Ask the average New Yorker why we built a fortified wall along Wall St. back in 1653, and he’ll tell you it must have been to keep out the Indians.
What the Dutch burghers of old New Amsterdam were really worried about was Puritans marching down from Massachusetts and taking the town. It didn’t happen — and since that time, frankly, we’ve barely bothered to think about New England at all.
Today, of course, we will have no choice but think about New England, as the Giants take on the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Though Vegas bookies have deemed the Patriots favorites, we have a clear psychological advantage, arising out of the immense inferiority complex that Boston feels towards us. Nowhere is that manifested more than in sports.
Quite simply, that inferiority complex exists because we’re not only older, we’re better, too — and have been for a couple of centuries. By the early 1800s, New York had raced past Boston, supplanting it as the nation’s largest city, its leader in business and ideas, its true cultural hub.
While daring New York venture capitalists yoked the city to the heartland with the Erie Canal and countless miles of railroad, and opened it to the world with the first regularly scheduled shipping lines, Boston’s Brahmins sat at home and clipped stock coupons. Where New York became the most diverse metropolis in the history of the world, Boston was reduced to a charming, rather tattered backwater.
Boston never really got out from under that sense of inferiority, of living under the shadow of New York. In the 1970s, both cities tried to boost tourism with visitor centers that featured multimedia presentations for tourists, “The New York Experience” and “Where’s Boston?” Bostonians interviewed for “Where’s Boston?” spoke mostly about how their city compared to New York. New Yorkers in the “New York Experience” never mentioned Boston, or anyplace else, for that matter.
Where’s Boston? I gotcha Boston right here!
Every Boston triumph is seen not simply as a win, but as a vindication of the basic moral righteousness of the universe. The last Celtics championship was proclaimed as a victory for the collectivist African philosophy of “ubuntu.” And why not world peace, universal brotherhood and the anti-land mine campaign, while you’re at it?
When MLB commissioner Bud Selig hired former Maine senator — and Red Sox minority owner — George Mitchell to investigate performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, about the only steroid users he could find were the Yankees, the Mets and Barry Bonds.
Boston fans were truly stunned when fan favorites such as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were later exposed as juicers. Forget about the fact that they’d reached the approximate size of Thanksgiving parade balloons. Bostonians really thought their guys were the only ones in all of baseball above the fray.
New Yorkers don’t harbor such illusions. Did A-Rod juice? Sure. But after the usual flailing in the media, we more or less forgave the guy.
On the eve of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and the Mets, the Boston Globe ran a special literary supplement. . . on the Sox. It featured the likes of John Updike, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Kingand George Will, mostly speculating about why all good literati are Red Sox fans.
Really, a literary supplement? About a baseball team? Oy. New York newspapers ran stories about the Mets . . . on the sports page. They didn’t feel the need to tell us how cultural they were — maybe because the publishing industry moved to New York two hundred years ago and we didn’t have to further burnish our intellectual credentials.
Whenever something doesn’t go right for a Boston team, a whole new cosmology has to be invented to explain it. These guys live to be victims. They come up with whole legends about it.
Perhaps it’s time to admit that it wasn’t some curse involving a piano and a fat guy, or that old Broadway hustler, Harry Frazee, who kept the Sox down for so long. Try decades of managerial incompetence and racism that potentially drove black players away (the Celtics great Bill Russell once branded Boston “a flea market of racism”) as a more plausible explanations for why the Sox could never close the deal.
Maybe because he is always so beleaguered, the average Boston fan develops more crushes and heartaches than a teenage girl, especially when it comes to anticipations of beating a New York team. Conversely, New Yorkers expect success but are clear-eyed about failure; when it was time for Joe Torre to go, to Los Angeles he went. Though we love our teams, we are not tortured by their fickle fortunes.
Not so up there in Beantown. Before the 2011 season, Boston newspapers were comparing the Red Sox to the 1927 “Murders’ Row” Yankees. By the end of their latest September swoon, they were the clubhouse beer drinkers from hell.
Back in what began as another halcyon year, 1978, Sox fans used to wear little hats adorned with all of the players’ nicknames: “Dewey,” “Rooster,” “Pudge,” “Steamer,” etc. Excuse me while I gag. No, wait, it was the Red Sox who gagged. You can bet they had a whole different set of nicknames by the time they finished choking up their 14-game lead over the Yanks (led by their first black superstar, Reggie Jackson, by the way) that year.
Over the years, the rivalries between the different teams have waxed and waned. Amazing as it may seem now, the Yankees didn’t really win a significant game against the Red Sox until the last two days of the 1949 season, when they swept the Sox at Yankee Stadium to take the pennant in Casey Stengel’s first year as manager.
After that followed more long hiatuses, through the twilight days of the Bronx burning and the city’s general decline. Those were not good days for New York or its sport teams, lest anyone think our triumphs have always been easy; in fact, they have usually been hard-fought. That is the way New Yorkers like it.
In fact, probably the best Rangers team that ever laced on skates was stopped shy of a Stanley Cup by a very nasty and very talented Bruins squad in 1970 and 1972, with the Rangers returning the favor in 1973. The NHL responded by placing the two teams in different divisions a few years later.
The fabled Knicks teams of the same era mauled a great Boston squad in the 1971-72 Eastern Conference final, as Dean (the Dream) Meminger brawled with the Celtics up in the Boston Garden (originally named “Boston Madison Square Garden,” in another Boston burst of subconscious frustration).
Both teams hooked up again the next year, in a wild, seven-game series. Game Four at Madison Square Garden on Easter Sunday would go down in the annals as the “Easter Resurrection.” While Dancin’ Harry moonwalked across the scorers’ table, and Knicks fans screamed for “dee-fense” and horrified a national TV audience by punching a referee, New York came back from a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game, which they finally won in double overtime.
Boston predictably claimed it had been jobbed by the refs. But Meminger and Clyde Frazier dominated the Celtics up in Boston in Game Seven — to this day, the only seven-game final the Celts have ever lost on the parquet. (That should prove, once and for all that there is no truth to the rumor that the Knicks play by the ancient African philosophy of “nobuntu,” which translates literally as, “Stab your brother in the throat while he’s sleeping.”)
In football, our rivalry is relatively recent, sparked by David Tyree’s Super Bowl-winning catch in 2008. Part of that is simply because the Giants did not have a team to have a rivalry with. Back in 1936, Boston had a successful NFL franchise that drew so few fans their owner moved the title game down to the Polo Grounds, making it the first NFL championship ever played on a neutral field. They kept going, and became the Washington Redskins the next year.
The Pats, founded in 1960, were at first about as exciting as their nickname. In fact, most early New England fans preferred to watch the Giants, whose games were broadcast throughout the region. In more recent years there has been the occasional big game against the Jets . . . if any Jets game can really said to be “big.”
Now, with their second Super Bowl match-up in five years, a new rivalry emerges between the Patriots and the Giants. At least it will be a big deal in Boston if the Pats win, an affirmation that all is right with the world. If the Giants win, their fans will believe it’s an affirmation, too — but only that they were right not to become Jets fans.
As someone whose family moved from New Jersey to a beautiful little Massachusetts town when I was nine years old — and who had to endure being a Yankees fan there during the Horace Clarke years — I have to admit that I love pretty much everything about New England: its history, its natural beauty, its people and its way of life. I’d venture to say that, despite all the superficial bluster, most Bostonians and most New Yorkers actually feel pretty much the same way about each other.
After all, we vacation in each other’s states, send our kids to each other’s colleges, move to each other’s cities, enjoy imitating each other’s weird dialects and accents: wicked cute; tawnic; bubblah . We share most of the same worldviews and true-blue politics.
A few years ago, I was in the Bronx for a Yankees-Red Sox game that reverberated with the usual obscene taunts, back and forth through the chilly night air. Then a picture went up on the scoreboard of Vice President Dick Cheney, sitting in a box along first base. Immediately, all of Yankee Stadium united in a cacophony of savage booing.
Which doesn’t mean we are going to start thinking about whatchamacallit anytime soon.