Friday, April 24, 2009

Number 1,775

It has been just shy of 108 years since the Yankees and Red Sox first met. It was the first year of the American League, and neither team was know by it's current name yet. The Yanks were still in Baltimore and went by the Orioles while the Sox were based in Boston but had no official nickname. That same day marked Christy Mathewson's first of 373 Major League wins.

Led by player-manager John McGraw at Oriole Park in Baltimore, the Yankees won the very first match-up in the storied rivalry 10-6. They took the second and final game of the series 12-6, but ended up splitting the season tilt 9-9.

When Byron "Ban" Johnson reorganized the Western League in 1893, he was only a newspaper reporter, but had the blessing of former St. Louis Brown Stockings star Charles Comiskey and was elected president of the league. He remained at the helm for 35 years. In 1899, the National League dropped four cities (Baltimore, Louisville, Cleveland and Washington) from their circuit, creating an opening for the Western League to establish teams in those locales.

According to Bill James, one of the things that made the American League preferable to the National League for fans was the elimination of the dirty elements of the game that had characterized baseball before the turn of the century. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, James says "[Ban] Johnson realized that the bad manners and frequent fistfights the National League permitted were restraining the public's enthusiasm for the game". It turned out he was right and the American League overtook the National League in terms of popularity, thereby forcing the NL to clean up their act.

After relocating to New York two years later, the Yankees were known first as the "Highlanders" (because they played their games at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights), and then the "Americans" so as to distinguish them from the National League team in New York at the time. The Sox were first known as the Americans as well, so as not to be confused with the Boston Braves. Not very far removed from the Civil War, the name Yankees was synonymous with "Americans" in the North at the time, and the moniker stuck.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the players on the starting rosters of what would become the Yankees and Red Sox on April 26th, 1901. They were miscellaneous parts of no name teams, in a fledgling league, at a hand-me-down park.

Little did they know that over a century and 1774 regular season contests later, the games would be played in billion-dollar palaces, broadcast in HDTV all over the world and people would be complaining that the heated rivalry between these two teams was being covered too much by the national media.

Tonight, the season starts in earnest for many Yankees and Sox supporters. Until now, us Yankees fans have watched baseball being played in an desolate Camden Yards, a full Tropicana Field, a remodeled Kaufman Stadium and the Structure That Mariano Rivera Erected, and none of them seemed quite right.

There will be a certain familiarity to seeing Fenway packed full of hostile exuberance on an absolutely perfect summery night. The pitching match-up pits the two young guns on either team tagged as future aces, Joba Chamberlain and Jon Lester. Does a game in April get any better than this? I'd argue that it does not.

Let's go Yanks.

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