Old Flames

Now that the Padres and Rockies, newcomers to these proceedings, are peering up from the darkness, it cannot hurt to examine what they see high above. They see the Giants and the Dodgers, a couple of storied teams that would just as soon slash each other's throats as exchange pre-game niceties at home plate. Of all baseball's rivalries, this one might be the most passionate and intense, not least for the fact that the whole glowering, seething, glorious thing was once uprooted from its home, shipped across the country and plunked down in dumbfounded California.

Californians likely haven't been the same since. Out at the ballpark, Nob Hill narcissism has been colliding with Hollywood narcissism for four decades, and the results have been anything but laid-back. The scorecard? Juan Marichal may have whomped John Roseboro on the head with his bat one time, but Hollywood has more often wound up with the marbles: The L.A. Dodgers have won five of the nine World Series they've played; the Giants are 0 for 2 as West Coasters, losing in 1962 and 1989.

Old hands may be surprised to learn that in the 108 years the Dodgers and Giants have hated each other, they've wound up 1-2 in the standings only nine times. The last year they did it--this is hard to believe--was way back in 1971, when San Francisco finished one game ahead of Los Angeles in the National League West before losing the pennant to Pittsburgh.

This season, though, France and Germany are back in a shooting war. On Tuesday morning, Los Angeles led San Francisco by two games in the standings, and September promises a battle royale to the finish, despite the fact that the clubs will meet just twice more--September 17 and 18 at Dodgers Stadium.

Little matter. Every time Barry Bonds strikes out amid the inhospitable winds of Candlestick Park, hundreds of Dodgers fans snicker into their protein shakes. Whenever Mike Piazza, the exemplary L.A. catcher, stubs a toe or takes a foul tip off the mask, San Franciscans raise their espresso cups in triumph. There's no injury, physical or psychological, too grotesque for a Giants fan to wish upon an enemy down South. When, during the infamous Earthquake World Series of 1989, Mother Nature started tossing Candlestick around like a kid's toy, most Angelenos wouldn't have minded if the whole shebang had collapsed on top of Matt Williams and Will Clark. Might have thrown their batting strokes off come spring training.

The original Dodger-Giant antagonism was, of course, rooted in the nourishing belligerence of cross-town baseball in New York. The Giants and the then-Brooklyn Bridegrooms first played in October 1889--a nine-game series of which the Giants won six--and in the early years, Giant dominance continued. Between 1905 and 1924, John McGraw's club played in nine World Series, winning three of them, while their poor cousins in Brooklyn struggled and fumed in the second division. For the purposes of this discussion, there's no point mentioning that, over in the Bronx, just a long fly ball away from the Polo Grounds, the common enemy of the Giants and Dodgers--the imperious New York Yankees--were building the most famous dynasty in sports on the ample back of Babe Ruth. That's another story.

If one man personified the blood-and-guts tone of the old Dodgers-Giants feud, it was Leo Durocher. Combative, brilliant and thoroughly unlikable, he's the man who coined the phrase "Nice guys finish last" and whose character baseball commissioner Happy Chandler once assessed this way: "He would hold the lamp while his mother was cutting wood." Appropriately enough, "Leo the Lip" served as Brooklyn's manager for seven and a half seasons, then shocked New York by becoming the Giants' skipper, a post he held from '48 through 1955. He had been suspended in 1947 for consorting with gamblers. But National League umpire Harry Wendelstedt had an even lower opinion of him than the courts. "Call me anything," Harry once said. "Call me 'motherfucker.' But don't call me 'Durocher.' A Durocher is the lowest form of living matter."

Nonetheless, Leo led the none-too-talented blue-collar Dodgers to a pennant in 1941. He started up the careers of two guys named Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. On July 8, 1949, he was there when the Giants' Hank Thompson stepped into the batter's box to face the Dodgers' Don Newcombe. The significance? For the first time ever, a black hitter was opposing a black pitcher in the major leagues. In what must have been sweet revenge, Durocher was also sitting in the Giants dugout at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson struck one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, the Shot Heard Round the World. That, of course, gave the Giants a win in their three-game playoff series with the Dodgers for the NL pennant and forever doomed the man who threw the pitch, Brooklyn's Ralph Branca, to ignominy. For Durocher, it was as satisfying a moment as sweeping the favored Clevelend Indians in the 1954 World Series. After all, his '51 Giants had trailed the league-leading Dodgers by 13 1/2 games in mid-August, then caught them--a thought that probably should not be embraced this September by Colorado Rockies fans.

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