Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 28, 2007
BASEBALL/POLITICS: When The Bronx Was Burning
I recently finished reading Jonathan Mahler's book The Bronx is Burning, the companion piece to ESPN's miniseries of the same name concluding tonight (which I have not had the opportunity to watch). The title comes from the final collision between Yankee mayhem and civic disorder, when Howard Cosell intoned "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning," as a massive fire raged in view of the TV cameras during Game Two of the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium.
The book is well-done and a brisk read, and successfully weaves together the story of Reggie Jackson's first year with the Yankees with a series of portraits of the political scene and atmosphere in New York City in 1977. Since I was five years old at the time I remember a lot of this stuff only in an impressionistic fashion, but the 1977 Yankees were really the first baseball team I hated - the first baseball team that was really bought on the market in the fashion that is at least partly true of all successful teams since - and the summer of 1977 was about the time I started to understand that there was something seriously wrong with the City of New York. Mahler does a fine job of bringing both to vivid life.
The key storyline, though told in large part from Reggie's point of view (Billy Martin and Thurman Munson are dead, and Steinbrenner's old and not talking), is as much Billy's story as Reggie's, and in some ways is more sympathetic to Martin than to Jackson, who comes off as even more of an insufferable egomaniac than I had remembered, which is saying quite a lot. Reggie hadn't really started to feud with George yet, so the battle lines are Reggie vs Billy, Billy vs George, Reggie vs Thurman, Billy vs himself, and Reggie vs the press and his own big mouth. At the end, Reggie's 3-homer game to win Game Six and the World Series is Reggie's triumph, but merely a respite for Billy, who suffered the same constant threat of being fired the following year until George finally sacked him in July.
If Mahler's treatment of the baseball side can be faulted, it's for an unduly narrow focus; whether out of a desire to avoid re-covering ground previously trod in many other books or due to a drive to produce a quick and compact book, he leaves a lot of famous one-liners on the cutting room floor and focuses so entirely on the Reggie and Billy stories that he either ignores or relegates to a single supporting anecdote many of the colorful characters on that Yankee team - Mickey Rivers, Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Mike Torrez. You would never know from reading the book that Nettles led the team in homers and Lyle won the Cy Young Award. (Fran Healy gets more ink in the book than Nettles). He also inexplicably leaves out the single best line of 1977 for tying the action on the field to the city's meltdown, Lenny Randle's crack after the blackout of '77 cancelled a Mets home game a month after the trading deadline: "I can see the headline now: Mets trade Kingman, call game for lack of power."
Since Mahler's subject is the Yankees he skips quickly through the other huge New York baseball story of 1977, the Mets trading Tom Seaver, and it's also where Mahler (who I presume is a liberal) makes his most tin-eared gaffe of the book, referring to Seaver's nemesis Dick Young of the New York Daily News, the Lavrenti Beria of the New York baseball press corps, as "the press box equivalent of a neoconservative," proof if any were needed that Mahler (like many on the left) has no clue what that word means.
As for the political side, I didn't count pages but Mahler actually appears to spend less than half the book on baseball. While he takes in a lot of different threads in the City's horrible summer as well as the cultural ferment beneath (from Studio 54 to punk rock to the development of SoHo), there are two major episodes in the book (the July blackout and the Son of Sam manhunt), one major running theme (the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary) and one minor theme (January 1977 was the beginning of Rupert Murdoch's ownership of the NY Post). On the latter, Mahler is unsparing on the Post's reckless tabloid attitude towards the truth and towards its readers, but seems to recognize that the introduction of a right-wing tabloid into a liberal city with liberal papers was nonetheless a very healthy development. One detail I had forgotten, that Mahler discusses in the course of the transformation of the Post back to its Hamiltonian roots and away from its more recent incarnation as a sleepy liberal paper: its film critic when Murdoch bought the paper was Frank Rich.
The dramatic high point of the book is Mahler's treatment of the chaos that surrounded the slightly more than 24-hour blackout in July, the looting and arsons that did for New York's image (and self-image) what Rodney King did for LA in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina did for New Orleans in 2005. It's all here, concentrated in his account of the blackout from the streets of Bushwick: the wholesale destruction of local business, the cops arresting more people than the system could process and having to resort to just beating guys until their nightsticks broke to keep a poor substitute for order, the collective suicide of whole communities. I was actually amazed, on reading this, that the blackout wasn't longer; we've had longer ones since 1977 but without the same social meltdown. In that sense, as in many other ways, the book is an inadvertant campaign commercial for Rudy Giuliani, just as is Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities, set a decade later; Mahler's portrait of a city whose social structure and self-confidence were wrecked by liberalism stands in stark contrast to the city as it has been since the mid-1990s.
As for the mayoral race - which was entirely determined by the Democratic primary - Mahler traces the improbable rise of Ed Koch and the self-destruction of Bella Abzug as the city began to rebel against the hapless liberal status quo.* Most notably, Mahler returns again and again to the opportunities handed on a platter to Mario Cuomo - endorsements he could have had, themes he could have pressed, voting blocs he could have wooed - and how Cuomo frittered them away in his pride, arrogance and stubbornness. As in 1994, a major contributor to his downfall was his insistence, even obsession, with martyring his political career over his determination to impose his moral objections to the death penalty on an unwilling populace (a stance ironically at odds with Cuomo's later claim to be morally opposed to abortion but unwilling to impose his own morality).
All in all, not by any stretch a comprehensive history of the period or the Yankees, but a fine attempt to bring together all the elements that created the mood of the city in which Reggie, Billy and George made headlines.
* - New York in 1977 had a Democratic Mayor, City Council, Governor, State Assembly, President, Senate and House, plus a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by liberal Republicans (Brennan, Blackmun, Stevens), a liberal Democrat (Marshall), moderate Republicans (Burger, Powell, Stewart), and a moderate Democrat (White), with only one conservative (Rehnquist). Only the Republican-led State Senate was any sort of counterweight.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:15 PM | Baseball 2007 | Politics 2007 | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)