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

1977 was a pivotal year for New York City. Mayor Beame was seeking reelection in spite of record deficits, massive layoffs, and sky-rocketing crime rates. Also in the race were Mario Cuomo, who would later become governor, the future mayor Ed Koch, and firebrand feminist liberal Bella Abzug. 1977 was the Summer of Sam, David Berkowitz, a serial killer who terrorized the city for months. It was the year of the black-out, over 24 hours of largely uncontrolled looting that resulted in over 3,000 arrests and millions of dollars of property damaged that left a permanent mark on large sections of New York City. It was also the year Reggie Jackson came to play baseball for the New York Yankees in one of the first free-agent deals much to the consternation of team manager Billy Martin.

If you don’t remember any of that, you may be wondering if there’s anything in The Bronx is Burning for you. I was only 13 in 1977, too wrapped up in 8th grade to notice much of what was going on. From the opposite coast where I lived, New York City was a place to be avoided, too dangerous to ever consider visiting, an object lesson in what could go wrong. New York City was a punchline. Maybe having no solid preconceptions about New York in ’77 is one reason why I liked The Bronx is Burning as much as I did; there’s no reason for me to take exception to anything Mr. Mahler says one way or another.

Mr. Mahler says in his introduction that he set out to write a book about baseball, about the 1977 Yankees and Billy Martin’s struggle with Reggie Jackson, maybe Reggie Jackson’s struggle with Billy Martin. However, it soon became apparent to Mr. Mahler that he could not tell the story of the ’77 Yankees without telling the larger story of New York City and those who lived there. The result is a fascinating look at a particular place at a particular time. The Bronx is Burning remains at heart a book about baseball, but it’s a hybrid sort of book–a baseball, politics, true-crime piece of non-fiction that never ceases to entertain as it informs.

However, at its core, The Bronx is Burning is too conflicted to be a complete success. While Mr. Mahler tries to make his book an all-encompassing portrait of New York City, one gets the sense that he really wants to write about baseball. The mayoral race is fascinating, judging from what is in The Bronx is Burning the 1977 race may have been one of the most interesting races in American politics, but it plays second fiddle to the on-going conflict between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. Between the two of them and team owner George Steinbrenner there is enough drama to fill the entire book which makes the inclusion of the Son of Sam investigation and Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the New York Post along with much of the story of the city’s overall decline during the 1970’s seem a bit of a footnote. In the end, I felt Mr. Mahler should have written two books, one about baseball and one about all the rest, so if I were still giving out stars, The Bronx is Burning would get four out of five.

On the other hand..

There is a six part television series based on The Bronx is Burning, made for ESPN which did just what I suggest. The series is the story of the 1977 Yankees with very little of all the rest. I found that I was not able to make it through the first episode.

Be careful what you wish for….

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