It has been 25 years since the Mets and Yankees first met in a game that counted, an era long enough to make it difficult to remember what came before.
To most fans under 50, the answer to that presumably would be: nothing.
That answer would be wrong.
But even for those of us old enough to recall what did come before, in retrospect, it seems bizarre. It was called the “Mayor’s Trophy Game,” and in the 1960s and early ’70s, it was a big deal. Eventually, it became less of a big deal. After 1983, it became no deal at all.
The idea, which dated to the days of the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers sharing New York in the 1940s and ’50s, was to stage an interleague exhibition to raise money for sandlot baseball in the city.
At least those teams sometimes encountered one another in the World Series, taking away some of the mystery. But for the nascent Mets and lordly Yankees, there was no chance outside of spring training to give fans a look at the teams on the field together.
That era featured more doubleheaders and more days off, and in-season exhibitions were common, including ones against Triple-A affiliates. So the notion was something of which players of that time were familiar.
But the first Yankees-Mets game was even stranger than that. It did not come on a day off for the Yankees. The original date of June 3, 1963, had been rained out, so June 20 was chosen because the Mets were off and the Yankees were home for an afternoon game against the Senators.
The Yankees beat the Senators, 5-4, scoring twice in the bottom of the ninth. Meanwhile, at the Polo Grounds, the Mets were dressing and preparing to take a short bus ride from Manhattan to the Bronx. That night they beat the Yankees, 6-2, before more than 50,000 fans.
The defending World Series champions perhaps were less interested in the game than were the Mets, who were in their second season and managed by Casey Stengel, who had been fired by the Yankees less than three years earlier.
Stengel used arguably his best pitcher, Carlton Willey, for four innings in relief of Jay Hook.
That night attracted a generally pro-Mets crowd in the Bronx, a trend in the stands that continued for much of the Mayor’s Trophy era regardless of venue.
Through the early ’70s, crowds well above 40,000 and often 50,000 were common. The first game at new Shea Stadium, on Aug. 24, 1964, drew 55,396.
The Yankees won, 6-4, despite their manager, Yogi Berra, pinch hitting into a double play in the seventh. After the game, he noted that he had batted twice that season and made four outs. He also hit into a double play on Old-Timers’ Day.
Berra got fired after the season despite winning the AL pennant, joined the Mets as a coach and came out of retirement to play four regular-season games with the Mets in 1965.
The spectacle of a Yankees manager pinch hitting was odd, but Berra was not the only Hall of Fame name to turn up improbably over the years. Warren Spahn won the 1965 game for the Mets at age 44 and in his final season. Whitey Ford won the 1966 game for the Yankees at age 37 and in his next-to-last season.
On Sept. 29, 1969, five days after the Miracle Mets clinched the NL East and six days before they opened the playoffs, they beat the Yankees, 7-6, and used most of their regulars. (The game had been postponed because of rain in July.)
The first five innings were played using an experimental livelier ball, unknown to the players. All but one of the runs was scored using those balls.
That game also featured a number of high, arcing “Folly Floater” pitches from the Yankees’ Steve Hamilton, which proved effective against the flummoxed but amused Mets.
“I’m not saying he can’t get batters out like that,” Mets manager Gil Hodges said, “but if he can, then everything we’ve been looking for in young pitchers is wrong. Instead of the fellow with the good, live arm, we should be looking for the kid with the broken arm.”
As the years went on, position players continued to play in the exhibitions, but teams were less and less inclined to use important pitchers.
Attendance gradually declined and bottomed out with 15,510 fans at Shea Stadium in 1977 and 9,792 at Yankee Stadium in 1978.
It was in the ’78 game, a 4-3 Yankees victory in 13 innings, that Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles allegedly attempted to throw the game with a wildly errant throw to first base in the 11th inning (so Sparky Lyle wrote in his 1979 book, “The Bronx Zoo”). Nettles denied the charge, but had he been successful, his teammates likely would have appreciated the game ending at that point.
With interest dwindling, the game was shelved in 1980 and ’81 but returned in ’82 and drew a healthy crowd of more than 40,000 at Yankee Stadium.
Attendance declined again in ’83, and after several years of discussion, the game simply faded away, with the teams initially blaming scheduling conflicts but the reality being that no one cared to do it anymore.
Instead, the teams simply donated the money to the amateur baseball cause and saved on the hassle.
In 1986, reader Tom Karlya of Bethpage wrote Newsday a letter to the editor in which he asked the teams to bring back the game.
“They revived the Monkees,” he wrote. “They revived Leave it to Beaver. Revive the Mayor’s Trophy Game.”
They did not. The Yankees “won” the series, 10-8-1.