The Biggest Rivalries in MLB History

Learn about how some of the biggest rivalries in Major League Baseball came to be.

February 14, 2024

From the beginning of professional baseball in 1876, great rivalries have formed and fueled the passion that fans have had for the American pastime for more than a century and a half. These rivalries not only keep fans glued to the results and coming to the stadiums, they also can greatly influence which teams get into the playoffs and, sometimes, win the World Series.

What Makes a Great MLB Rivalry

Decades before the advent of TV, baseball rivalries formed along regional lines. The National League was formed in 1876, and one of the first rivalries stemmed from two of the first NL teams – the Chicago White Stockings and an incarnation of the St. Louis Brown Stockings. Those teams eventually became the Cubs and Cardinals, one of baseball’s longest and most passionate rivalries.

Another regional and long-time rivalry formed in New York, between the Brooklyn Dodgers (initially known as the Bridegrooms) and New York Giants. Socially, it was also a rivalry between the Giants fans of wealthier Manhattan and Dodgers fans of more blue-collar Brooklyn.

The Dodgers-Giants rivalry moved West after the 1957 season, when Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley convinced NY owner Horace Stoneham to keep the rivalry alive with the move to California.

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was fueled more by a player transaction – Boston selling Babe Ruth to New York in 1919 – which further fueled the natural regional rivalry between cultural and artistic Boston and economic, gritty New York.

Baseball rivalries can also spring up through exciting playoff matchups, player duels and more, and these rivalries persist even if one team is a lot more successful than the other one.

Yankees vs. Red Sox: The Epitome of a Baseball Rivalry

Bambino, Bucky, Boone, the bloody sock. The Yankees-Red Sox is baseball’s fiercest rivalry and one of the greatest in American sports history. As cities, Boston and New York were already East Coast rivals, one considered an elitist cultural hub and the other a more gritty but economic powerhouse.

The rivalry started when the Red Sox, who had won five World Series between 1901 and 1918, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919. With Ruth, the “Bronx Bombers” reached the Series seven times and won four. Without Ruth, the Red Sox began 86 years of futility without a championship – a losing streak which gave birth to “The Curse of the Bambino.”

A player duel fueled the rivalry in 1941, when the Red Sox’s Ted Williams recorded a .406 batting average – the last time a player has batted .400 or over for an entire season. That same year, Joe DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 straight games, a record that still stands. DiMaggio, not Williams, received the AL MVP award.

In 1978, the Yankees erased a 14-game deficit to the Red Sox in the AL East race before the BoSox rallied from a 3 ½-game deficit to finish the regular season tied with NY.

In a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park, Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent – a career .247 hitter – lofted a three-run home run over the Green Monster in left field to give New York a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Goose Gossage got Carl Yastrzemski to pop up with runners on first and third base to preserve the 5-4 victory and send the Yankees into the playoffs.

Maybe an even more painful moment for Red Sox fans occurred in the 2003 American League Championship Series, when Aaron Boone – only 2 of 16 in the series to that point – hit a game-winning home run off Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th inning to send the Yankees to the World Series.

The Red Sox finally broke through the following year in one of the most amazing accomplishments in sports history. In another meeting with New York in the 2004 ALCS, the Sox trailed the Yankees in the series 3-0 after being shredded 19-8 in Game 3.

But the Red Sox won four straight games, thanks to two game-winning hits by David Ortiz and Curt Schilling’s heroic pitching effort in Game 6 despite a torn tendon on his right ankle that led to a bloodied sock that was constantly shown on national TV. Boston rolled in Game 7, completing the only comeback from a 3-0 deficit in MLB history.

The Red Sox then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, Boston’s first championship since 1918.

Dodgers vs. Giants: A Rivalry Spanning Coasts

The rivals battled for nearly seven decades while in New York, with its most famous moment being Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” a home run in the bottom of the ninth that sent the Giants to the World Series in 1951.

The National League West teams had plenty of great divisional races that went down to the wire:

  • From 1959 through 1966, the teams both finished with four games of first place four times
  • In 1982, the Giants’ Joe Morgan eliminated the Dodgers from the NL West with a 3-run home run
  • In 1991, the Giants took two of three on the final weekend of the season to eliminate LA again
  • A Barry Bonds home run in 1997 helped propel the Giants into the playoffs
  • The Dodgers rallied past the Giants to win the West in 2014 and 2016

The Dodgers won the NL Division Series in the deciding Game 5 when Cody Bellinger drove in Justin Turner for a 2-1 lead and Max Scherzer – normally a starting pitcher – closed out the win in the bottom of the ninth.

The Dodgers have won six World Series after their move West, and the Giants three.

Cubs vs. Cardinals: The Heartland’s Historic Showdown

The rivalry began in 1885 with a 5-5 tie between the St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Stockings. The rivalry has never meant much in divisional races or pennant races. The Cubs have won only three World Series – in 1907, 1908 and 2016 – while the Cardinals have won the title 11 times – in 1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006 and 2011.

But there have been great rivalry moments. In 1984, light-hitting second Ryne Sandberg hit two home runs off Cardinals star closer Bruce Sutter in an 11-inning victory in a nationally televised game.

In 1998, the Cards’ Mark McGwire and Cubs’ Sammy Sosa engaged in a season-long home run duel. McGwire finished with 70 to beat Sosa’s 66, but the Cubs did earn a NL wild card spot while the Cardinals missed the playoffs.

The teams met in the playoffs for the first time in the 2015 National League Division Series. The Cubs won the series 3-1 to reach the NLCS, where they lost to the New York Mets.

Emerging Rivalries: New Contests Shaping Today’s Game

With the onset of interleague play in 1997, in which NL and AL teams meet during the regular season, regional rivalries have arisen, such as:

  • Chicago Cubs (NL) vs Chicago White Sox (AL) – The Sox won the 1906 World Series between the two teams and have a 78-70 overall record against the Cubbies.
  • New York Mets (NL) vs New York Yankees (AL) – The teams met in the “Subway Series” in the 2000 World Series, with Derek Jeter leading the Bombers to their fourth title in five years.
  • Washington Nationals (NL) vs Baltimore Orioles (AL) — Otherwise known as the “Beltway Series” because of the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) and Capital Beltway (I-495) separating the teams.

Other relatively recent rivalries have sprung up because of teams switching leagues:

  • The Houston Astros moved to the AL in 2013, and have become a perennial powerhouse, having beaten the Yankees in four playoff series and winning two World Series since 2017.
  • The Milwaukee Brewers relocated to the NL Central from the AL in 1998 and have become rivals to the Cubs, with only 83 miles separating the two cities on I-94. The teams have been almost perfectly evenly matched – the Brew Crew leads the head-to-head 209-208.

Conclusion: The Enduring Allure of MLB Rivalries

As passionate as the MLB fanbase is, rivalries are sure to last for many more decades, and with teams playing each other several times per season, that only adds fuel to the fire. And with interleague play, regional rivalries can only get better – such as the Cleveland Guardians vs. Cincinnati Reds.

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Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.