Rallying From Behind

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING

1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

By Jonathan Mahler

Farrar Straus Giroux. 356 pp. $25

Few years in the long history of New York City have been worse than 1977. The city's fiscal condition bordered on calamitous; bankruptcy had been averted only by state intervention, a humiliation from which the city took many years to recover. In mid-July, at the height of the summer's heat, the entire city suffered a blackout, which set off looting in every one of the five boroughs. Later that month marked the first anniversary of the terror inflicted by the serial killer known as Son of Sam, who had killed five people and injured six and was still at large.

Jonathan Mahler takes the title of his thoughtful, solidly reported account of New York in 1977 from words blurted out on national television during the second game of the World Series by Howard Cosell of ABC television. "About an hour before the first pitch," Mahler writes, "a fire started in Public School 3, an abandoned elementary school a few blocks west of the ballpark," Yankee Stadium. The flames were high as the game started, inspiring the ever-melodramatic Cosell to intone, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." Those words and the images that accompanied them flashed around the country, becoming the encapsulation of everything that was wrong in New York.

Mahler's book began as a study of the 1977 Yankees and metamorphosed into something larger. Using sports as metaphor for more important business is a risky business that usually falls flat, but Mahler is right to see the Yankees -- talented, egotistical, contentious, arrogant -- as the city where they played in miniature, and to sense in the note of triumph on which their wild season ended an augury of better things. The team's cast of characters included the bullying, meddling owner, George Steinbrenner; the pugnacious, mean-spirited manager, Billy Martin; the hard-working, churlish, resentful catcher Thurman Munson; and the charismatic, narcissistic, hugely gifted outfielder Reggie Jackson, newly arrived via free agency.

By contrast with the "neatly pressed, fair-haired Yankees" of earlier days, the "1977 Yankees were racially and ethnically mixed. They were also life-size, loutish. On the field they did everything the hard way, with the maximum of stress and strain on their fans. Off the field, they bickered, backstabbed and demanded to be traded." Their fans, if "fans" is the word, were every bit as bad. During one game, "a group of fans in the upper deck showered their fellow spectators with beer, hurled darts and bottles onto the field and engaged in a near riot with the stadium police." Roger Angell, the eminent baseball writer for the New Yorker, realized then that he had "stopped feeling comfortable bringing his wife and son to the Bronx ballyard."

It was an uncomfortable ballpark in an uncomfortable city. Its mayor, Abe Beame, had slept through the fiscal crisis and was soon to pay the price. As the incumbent, he seemed to have the edge in the multi-candidate mayoralty race that occupied much of 1977, and for a while he did. But eventually full disclosure of malfeasance under his watch did him in. That left the Democratic field to Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo -- the most flamboyant candidate, Bella Abzug, self-destructed in a great burst of strident rhetoric and overheated behavior -- who faced each other in a runoff. Koch, the erstwhile Greenwich Village liberal, did a turn to the right, got the backing of various bosses and the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch's recently purchased New York Post -- and won.

Murdoch was a relatively new player on the New York scene in 1977, which made him one among many. SoHo, the area of "empty factories and sweatshops" south of Houston Street, was being transformed by "painters, sculptors and entrepreneurs" into the city's hot new neighborhood. Disco was all the rage, and the beautiful people elbowed each other to gain admission to Studio 54, Steve Rubell's trendier-than-thou nightclub in the old jazz district centered on 52nd Street.

But for all this glitz and glitter, the New York that most people saw -- the New York that much of the rest of the country loathed -- was filthy, beset by crime, torn by fierce racial animosities, crumbling away. Mahler's account of how the Brooklyn community of Bushwick almost literally fell apart during the blackout is harrowing, a reminder of how thin the line between civility and violence can be when too many people nursing real and imagined resentments are crammed too closely together in deteriorating surroundings. Throughout the city, the blackout's "final tallies were plenty unnerving in their own right: 1,037 fires, 14 of them multiple alarmers; 1,616 damaged and/or looted stores; 3,776 people arrested. . . . It was the largest mass arrest in the city's history, yet it had barely dented the momentum of the looting."

Through it all, the Yankees played on. By now, dysfunctional athletic teams are commonplace, but in 1977 the dislike, contempt and even hatred that some of the Yankees felt for some of their teammates was shocking. Owned by a boor, managed by a psychiatric case, starring a player with an ego bigger than the Ritz, the 1977 Yankees were an astonishment. Munson and Jackson hated each other and were not shy about saying so to the press. Martin and Jackson hated each other even more, and with the nasty extra ingredient of race. Martin "was a racist and an anti-Semite," according to one who played under him, and Jackson was worried about being the first black superstar on a team that in the past had been inhospitable to blacks.

The team was as much a tinderbox as the city, and its frequent explosions made for lively reading. For much of the season, the team stumbled in second or third place in the American League East, its own worst enemy, but in the last couple of months things started to fall into place. Jackson and Munson settled for a grudging detente, a young pitcher named Ron Guidry came from nowhere to settle the rotation, and the Yankees won their division. They spanked the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs, then knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, the climax of which was the closing game in which Jackson hit three home runs -- each on the first pitch, each launched into the stands with the force of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The victory of the Yankees and the election of Koch, Mahler believes, had larger implications: "Koch -- along with the rest of New York's emerging titans: Reggie, Steinbrenner and Murdoch -- would lead the city into a new era. They were flawed, farsighted, restless, self-made men who intuitively understood the city's desire for drama and conflict because they shared it. They were not idealists but egomaniacs. To their hungry eyes, New York wasn't a 'ruined and broken city' but the place where you go to make it." Of course, Reggie was long gone by the time New York turned the corner in the 1990s, and it took Rudy Giuliani to fix the many problems that Koch blithely ignored, but Mahler's essential argument is right: 1977 was a turning point, a watershed, from which emerged a different New York. In some ways it is a better place (it's safer and cleaner), in some ways worse (the poor and middle class need not apply, at least not in Manhattan), but not merely has it survived, it has thrived. In July 1977, as Bushwick burned, scarcely a soul could have imagined that .


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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