The pilot episode of Seinfeld premiered 25 years ago this week, beginning a run of 180 episodes that would earn the show a spot in the TV Hall of Fame (even if, like most greats, the final season was a bit of a let down). And though plenty changed during its nine seasons, there was one thing that remained constant throughout: sports.
In the pilot, Jerry is watching a Mets game on TV. In the finale, Mets great Keith Hernandez makes a cameo. In between, there were jobs with the New York Yankees, trips to the U.S. Open, NHL playoffs and Super Bowl, brawls in the bleachers, Superman-themed street races, face-painting fans, cursed softball championships, desperate tennis pros and irate sneaker salesmen. Sports were the source of major plotlines and throwaway side quests, discussed ad nauseam and used as metaphors for love. They were more than mere games. They were part of life.
So in honor of all that, we’re counting down the 25 greatest Seinfeld sports episodes. It wasn’t easy, and to be honest, a few of these are only tangentially about sports. But we think Jerry and the gang would appreciate that; after all, since when was anything about this show straightforward?
25. “The Limo” George is mistaken for a Neo Nazi after he and Jerry steal a limo ride to a Knicks game. Not an especially great episode – or way to start a list – but, hey, Peter Krause is in it.
24. “The Visa” Kramer plunks Joe Pepitone at Yankees fantasy camp, starts a brawl and punches Mickey Mantle. Babu Bhatt gets deported. Two sentences that could only co-exist in the world of Seinfeld.
23. “The Pledge Drive” George drives Danny Tartabull (in his second cameo!) to a PBS fundraiser, though he takes a detour after an angry driver gives them the finger. Tartabull shows better range here than he did in the outfield. Also, Mr. Pitt starts a dining trend when he uses a knife and fork to eat a Snickers bar.
22. “The Big Salad” Kramer plays golf with former Major Leaguer Steve Gendason, who violates protocol by cleaning his ball before reaching the green. That leads to an altercation between the two, and, quite possibly, the murder of a dry cleaner. Racked with guilt, Kramer agrees to drive Gendason to see his fish, starting a low-speed chase a la the infamous O.J. Simpson “White Bronco” incident.
21. “The Seven” George wants to name his firstborn son Seven – Mickey Mantle’s number – but his fiancée Susan hates it. That doesn’t stop her pregnant cousin from stealing the name, which outrages George. He tries to get them to change it (suggesting Eight, Thirteen and Soda) to no avail.
20. “The Foundation” In the opening episode of season 8, George is forced to start a foundation in memory of his late fiancée after Jerry quotes Star Trek II to her grieving parents. Kramer rules at a karate (or, as he puts it, “kara-tay“) academy for children, until an angry Elaine abruptly ends his reign.
19. “The Lip Reader” During a day at the U.S. Open, Jerry becomes enamored with a deaf lineswoman and George is caught on camera messily devouring chocolate ice cream (which he believes is the reason his girlfriend breaks up with him). Kramer decides to become world’s oldest ball man at the tournament, inspires with his “gusto,” but injures Monica Seles in the process.
18. “The Chaperone” George is upset when he discovers the Yankees are wearing uniforms made out of polyester (“They used to make leisure suits out of this fabric!”) and convinces manager Buck Showalter to switch to cotton. At first, the results are remarkable – “I never dreamed anything could be so soft and fluffy,” Paul O’Neil proclaims – but things fall apart after some shrinkage.
17. “The Abstinence” When his girlfriend gets mono, George is forced to forgo sex for six weeks, and finds that his mind has become sharper as a result. He masters Jeopardy!, learns a new language and gives hitting tips to Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams (“It’s simple physics.”) Of course, his superhuman intellect abandons him once he beds a Portuguese waitress, and he returns to his previous form: “George Costanza, assistant to the traveling secretary.”
16. “The Pony Remark” Jerry leads his softball team to the championship game with an amazing play. Later, at a family dinner, he offends his great Aunt by proclaiming his hatred for anyone who has ever owned a pony. She dies the next day, and Jerry must decide between attending the funeral and playing in the championship. He gets picked off. Playing softball.
15. “The Wink” Kramer promises a sick child he’ll get Paul O’Neill to hit him two home runs in a game, much to the Yankee great’s consternation (“You don’t hit home runs like that! It’s hard to hit home runs!”) However, O’Neill delivers, until his second homer – an inside-the-park job – is ruled a triple with a throwing error. How many comedies can get a punch line out of an official scoring decision?
14. “The Hot Tub” George reveals the secret of avoiding work with the Yankees – “I always look annoyed. When you look annoyed, people think that you’re busy” – and learns how to swear like a real ballplayer after hanging out with reps from the Houston Astros. Elain hosts a heavy-sleeping marathoner from Trinidad & Tobago, and Jerry becomes obsessed with making sure he wakes up in time for his race. Guess how that turns out?
13. “The Millennium” After being courted for a position with the New York Mets, George tries to get fired from the Yankees, but his increasingly dramatic attemps (eating a strawberries while wearing Babe Ruth’s jersey, streaking, dragging the team’s World Series trophy behind his Buick) only make him look better to George Steinbrenner.
12. “The Note” Kramer swears he sees Joe DiMaggio at a Dinky’s Donuts and claims he’s “a dunker.” A poster of Evander Holyfield makes George insecure about his own sexuaity, especially in the wake of a session he had with a male masseuse where “it moved.”
11. “The Caddy” George locks his keys in his car at Yankee stadium, and while it sits there, his bosses believe he never leaves the office. That puts him in line for a promotion, but after the guys clean the car (and get into an accident staring at “the bra-less wonder”) Steinbrenner declares George dead. When the Yankees’ owner goes to notify his parents, Frank Costanza launches into a rant about trading Jay Buhner (“He’s got a rocket for an arm! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!”)
10. “The Jimmy” A sneaker salesman (who only refers to himself in the third person) inspires George to purchase a pair of plyometric training shoes so he can dunk. After getting a dose of Novocaine at the dentist, Kramer drools on the floor, injuring Jimmy – “Jimmy might have a compound fracture!” – and forcing George to take over his sales route. Later, Kramer is mistaken for a mentally handicapped man and serenaded by Mel Tormé, and Jerry believes Tim Whatley is running a sex service. Underrated.
9. “The Label Maker” On the episode that popularized the phrase “regifting,” Jerry has two tickets to the Super Bowl, but can’t attend due to the Drake’s wedding. So he gives them to Whatley, who, in turn, gives him a label maker, which Elaine believes is the same one she gave him for Christmas, yada yada yada, Jerry ends up at the Super Bowl with Newman. Also noteworthy: George’s love of velvet, Newman and Kramer’s epic game of “Risk,” and the use of a Ménage à trois as a plot device for the second consecutive episode (after “The Switch”).
8. “The Face Painter” Plain-spoken Puddy paints his face in a show of support for the New Jersey Devils, much to Elaine’s horror. After terrifying a visiting priest (and Elaine threatens to break up with him), he promises to stop face-painting alltogether…though he never said anything about chest painting.
7. “The Opposite” George has a life-altering realization at the beach: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” Using his new mantra, he insults George Steinbrenner, gets a job with the Yankees and impresses a beautiful woman with his honesty (“My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.”) First appearance of Larry David as the voice of Steinbrenner.
6. “The Understudy” George bowls over Better Midler in a home-plate collision during a softball game, which clears the way for Jerry’s girlfriend Gennice – her understudy – to star in the Broadway adaptation of “Rochelle Rochelle.” The entire city of New York is convinced George injured Midler on purpose (ala the Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal), and when Gennice finally takes the stage, she has a problem with the laces on her boot, and, like, Harding, tearfully asks to start over.
5. “The Comeback” Jerry purchases a brand-new tennis racquet at the recommendation of the club pro, Milos, only to discover he is a terrible player. Shamed, Milos attempts to buy his silence by giving Jerry his wife, a plan the backfires and forces Jerry to throw a match in order to give the pro his pride back. He does so in spectacular fashion (“Another game for Milos!”) Meanwhile, George embarks on an epic L’esprit de l’escalier quest to deliver a retort to a former co-worker who zings him about shrimp. The episode that gave us the phrase “the Jerk Store.”
4. “The Letter” Elaine tells her boss, Mr. Lippman, she must attend to her sick father in order to get out of attending his son’s bris. Free, she takes Jerry’s girlfriend up on her offer to sit in the owner’s box at a Yankees game, but causes a commotion when she refuses to remove her Baltimore Orioles cap. When a photo of the altercation appears in the newspaper, she must prevent Lippman from seeing it. Meanwhile, a painting of Kramer becomes a sensation (“He’s a loathsome, offensive brute…yet I can’t look away!”)
3. “The Race” An underrated sixth-season episode about Christmas, Communism and a controversial ninth-grade race. Jerry knows he got a head start, but refuses to admit it, and has avoided any and all challenges in the decades since – “I choose not to run,” he proclaims – until an old rival shows up and Jerry agrees to a rematch. To the strains of the Superman theme, he defeats his foe, though once again, he gets a jump start, this time thanks to Kramer’s backfiring car.
2. “The Marine Biologist” Sure, Kramer’s golf obsession is merely a subplot, but when he unknowingly drives a Titleist ball into a whale’s blowhole, he fulfills George’s lifelong dream of being a marine biologist, and inspires one of the greatest scenes in Seinfeld history, as Costanza regales the gang with the epic tale of how he saved the fish (mammal, whatever) in question. His Hemingway-esque highlights – “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli” – have become the stuff of TV legend.
1. “The Boyfriend” A no-brainer. Keith Hernandez sets the standard against which all other athlete cameos are measured, engaging in a bro-mance with Jerry, wooing Elaine and getting accused of salivary assault by Kramer and Newman. From the Zapruder-style reenactment of the spitting incident (which introduced the phrase “Magic loogie” and the second-spitter theory) to the debut of Vandelay Industries, it’s not only the greatest sports-centric Seinfeld ep, it’s also one of the show’s all-time best. And, despite the fact he won two World Series titles and an MVP award during his career, it’s still the only thing people ask Hernandez – who currently works as an SNY broadcaster – about.
“To this day, people come up to me in airports and ask ‘What was it like kissing Elaine?'” he tells Rolling Stone. “Everywhere I go, people still crack jokes about the Seinfeld show.”