In the long and illustrious history of New York City, 1977 was very likely its nadir. A twenty-five-hour power outage crippled the city and led to widespread looting and arson. The battle for the Democratic Party nominee for city mayor brought to center stage the political gadfly Bella Abzug, in addition to Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo and the incumbent, Abe Beame. A serial murderer, Son of Sam, terrorized the city for more than a year. And then there were the Yankees.
In Jonathan Mahlerís riveting narrative of a city in the throes of civic despair, the irresistible force of manager Billy Martin met the immovable object of slugger Reggie Jackson, to add several degrees of tension to a ball club that was already staggering under the high expectations of owner George Steinbrenner. Having been swept in the 1976 World Series by the Cincinnati Reds, Steinbrenner was intent on a championship in 1977 and put an unimaginable amount of pressure on Martin to deliver the goods.
Mahler adroitly weaves these stories in his chronicle of a year in the life of the city. None dominates, yet the reader can see the nexus among them, and how they all combined to make it a bizarre, yet, ultimately, fruitful year for New York. For New York won the World Series that year, and rose like phoenix from the debris of its civic turmoil to become a much envied city today.
Mahler interviewed the protagonists of that year and pored through volumes of written material to present a cityís history in such fine detail that the reader feels like a fly in the wall. The tension is palpable as Mahler recounts in detail the Yankeesí march to the World Series. During that tumultuous season, Steinbrenner undermines Martinís authority on such a regular basis that the manager is confident that he will lose his job. Yet, Martin, an old school manager, as feisty a leader as he was as a player, sees Jackson as an ego-centric ballplayer foisted on the team by an owner hell-bent on winning. Martin is afraid that the teamís chemistry, already fragile, would be affected as captain Thurman Munson battles constantly with Jackson. The manager is intent on showing Jackson that he (the manager) is in charge and actually takes the outfielder out of a game at a critical juncture. In a semi-comic narration, Mahler describes how a livid and embarrassed Jackson nearly came to blows with his manager, all of which was covered by NBC television.
The vicissitudes of the baseball team occupies about a third of the book. Mahler clearly delineates the cityís personality in its mayoral race. There is the sanctimonious Mario Cuomo, whose refusal to ally with any civic leader for fear of quid pro quo damages his candidacy. In contrast, Ed Koch is willing to move to the center from his left-leaning liberal perspective. Incumbent Abe Beame sees the cityís financial freefall as his political epitaph. As the politicking reaches a fever pitch, Mahler brings to sharp focus race and urban development that tears the city apart. Amidst all this, the cityís overcrowded electrical system fails and the inner beast in its inhabitants comes roaring out.
This is modern-day history that is part entertainment and equal part a cautionary tale. Mahler offers a view of the city that is engaging in its social commentary. The combination of idiosyncratic personalities and bizarre events make this a thoroughly rollicking read. Perhaps Reggie Jackson, Ed Koch and the Son of Sam are symbolic of a city, which seems to fight with itself yet almost always comes out unscathed.