How Baseball Saved a City

Nonfiction In His New Book, Jonathan Mahler Looks Back at the Year New York Fell Apart

By Michael Shapiro

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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As the summer of 1977 drew mercifully to a close, Pete Hamill, a champion of his city, offered a painfully grim assessment of what awaited its new mayor, Ed Koch. New York, he wrote, was now “the ruined city and broken city.” Only a fool would have differed with him.

In the months leading up to Koch’s unlikely election — he began his campaign a decided underdog against such better-known Democrats as Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Percy Sutton and the beleaguered incumbent, Abe Beame — the city had endured mayhem and looting during a July blackout, the terror of the Son of Sam murders and a growing sense that its crippling fiscal woes would leave New York a ruined shell.

It is hard now — even in a post-9/11 New York — to recall just how awful things felt in 1977. Draconian budget cutting had left the streets with too few police officers, shuttered firehouses and piled-up garbage. Banks were not inclined to extend credit. The city was a frightening place — angry, resentful and with little sense of hope that things might somehow get better. So contagious was the malaise that the city even had a baseball team that captured its sullen mood: the Billy Martin-George Steinbrenner-Reggie Jackson Yankees. It was as if the fates were playing a practical joke, packing three of the most contentious people imaginable into a telephone booth, sealing the door and stepping back to watch.

But then, as Jonathan Mahler reminds us in his terrific new book, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning,” sports have a peculiar way of delivering us from despair.

Mahler, a former staff writer at the Forward, draws his title from the familiar words of late sportscaster and putative social commentator Howard Cosell, who uttered them over the airwaves upon seeing a five-alarm fire burning near Yankee Stadium during a World Series game. Cosell might have been offering color commentary on the fall of the Roman Empire — such was the perception that the once-great city was now on the verge of being found in the morning, floating belly-up in the East River.

Mahler chose his year wisely, for 1977 was, in the parlance of the 12-step disciples, the year that New York hit bottom. If there was a single emotion that resonated across the boroughs, the races and the classes, it was rage. Everyone, it seemed, had ample reason to be angry with someone else — be it at Mayor Beame; his predecessor, John Lindsey; the banks, and one another. The Democratic mayoral candidates saw this and used it — Koch most especially and effectively, in turning away from his liberal roots and advocating the reinstatement of the death penalty as the answer to the seemingly rampant crime.

The fullest and most frightening articulation of the city’s rage came on the night of July 13 when, in a series of blunders by Con Edison that Mahler recounts with a novelist’s gift for narrative, the lights went out. It took little time for the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, in particular, to descend into chaos — looting; fighting; shootings, and pillaging that quickly overwhelmed the local police precincts, whose officers would spend the night waiting for backup that never arrived. Bushwick did burn that night, and firefighters were pelted with bricks and bottles. The mayhem spread across the city, mostly to the poorer neighborhoods where circumstances had been harshest and where the sudden darkness triggered a desire to settle scores and empty the shelves.

In the meantime, young couples across the city — and in the outer boroughs especially — were avoiding the clubs and the necking spots for fear of the phantom killer known as the Son of Sam. He already had killed five young people and was seemingly taking great delight in taunting the beleaguered police department in his letters to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. And because this was also the summer that Rupert Murdoch brought this particularly sordid view of journalism to his newly acquired New York Post, the story, and the attendant terror, felt inescapable.

Then there were the Yankees. George Steinbrenner was then in only his fourth season as the team’s principal owner, and had succeeded in turning what had been a foundering franchise into a winner. He did this by spending on baseball’s newest commodities, free agents. That spring he offered the city his biggest catch of all, Reggie Jackson. Jackson loved himself dearly, which was fortunate because no one else did — not his teammates and not his manager, Billy Martin, whom Mahler captures vividly as a man teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Martin loathed Jackson. Jackson detested Martin. Thurman Munson, the team’s great catcher and leader, could not abide Jackson. And the Yankees could not seem to win without effort. The team hit its own nadir on national television in a June game at Boston’s Fenway Park. Jackson, never an asset with his glove, appeared to quit early on a fly ball, and Martin, who made it to the big leagues only because he played harder than anyone else, had him summoned to the dugout. There the two men exchanged words and, were they not separated, would have exchanged blows for the entire nation to see. Truly a team for its town.

And yet, somehow, by October the Yankees were back in the World Series. Their opponents were the Los Angeles Dodgers, the descendants of another New York team that had abandoned the city for the riches out west, a move that in the summer of 1977 looked especially wise. The Yankees took a three-game-to-two lead and were hoping to close out the Dodgers at home. Now, in the twilight of the long and tortured season, the gods decided to smile on the Yankees, in particular on Jackson. He saw only three pitches in Game 6. They were all he needed. All three landed in the far reaches of Yankee Stadium, giving the Yankees their first World Series championship since 1962 and Jackson the moment of sporting immortality he craved.

The game was like a storm at the end of a drought, for things would soon start to get better in and for New York — a merciful ending for so tortured a tale.

Mahler has done a wonderful job of transforming this otherwise painful chapter in the city’s history into a compelling read. He allows his oversized characters to stride across the stage, thundering, bellowing, and changing everyone and everything around them. He weaves the strands of a trickily complex narrative deftly, balancing the many moving parts and players with ease and confidence. He shifts easily from baseball to history to political battles, never letting the narrative stall or drag.

New York’s resurgence was built on the ashes of 1977. So it is that the success of Mahler’s book feels all the more fitting, given how far the city came from the depths in which it found itself in the dark summer of 1977.

Michael Shapiro is the author of “The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together”(Doubleday, 2003).

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and The Battle for the Soul of a City

By Jonathan Mahler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $25.

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