Long before interleague matchups, the Yankees and Mets used to play a somewhat annual exhibition known as the Mayor’s Trophy Game. The popularity of the game, which was played to benefit the city’s Amateur Baseball Federation, ebbed and flowed from the time it was inaugurated in 1946 (as a three way series involving the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers) until the last Yankees vs. Mets matchup in 1983 (the two teams also played a home-and-home series before the starts of the 1989 and 1990 seasons, but those games were not dubbed the “Mayor’s Trophy”).
By far, the biggest lull in the series took place during the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Yankees were distracted by their own internal sideshows and the Mets were downright awful. During that period, attendance for the game plummeted (to as low as 9,792 in 1978) and interest among the players waned. In fact, the desire to play in the game was so low that it gave rise to perhaps the most infamous event in the Mayor’s Trophy: Graig Nettles’ alleged attempt to literally throw away the 1978 game.
According to Sparky Lyle’s chronicle of the 1978 Yankees, The Bronx Zoo (which is highly recommended reading for any baseball fan), the Yankees veterans grew increasingly restless as that year’s intra-city exhibition went into extra innings. At one point, Lyle recounted, Graig Nettles went up to him and vowed to take matters into his own hands by purposely making an error on the next ball hit his way. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened when the Mets’ Ron Hodges opened the 11th inning with a ground ball to third base. Unfortunately for Nettles, despite having a man on second with no outs, the Mets were unable to plate the run, thanks in large part to a great defensive play by Yankees’ second baseman Brian Doyle.
“If I get a ball hit to me, I’m going to let it beat against my chest, and I am going to throw in into the stands.” – Graig Nettles, as quoted in Spark Lyle’s Bronx Zoo
According to Lyle, Doyle was not exactly welcomed back into the dugout after his play helped extend the game. Years later in the November 1999 edition of Baseball Digest, Doyle, who was playing in his first career game at Yankee Stadium, recalled making two diving stops with the bases loaded in that Mayor’s Trophy game, including the one that came after Nettles’ error. “I was trying to show everybody I could play. I was giving 110%,” Doyle recounted, “After my first play, no one congratulated me. I thought, well, I am just doing my job. But after the second one, all of the guys were ragging me. It was pretty funny.”
It may have been funny to some of the Yankees’ players, but you can bet it wasn’t funny to George Steinbrenner, who by all accounts looked at the Mayor’s Trophy Game as a must win. In fact, Lyle’s entire book didn’t amuse the Boss. Regarding his accusation about Nettles, Steinbrenner responded, “Everybody says he’s a buffoon. He’s not a buffoon. He’s one of the least intelligent athletes I ever met”.
The play also wasn’t considered to be funny by many traditionalists in the New York sports media. Dick Young, the dean of sportswriters in the town, raged, “The DAMN THING [referring to Lyle’s characterization of the game] is played for the kids of New York…so they can grow up to be like Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle…and all the other selfish heros.”
Young further added, “what is more pertinent to the game’s integrity, to the public image, than honest effort, on every play, even in exhibition games.”
Amid the firestorm that the allegation created during Spring Training of 1979, Nettles did issue a public denial. Although he insisted that he did no wrong, Nettles’ response was far from a rebuke of Lyle’s account.
“I never made an error on purpose in my life,” Nettles told the press. “I talked to Sparky about it. He’s my friend. Knowing Sparky, he was joking and it came out wrong.”
So, did Graig Nettles really attempt to throw both a ball and a game away against the Mets, making him the Chick Gandil of the Mayor’s Trophy Game? Well, his denial wasn’t exactly vehement, and Lyle never did recant the stain he placed on his good friend, so there’s a good chance Nettles did make an error on purpose, especially when considered in light of the corroboration that Brian Doyle’s later recollection gives to Lyle’s account in his book.
Although the incident has mostly been forgotten, and given way to the Clemens/Piazza saga in terms of Yankees/Mets infamy, it still serves as a microcosm of the two teams during that period in time: the rowdy and rebellious Yankees who were capable of doing just about anything on or off the field, and the hapless Mets, who weren’t even capable of winning a game that their opponent was trying to give to them (the Yankees wound up winning the infamous extra inning affair on a walk-off squeeze bunt by Fran Healy, who would go on to serve as a long-time broadcaster for the Yankees and Mets).
After the 1978 incident, the game would only be played three more times (1979 and 1982-83). Since then, the teams have played countless regular season games as well as the 2000 World Series, but the Mayor’s Trophy still holds a unique place in the city’s baseball history…one worth rediscovering from time to time.