Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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

Never judge a book by its movie, especially if that book has been brought to the small screen by ESPN. Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City offers a sweeping and ambitious study of 1977 shithole-era New York that the ESPN miniseries could only hint at. Whereas the miniseries’ primary focus was on the dysfunctional Yankees and the season-long pissing contest between outfielder Reggie Jackson and manager Billy Martin, Mahler instead focuses on the broader social and cultural climate of the city, including the mayoral campaign runoff between Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, the blackout and the looting that followed, the city’s financial crisis, and the Son of Sam killings. It is far more than just another book about baseball (or worse, another baseball book about the Yankees).

Mahler vividly paints a descriptive portrait of 1977 New York without getting bogged down in extraneous details - the writing style is always straightforward and direct, and oftentimes humorous. Sufficient (and interesting) biographical background is provided for key figures like Jackson, Martin, Cuomo, and Koch, which allows the reader to gain an understanding of these figures and how their backgrounds influenced their actions. Mahler also shows how these backgrounds played out against the backdrop of the struggling city, most notably in the mayoral election runoff, where both Cuomo and Koch could both cynically be accused of running campaigns that were precursors to the negative campaigns frequently seen today.

Mahler raises several interesting social questions throughout the book, which for the most part failed to come across in the ESPN miniseries. The most thought-provoking, and sensitive, is the issue of racial tension and specifically how it played out during the blackout and the massive looting that resulted, since the looting by and large occurred in poor, predominantly African-American areas of the city. The question Mahler raises is whether the looters were exercising some sort of sophisticated form of violent social protest, or whether the looting was mostly led by a criminal element that saw an opportunity for free merchandise and took advantage of it. Ultimately it is difficult to argue with Mahler’s conclusion that the looting was probably motivated more by opportunity than by an enlightened form of political or economic revolt.

The obvious implication throughout the book is that the Yankees represented a baseball version of the social and racial issues that troubled the city in 1977. In some ways, this is hard to dispute. Billy Martin was accused in the past of making racist comments, even demoting or benching players because of their skin color, and his handling of truculent superstar Reggie Jackson could be seen as racially motivated. At the same time, Martin was pretty much an ornery bastard who conflicted with lots of people, such as whiter-than-white Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Mahler also shows that some of the Yankee players, such as catcher Thurman Munson, disliked Jackson, though in Munson’s case this appears to have been motivated not by race, but by Jackson’s higher salary and perceived threat to Munson’s role as team captain.

In other ways, however, it is difficult to view such tensions as realistic barometers for the New York social climate in 1977; instead, they most likely were little more than the usual clubhouse politics, cliques, and conflicts of personality that occur within any team. Perhaps the hindsight we now have to look back at the 1977 team, and all the baggage New York in 1977 brought with it, has given a greater significance to that team’s internal tension than should actually be given. Mahler’s study of the team and his attempts to draw parallels between the Yankees’ culture and those of New Yorkers in general is interesting, though for me at least it is still difficult to view that team in such a broader context.

This is one of the few squabbles I have about The Bronx is Burning. The only other complaint I have with the book — and it’s only because I’m a sick musicholic well past the point of recovery — is Mahler’s reductive explanation of the 1977 music scene. It’s pure Intro to Music History 101, with the New York punk scene covered in only a few short paragraphs and with only the most obvious bands briefly mentioned. But this too is a minor complaint.

Anyone familiar with baseball history knows how the 1977 season ended, with the often-maligned (which was sometimes self-created) Reggie Jackson hitting three first-pitch home runs in game 6 of the World Series to lead the Yankees to victory. It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for New York (and even then, Jackson had to run like hell to get to the locker room as celebrating fans stormed the field). Far more than the miniseries could hope to accomplish, Mahler’s works is a great study of 1977 New York and the athletes, politicians, looters, and everyday New Yorkers (and one serial killer) who lived through it.

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