15
Jul
14

Baseball, Ballrooms and Bedlam: The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a CityThe Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

Back in 1977, New York was a joke. A cruel one maybe, but to most of America it was a joke: the biggest city in America was on the verge of bankruptcy and crime was going out of control. It’s a gritty, tense world Jonathan Mahler evokes in The Bronx is Burning, his look at that memorable New York summer, both in the street and on the field at Yankee Stadium.

In many ways, the Yankees and the city reflected each other. Both had long legacies of greatness but had largely fallen apart in recent years. The Yankees had just returned to the postseason, but were quickly swept by the Cincinnati Reds; New York had just hosted the Democratic National Convention, but was largely ignored by President Jimmy Carter.

But the Yankees had something new to count on: slugger Reggie Jackson, who had just been signed with them in the offseason. He brought a lot of power to the lineup, but he brought a lot of drama, too. A strange mix of braggadocio and insecurity, in his late-70s prime, Jackson was as likely to destroy a pitch as he was throw his teammates or manager under the bus. Just a few weeks into the season, he gave an infamous interview with a reporter from Sport Magazine, claiming he was the straw that stirs the drink and team captain Thurman Munson could only stir it bad.

At the same time, the city was in disarray. Faced with bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame laid off hundreds of public workers. Police officers responded with protests and flyers trying to scare off tourists (“Welcome to fear city,” read one). There were tensions between the working class as lower rungs of society; urban renewal had led to white flight and abandoned businesses. Soon everything would explode.

Mahler’s book captures this divisive moment in the city’s history in vivid detail. He weaves back and forth between the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a heated mayoral election, civil unrest and baseball effortlessly, often finding connections between them. The world of Studio 54 wasn’t an alien one to Reggie Jackson, but neither were impoverished areas like Bushwick or the South Bronx.

Indeed, Jackson and his furious relationship with Billy Martin largely drives the action in The Bronx… with their fights and backstabbing quickly becoming baseball lore. Mahler recounts slight after slight, quote after quote, the tension rising to a boiling point one afternoon in Boston when they came to blows in the dugout in front a national TV audience.

Soon, Mahler recounts the city’s boiling point: the blackout of 1977. He devotes one section of the book to this event, some 25 hours that changed the city’s direction. After it, the mayoral campaign took a nasty turn and soon devolved into Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch sniping at each other. After it, it was impossible to ignore the social trends that caused widespread looting and the deteriorating inner city. And after it, the Yankees slowly started turning their season around.

Although this book’s often held up as one the big sports books of the past decade – Grantland mentioned it by name in a story about baseball books a few weeks back – some parts haven’t aged well. For example: Mahler makes a good case for Jackson’s success at the plate, but his heavy reliance on statistics like batting average and RBI reflect a past era of sports writing.

His cultural picture of New York is a little shallow, too. He touches on punk rock only a bit and devotes a few pages to the burgeoning art scene. But seminal artists like Patti Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat never show up and Mahler genrally seems more interested in describing details of the gay scene (a club with an 18-wheeler set up in it!) than in giving it a wider social context like he does with disco.

But the political sections of his book have aged better: the Post’s heavy focus on Son of Sam prefigures the post 9/11 jingoism of Murdoch’s Fox News by decades and his account of the changing campaigns of Koch and Cuomo is fascinating, if a little short.

I would’ve liked more on how each (not to mention fellow candidate Bella Abzug) saw how the election changed their careers or how the Post kept growing in the years after, but I’m generally satisfied by what’s here.

Rating: 7/10. An enjoyable read, I breezed through this one in a few days. While it’s picture of the city is relatively small, it has a huge scope and attempts to show America’s largest city in a state of flux. As a baseball history, it’s no Summer of 49, but it’ll more than fit the bill for a fun summer read.

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