SI.com's Book Club will feature an excerpt each month from a recently published sports book. Below is an excerpt from Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, written by Jonathan Mahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25).
I grew up hearing stories about the New York of my father's childhood, the New York of the 1940s and 1950s. The working-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx that was thick with semidetached houses; the broom handles swiped from his mother's closet, the pink spaldeens sailing over manhole covers: That was my mythology.
The images were especially resonant because we lived so far away from this world, in Palm Springs, California, where the streets are named after Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and the landscape alternates between spiky desert shrubs and golf courses. Those supernaturally green fairways, kept lush by constantly whirring sprinklers, were my reality; the bustling streets of New York were my dreamworld.
The California Angels played their spring training games in a small ballpark just a short bike ride from our house. We would get season tickets every March and dutifully cheer on the home team, which was owned by one of the community's many aging celebrities, Gene Autry. But I never cared much for the Angels. I knew that baseball loyalty was generational, not geographic. You don't choose your team; you inherit it. So I became a Yankees' fan from afar, methodically monitoring their daily performances through The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and our West Coast edition of The New York Times.
In the summer of 1977 we visited the city. I was only eight, but it didn't take long to figure out that this wasn't the place I had imagined. Whenever we climbed into a taxi, my parents promptly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. When I drifted toward a group of men dealing three-card monte, my mother quickly yanked me away.
The highlight of our stay was a Yankees' game. We took the No. 4 train north from Eighty-sixth Street on a sticky July afternoon. My father, a starched white button-down shirt tucked stiffly into his high-waisted chinos, kept a firm grip on my arm as I tried to decipher the swirls of graffiti that covered our car. The train rumbled into one station after another. At each stop a dozen more people in Yankees caps and T-shirts pushed their way aboard. Finally, I saw the glimmer of natural light that meant we had crossed into the Bronx. The train climbed out of the tunnel, and there was Yankee Stadium. I recognized only one feature from the gauzy photographs in my Yankees books: the ring of white wooden trim running over the bleachers like a picket fence. It was the last vestige from the Yankee Stadium of old, an anachronistic detail on top of this concrete fortress. The ballpark was surrounded not by the cheerful brownstones and flower boxes that I had imagined but by grim tenements with screenless windows thrown wide open in the heavy summer air.
The team inside the ballpark also bore little resemblance to the neatly pressed, fair-haired Yankees of my father's generation-"heroes who summed up the ideals of manhood, courage and the excellence of an entire generation," as one of the bent-up paperbacks on my bookshelf described them. The Yankees of the fifties won with ease and grace. They scored eight runs in the first inning...and then slowly pulled away. The 1977 Yankees were racially and ethnically mixed. They were life-size, loutish. On the field they did everything the hard way, with the maximum of stress and strain on their fans. Off the field, they bickered, backstabbed, and demanded to be traded.