BASEBALL/ When The Bronx Was Burning

cover.bronx.jpg 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.

10 thoughts on “BASEBALL/ When The Bronx Was Burning”

  1. I’ve caught the mini-series and it is very good as a drama/soap opera. You sort of have to know alot about baseball and that season to make sense of a lot of the conversations.
    Healy is featured in the show but mostly because he is Reggie’s friend and is the person Jackson talks when he is being introspective.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating read. Since I was born in ’77, it migth be fun to read about the events taking place in the city of my birth. I have been watching the mini-series, and have been surprised by how good it’s been. The last couple of episodes have sort of treaded water since the major non-baseball themes – the mayoral election, the Son of Sam hunt, and the blackout – are all done with as the season winds down. But it’s been about the only good thing ESPN has done in recent memory.
    What amused me about the mayoral race is how utterly irrelvant the Republican race was. I don’t know how it comes accross in the book, but on the show there’s not even a mention made of the GOP – I mean, was there even a candidate? Back then, I guess Koch was as close to a Republican as the city could muster (and he’s probably more of a Republican than Bloomberg ever was).

  3. Paul, Roy Goodman, a state senator, was the Repub nominee in ’77 but was, to be kind, a non-factor. Koch beat Cuomo twice – first in the Dem primary and then again in the general, with Cuomo being the Liberal Party candidate.
    The book is a great read and, IMO, far outclasses the series. I was thirteen in the summer of ’77 and couldn’t believe the crazy s**t going on in NYC. At the time, it seemed like a modern-day Sodom & Gomorrah.

  4. Excellent job, Crank.
    Though here’s one reader who could have lived without your “tin-eared gaffe”:
    the book is an inadvertant campaign commercial for Rudy Giuliani
    Gimme a break! Talk about revisionist history, for crissakes. I’m sure you’re as familiar as the rest of us of the names Koch and Bratton. Plus, I’m certain you believe that a fellow named Reagan had a certain influence on the country, NY included (he WON NY in ’80, no?). Finally, hate him as you must, Clinton’s presidency saw nationwide crime reductions, NY included.
    Not to mention, Crank, you say one paragraph later that in 1977, the city began rebelling against “the liberal status quo.” I’m sure egomaniac Rudy would take full credit for that. But do you have to join him?
    Anyway, the rest of your write-up was great, even the comments about NYC’s rejection of Lindsay’s/Beame’s irresponsible liberalism. Just leave Giuliani in the 90s when you write about the 70s.

  5. As a 10 year old that year, I also recall the chaos of New York City, having grown up in its suburbs. That summer I realized that the world around us was crazy and that New York City was on fire, both literally and figuratively. The Bronx Zoo, aka, Yankees, were a perfect backdrop to this madness, but the 1978 Yankees were even crazier than the 1977 version. At least the Yankees did not suspend Reggie in 1977 for insurbordination. What made it such a great story was that the Yankees won the World Series both years.
    Reggie, Billy and George were in some kind of love-hate triangle. Reggie was the least screwed up of the three, and that’s saying something. He had a huge ego and a big mouth and instantly alienated everyone around him for no good reason. His explosive comments to Sport Magazine that Spring have probably never been equaled (“I am the straw that stirs the drink. Thurman thinks he’s the straw, but he can only stir it bad”). Billy, meanwhile, was an alcoholic man-child who outlasted his welcome everywhere he managed, and I am convinced that Steinbrenner had a very serious personality disorder. The Steinbrenner-Billy saga that lasted through the late 1980’s is truly a major blemish on the Yankees’ storied history.
    As for your non-sequitor about Giuliani, Crank, why exactly are you buying into the cult of personality about this highly overrated politician? Now that you have finished reading the Bronx is Burning (the book is better than the mini-series), I would suggest reading some of the more critical bios of Giuliani, which shed quite a different light on this authoritarian figure.

  6. I was older than ten in 1978–23 in fact. Reggie was, as you said Steve, the least screwed up of the three. He did do it, it wasn’t bragging. He had the same ego as any other superstar not named Musial–and he delivered. If you are not old enough, you may not realize that when a Yankee game was broadcast, no matter where you were, a department store, the street, anywhere, when Reggie came to bat, everything stopped. Nobody bought anything, there were even fewer horns in the street. You waited to see what he would do, then you went back to life. He was something to behold.
    That summer was crazy; I went to Columbus High School–class of 1972. If you are a student of the time, you would then recognize that David Berkowitz (yes that Son of Sam) was there then too–a few years older, we were in the same gym class. Can’t say I knew him–there were probably 100 kids in that class, but we were indeed in it together (Mr. Weisenfeld’s class). Interesting possibility about him. In that class, you picked your activity. I played basketball (Irv Stitsky was the best player in the group–hi Irv if you are reading this); a bunch went out and ran, a lot played volleyball. There was one kid with dark brown curly hair (which Berkowitz had) who ran in place by himself every day. Can’t be sure it was him, but it makes a great story if it was.

  7. One other thing about Reggie and Steinbrenner. In the mini-series, Steinbrenner is Reggie’s greatest advocate, insisting that Billy bat him fourth in the lineup. But by 1981, when Reggie was in a horrible slump, Steinbrenner humiliated Reggie by sending him to a psychologist. This is one of the reasons why Reggie left the Yankees.

  8. DiMaggio’s appearances in the last two episodes were an interesting mix of how he was traditionally viewed by fans and others associated with the game (deep respect with more than a touch of awe) and the less-flattering picture that more recent writings have often revealed (egomaniac with the warmth of a Siberian blizzard). His appearance at the ticket booth and petulant refusal to throw out the first pitch in Game One was mostly the latter (couldn’t help but pity that poor soul in the ticket booth), and his moment with Reggie before Game Six was definitely old-school DiMaggio adulation–by the way, did that incident with DiMaggio and Jackson actually happen, or did they just throw it in there?

  9. I saw another great throwback to my youth in the CT suburbs of ’77… that summer an unknown southern rocker named Jimmy Buffett had a monster hit out –“Margaritaville”…well he can pack an arena 30 years later at an obsene ticket price doin; the same ol stuff.. and time suspends itself
    Certaintly way more fun than remembering blackouts, bankruptcy and serial killers…and btw, the Yanks are now wild card leading as of this am

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