09
Sep
14

The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

The Bronx ZooThe Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

1978 was a pretty great year for baseball, especially in New York. The Yankees, down by 14 games in July, roared back and took the AL East pennant in a one-game playoff against Boston. Anyway, if you’re a baseball fan, you probably have some knowledge of that. And here, in The Bronx Zoo, is the other side of that season: what happened off the field, away from the cameras and inside the clubhouse.

Lyle’s book is a wild read, ranging from raunchy clubhouse tales to keen observation. He’ll go from a story about sitting on a cake to pointing out why his pitches aren’t working, sometimes even in the same paragraph. Written as a diary breaking down the season day-by-day (think Ball Four), the season seems to take forever sometimes as losses mount and drama in the front office keeps mounting between Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, both of whom come off as high-strung, insecure and made for each other.

This team’s packed with personality, too: between the sensitive, and quiet Thurman Munson and the bombastic, publicity-loving Reggie Jackson, this Yankee team just drips with colourful characters. Jackson really steals it as the prototypical 21st Century superstar, always happy to give a sharp quip into the microphone, even if it’s less than truthful (“You guys heard that?” he asks the assembled media after one scathing comment on a radio broadcast, “if I’d known you were listening I’d have said something different.”)

There are the occasional flashes of insight between the day-to-day: Lyle occasionally explains why a pitcher’s pitches aren’t working, the little ways a fielder is making great plays and at the little differences made by a team on a hot streak; there’s also the occasional show of casual ballplayer misogyny, too. And while he’s never removed from the shenanigans in the clubhouse, he’s something of a bemused observer, cataloging the pranks, off-hand comments and tension on one of the most memorable seasons in baseball.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fade near the end. Maybe the work of keeping a diary was too much for Lyle or maybe he just wanted to stay focused on the 1978 playoffs (his line: 1.1 Innings Pitched, 2 Earned Runs, zero strikeouts). I would’ve liked something of a wrap-up, but instead it ends a little abruptly. I think the 2005 edition has a new afterward, but I can’t speak to that.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of Marty Appel’s biography of Thurman Munson. And before that, a post about Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx Is Burning. In terms of baseball colour, Lyle’s book has them both beat. Munson has flashes of personality, but largely relies on Appel’s memories or long interviews while the best parts of Mahler’s book focus more on politics and the media, not the Yankees. But as a history, The Bronx Zoo isn’t much: it’s a very personal book, almost unconcerned with anyone else. It’s what makes the book stand out from the usual jockish autobiography, a drab 200-page paperback farmed out to a PR rep or beat writer (see: Appel’s first book on Munson). But don’t come here expecting a blow-by-blow look at the AL East in 1978 or anything.

Rating: 7/10. A day-to-day, inside look at one of the most colourful teams in baseball history and hilarious to boot, Sparky Lyle’s memoir of the 1978 season is great. Recommended, especially for Yankee fans.

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