The Best Rivalries In American Sports

Sports wouldn't be sports without these ancient animosities

BASEBALL: NEW YORK YANKEES - BOSTON RED SOX

2,098 games played (going into 2010)

First Meeting; April 26, 1901

Yankees lead all-time series 1,125-940-14

This is the one rivalry in the United States that I would pick as the single best one if I was forced to make that choice, as for over 110 years there has been a virtual hatred between these pinstripers from the Bronx and New England's beloved team.

Where else does a fan base loudly chant "Yankees Suck!" during a parade and rally for another sport, as Boston fans did during a New England Patriots' rally after a Super Bowl win?

This animosity started to gather steam when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, triggering "Murderer's Row" and several dynasties in New York that led to 27 World Series titles (and counting), while it took Boston 84 years after that shortsighted move to win a championship and break the Bambino's curse.

Among other memorable instances are:

The Sox losing their last two games of the 1949 season, and subsequently the American League pennant, to the Joe DiMaggio-led Yankees.

After leading the American League's Eastern Division by 14 1/2 games in mid-August of 1978, Boston's Mike Torrez gave up a game winning homer to New York's Bucky Dent at Fenway Park in a one-game playoff to decide the berth in the League Championship Series; a most bitter defeat for the Red Sox.

The Red Sox's Jason Varitek and the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez brawling at home plate during a game a few years ago, starting a major melee in which Yankee coach Don Zimmer - who was the Red Sox manager in the late 70s - getting knocked down by the Sox's Pedro Martinez and taken to the hospital.

In an MTV "True LIfe" segment, a die-hard Yankee fan's boyfriend was a fervent member of Red Sox Nation, and the segment was showing how the couple dealt with their allegiances, as well as tensions over how their place would be decorated and taking each other to their fan base's sports bars.

I think I illustrated the intensity of these two teams, didn't I?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: MICHIGAN WOLVERINES - OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

107 games played

First Meeting: 1897

Longest winning streaks: Michigan - 9 (1901-1909), Ohio State - 7 (2004-present)

Michigan leads all-time series 57-44-6

"Go Blue!" vs. "O-H-I-O!"

Though there will undoubtedly be disagreement with this choice, particularly in Alabama with their Auburn - 'Bama rivalry, and the Cadets and Midshipmen of Army and Navy, respectively, it was a tough decision but I felt that I just had to go with this ancient grudge from the midwest.

It's safe to say that these two state schools made the Big Ten Conference, with this game deciding the Big ten title - and the Rose Bowl berth - 22 times.

They have even met when they were the top two ranked teams in the country, in 2006 when the top-ranked Buckeyes beat the second-ranked Wolverines in an epic battle in Columbus, 42-39, with former Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler having passed away the day before.

It was Schembechler's "Ten Year War" with his Ohio State counterpart, Woody Hayes, that truly fueled this rivalry in the 1970s, as the intensity was so great that not only did Hayes call Michigan "that team up north", refusing to even say their name, but he once allegedly pushed his car over the state line into Ohio from "that state up north" rather then spend money on gas in Michigan - Hayes hated that school that much.

Incidentally, in their ten games against each other, Schembechler outdid Hayes 5-4-1, with the two schools ranked in the top five going into the first five games.

Let's put it like this: anytime a rivalry is featured in an HBO Documentary, as this one was in 2007, you know it's a special match up.

PRO FOOTBALL: GREEN BAY PACKERS - CHICAGO BEARS

182 games played

First Meeting: November 27, 1921

Longest Winning Streaks: Packers - 10 (1994-1998), Bears - 8 (1985-1988)

Bears lead all-time series, 92-84-6

This is the one rivalry in the National Football League that can be safely compared to their collegiate counterparts in longevity, tradition, and passion.

It involved the first ejection in NFL history for fighting in 1924, as well as Packer defensive tackle Charles Martin separating Bear quarterback Jim McMahon's shoulder on purpose 62 years later as part of a bounty Martin had.

Not to mention the two teams meeting in the NFC Championship Game this past season, with Green Bay winning at Chicago's Soldier Field 21-14 on their way to an eventual Super Bowl title.

But this tale showed me how intense this rivalry is...

The day after the Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship, an avid Green Bay fan was fired from his car dealership for wearing a Packer tie to work, as his supervisors apparently felt that he was rubbing the Green Bay victory in their faces - whoever heard of getting canned over a football game?

While I understand how fans can get wrapped up in their teams, that was going a bit too far.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DUKE BLUE DEVILS - NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

232 games played

First Meeting: January 24, 1920

North Carolina leads the all-time series, 131-101

Unlike football, where there are several rivalries to consider as the best, no other college hoops rivalry comes remotely close to this one, with the two schools located a mere eight miles apart.

Add to that the 47 Atlantic Coast Conference championships, 36 ACC Conference Tournament championships, and nine National Championships between them, and I'd dare anyone to name a basketball rivalry to match this one.

This Tobacco Road animosity made the ACC and helped to give college basketball an identity, so much so that like Michigan - Ohio State football two years before, HBO did a documentary on North Carolina - Duke hoops in 2009. They were also voted number 3 among sports rivalries in North America by ESPN in 2000.

As much as anything else, it's the students at these two school that fuel this civil grudge, as the day before the first Blue Devil - Tar Heel game, Duke's student newspaper prints a spoof of their Carolina counterparts, and the winner of that first game gets to print the other school's news masthead in their colors; Royal blue for Duke, light blue for North Carolina

And I wouldn't do this rivalry justice without mentioning the student fans at Duke's iconic Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Cameron Crazies, who I'm sure are in rare form whenever their Tar Heel enemies darken their doorstep.

PRO BASKETBALL: BOSTON CELTICS - LOS ANGELES LAKERS

274 regular season games played

74 post season games played

First Meeting: November 9, 1948

Celtics lead regular season all-time series, 153-121

Celtics also lead post season all-time series, 43-31, and the overall series, 196-152

Just as nothing comes close to North Carolina vs. Duke in college basketball, nothing comes close to the Celtics and the Lakers in the National Basketball Association.

The only real difference I can think of, besides the players getting paid, is that rather than being eight miles apart, these two teams are 3,000 miles apart.

And with the Lakers, both in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and the Celtics, combining to win over half of the championships that the NBA has awarded in their history, I would like to see any other rivalry on the hardwood match that.

A big part of this animosity are the dimensions; the East Coast grit and tradition that the Celtics embody, clashing with the glamour and luxury of the West Coast that the Lakers have historically exuded, particularly during the "Showtime" days in the 1980s.

Being that most of the Celtic stars of that decade were white, such as Larry Bird, while the Lakers featured mostly African American stars like Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there was a bit of a racial component to this rivalry, which would have been enough if not for the fact that the two teams have met for the NBA title 12 times, the latest being in 2010 when L.A. won an epic seven-game Finals.

Hard fouls, taunts and near-brawls have likewise marked this series; which unfortunately is part of any rivalry.

The bottom line here is, if it wasn't for the Lakers and the Celtics, I'm don't think the NBA would have grown to be as big as it is - I dare say that these two teams made pro basketball.

Those are my choices for the top sports rivalries in this country. I'd like to hear yours.

3 comments

Mimi721wis profile image

Mimi721wis 5 years ago

Hi Dhart, I've been a Tarheel fan for years. The worst thing ever happened to the heels is when Matt Doherty coached the team. Some of our records and winning streaks were wiped away. I remember the Larry Bird, Kevin Mchale, Dennis Johnson and Robert Parrish vs Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Norm Nixon, Micheal Cooper playoffs those were some good times.


Dhart profile image

Dhart 5 years ago from Culver City, CA Author

@ Mimi: I was wondering if you're a Tar Heel alum...


Mimi721wis profile image

Mimi721wis 5 years ago

No I'm not Tar Heel alum.

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    Which is the single best sports rivalry?

    • Red Sox - Yankees
    • Michigan - Ohio State
    • Bears - Packers
    • North Carolina - Duke
    • Lakers - Celtics
    • Auburn - Alabama
    • Dodgers - Giants
    • Army - Navy
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