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

Jonathan Mahler
  • Review
By – August 10, 2012

The behav­ior of fans and the actions of ath­letes with­in the not-always-friend­ly con­fines of sta­di­ums have been, through­out the ages, excel­lent barom­e­ters of a society’s morale and moral­i­ty. In the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, ancient rab­bis knew well that Gre­co-Roman sports venues were seats for scorners” fre­quent­ed by those who played fast and loose with the faith’s teach­ings. Dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, atten­dance at joust­ing tour­na­ments was restrict­ed to Chris­t­ian lords and ladies, a reflec­tion of that epoch’s closed and strat­i­fied soci­eties. Through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, Olympic ath­letes often were stan­dard bear­ers of their country’s exalt­ed and aggres­sive nation­al pride. In recent decades, the destruc­tive antics of row­dy British soc­cer fans who have maraud­ed through bleach­ers and pens have reflect­ed the pent-up frus­tra­tions of work­ing class toughs who resent their sta­tus. For Jonathan Mahler, the tur­moil in the club­house and on the play­ing field of Yan­kee Sta­di­um in 1977 pro­vides the place and space for a journalist’s keen look into the urban cri­sis that peaked in New York City dur­ing that mem­o­rable season. 

Mahler has done well in using the Bronx sports-scene metaphor to sym­bol­ize the saga of a metrop­o­lis then in social tur­moil and eco­nom­ic decline. That borough’s Bombers were a dys­func­tion­al team that through much of the long sum­mer of base­ball could not con­trol its emo­tions as it careened toward self-destruc­tion. Its shaky, unsta­ble man­ag­er, Bil­ly Mar­tin, was unable to deal with his over­bear­ing own­er, George Stein­bren­ner, or with his play­ers’ egos, which were even big­ger than his. Ego­ma­nia was also the sto­ry with­in the city’s polit­i­cal are­na as an embat­tled and fatigued May­or Beame fought to hold off the insur­gent chal­lenges of Ed Koch, Mario Cuo­mo and Bel­la Abzug. Each sought to seize the reins of a bro­ken-down city and to cap­i­tal­ize on an almost unprece­dent­ed day and a half of civ­il unrest that occurred when, in July, an elec­tri­cal sys­tem break­down plunged Gotham into dark­ness. To make ten­sions even worse, 1977 also was the Sum­mer of Sam” — as ser­i­al killer David Berkowitz ter­ror­ized the city. 

Through it all, New York­ers must have felt very much aban­doned. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment showed lit­tle inter­est in bail­ing out the eco­nom­i­cal­ly strapped city. The most Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter would do was to show up for a pho­to-op on Char­lotte Street, a des­o­late block in the South Bronx. The Yan­kees also felt entire­ly unwant­ed. Though the most pop­u­lar away” team in Major League Base­ball, they were also the most rou­tine­ly reviled. And jour­nal­ists coast to coast were pleased to keep close tabs on a team that seem­ing­ly was intent on implod­ing much like the city it rep­re­sent­ed. The coun­try took per­verse delight in watch­ing the Yanks and the city, with so many wins to their cred­its, and pos­sessed of leg­endary swag­ger to boot, come undone in a heat wave of weath­er and of rhetoric. 

Of course, in the end both the club and metrop­o­lis sur­vived and emerged from their crises stronger and more res­olute. For Mahler, a sym­bol­ic turn­ing point took place just a week after Howard Cosell, that mis­an­throp­ic announc­er, informed the nation dur­ing the sec­ond game of the World Series that Ladies and gen­tle­men, the Bronx is burn­ing.” A five alarm fire gut­ted build­ings a few stones’ throws away from the big ball park. In the sixth game of the Fall Clas­sic, slug­ger Reg­gie Jack­son launched three home runs into the right field bleach­ers as the Yanks won the title. It was proof to many that New York was not a lost cause. These tape-mea­sure shots became part of the nar­ra­tive of the city’s strug­gle for survival.” 

For me, an even more telling, sym­bol­ic moment took place in the Yan­kee club­house just a few weeks before Jackson’s big night. Mahler only notes this inci­dent in pass­ing. But what tran­spired among team­mates bespoke an incip­i­ent new spir­it that would quick­ly straight­en out the team and, in time, its city. The fate of the ball club changed when Thur­man Mun­son, the Yan­kee catch­er and cap­tain who had been bat­tling for lead­er­ship against Jack­son allowed that he had found a modus viven­di with the equal­ly ego-dri­ven super­star. How can I ever like [him], but we need him to win.” It was that sort of prag­ma­tism, among indi­vid­u­als and groups who did not see eye to eye that, to my mind, informed the revival of New York after this longest and hottest of summers.

Jef­frey S. Gurock is the Lib­by M. Klaper­man Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has writ­ten or edit­ed 25 books, includ­ing Jews in Gotham, which in 2012 was hon­ored as Win­ner, Everett Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Award, Jew­ish Book of the Year, Jew­ish Book Council.

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