemed to be the end of Boston's curse until, suddenly, it wasn't.

Aaron Boone

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    Despite his struggles against the Yankees in general, Martinez usually salvaged his matchups with Clemens. In the six that they had, Martinez pitched to a 2.51 ERA while Clemens had a mere 4.67 ERA.

    So it went early on in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS at Yankee Stadium. Clemens lasted only three innings, in which he staked the Red Sox to a 4-0 lead. Martinez, meanwhile, cruised through the first seven innings.

    With a 5-2 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth, Red Sox manager Grady Little could have trusted his bullpen to punch the team's ticket to its first World Series since 1986. If not then, surely the time to take Martinez out was after he'd allowed a run and had runners on second and third with only one out.

    Bafflingly, Little instead stuck with Martinez. A few moments later, Jorge Posada hit his 123rd and final pitch of the night for a game-tying double.

    The game remained tied into the bottom of the 11th. That's when Aaron Boone, who hadn't even started after going 2-for-16 in the first six games of the series, led off against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and played the role of Bucky Dent with a walk-off home run

    "You get a big hit, everyone forgets about the bad at-bats," Boone told reporters. "And that was as big as any hit you could get right now."

    Boone's blast sent the Yankees to their sixth World Series in eight years and officially extended the Red Sox's championship drought to 85 years.

Alex Rodriguez and Curt Schilling

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    Mere weeks after their crushing defeat in the 2003 ALCS, the Red Sox endeavored to end the Curse of the Bambino for good by trading for one of the great Yankee slayers in recent memory: Curt Schilling.

    The Red Sox subsequently tried to land superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez in another blockbuster trade with the Texas Rangers, but the union rejected the club's proposed alterations to A-Rod's $252 million contract. That opened the door for Rodriguez to end up with—who else?—the Yankees.

    But when A-Rod attempted to assert himself in the rivalry in July, he instead got his face mauled by Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek in a game that the Yankees later lost on a walk-off homer by Bill Mueller. When the two clubs met for an ALCS grudge match in October, Rodriguez's dubious attempt to ignite a rally in Game 6 comically backfired and killed it.

    That game was also the one in which, despite a sock made bloody by impromptu surgery on his injured ankle, Schilling made good on his stated goal of "making 55,000 people from New York shut up." With help from a three-run homer by Mark Bellhorn, Schilling's seven one-run innings led the Red Sox, who had previously fallen into an 0-3 hole, to a series-tying victory.

    Per the typical Red Sox-Yankees script, Schilling should have flopped and Rodriguez should have fit happily into New York's longstanding superiority over Boston. That the opposite happened in Game 6 was the ultimate tip-off that the Curse of the Bambino was near death.

David Ortiz

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    Before 2004, the fundamental nature of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry was perhaps best summed up by something Jackson once said: "We always knew we could beat Boston if we had to."

    But that line of thinking simply no longer applies.

    Though the Yankees have continued to get the better of the Red Sox in regular-season matchups over the last 16 years, the Red Sox have won their last two postseason matchups and collected four World Series trophies to the Yankees' one.

    Schilling did much to flip the rivalry's script. As did Varitek. As did Mueller. As did Bellhorn. But to this end, there's only one David Ortiz.

    He was rarely not punishing the Yankees while he was with the Red Sox between 2003 and 2016, but never more so than in the two clubs' ALCS tilts in 2003 and 2004. Notably, he won the fourth and fifth games of the '04 ALCS with walk-off hits, and he even opened the scoring in the Red Sox's comeback-clinching victory in Game 7.

    Likewise, the Red Sox would not have finally won a World Series in 2004 or additional titles in 2007 and 2013 without Big Papi. Combined, his three trips to the Fall Classic yielded a 1.372 OPS and three homers.

    It can be—and has been—argued that Ortiz's refusal to flinch at the Curse of the Bambino is what finally killed it and, as a result, turned the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry from something merely hypothetical into something totally genuine.