Welcome to the SI.com Book Club. Each month, we'll review a sports book and offer an excerpt. April's selection: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning.
On Aug. 9, 1977, the defending AL champion Yankees sat five games out of first with 53 games to play. Owner George Steinbrenner ordered a meeting with manager Billy Martin amid the umpteenth rumor that Martin would be fired. Steinbrenner decided to keep Martin, but ordered his stubborn manager to bat the owner's prize free-agent acquisition, Reggie Jackson, in the cleanup slot.
There's where Jackson found himself the next afternoon, lining a run-scoring single off former Oakland teammate Vida Blue as the Yanks began their late-season surge. But the Yankees' new cleanup hitter would be the talk of the town for only one day. Late that same evening, the beleaguered New York City police department arrested David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam.
That was the kind of year that 1977 was in New York -- chaotic, frenzied, sometimes absurd, but one ending with a glimmer of hope for a future that couldn't be any worse than the recent past. This is the rich canvas for Jonathan Mahler's excellent new book, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics and the Battle for the Soul of a City.
Mahler originally intended to write a book about the '77 Yankees with the turmoil-ridden city as a backdrop. Instead, as he did his research on that remarkable year that featured a blackout, riots, a serial killer and a bitter four-way race for mayor, the city moved into the foreground. The result is a book that is roughly half-baseball and half-civic history, both elements treated with nuance and depth.
There is no shortage of memorable characters. That Yankee team, of course, was defined by the often dysfunctional George-Billy-Reggie triumvirate.
The Yankees were already loaded with stars including free agents Catfish Hunter and Don Gullett, but Jackson was on another level. Reggie showed up in New York wearing a $3,500 otter coat and declaring, "I didn't come to New York to become a star. I brought my star with me." A self-proclaimed loner, Jackson was anything but one of the boys, a status he didn't help by doing things such as conspicuously rearranging his thick roll of hundreds in the locker room.
Things got worse when Jackson famously told a Sport magazine writer during spring training that he was the "straw that stirred the drink," and alienating teammates by slighting beloved Yankee captain Thurman Munson. "Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink," Jackson said, "but he can only stir it bad." Mahler's recreation of the interview, which Jackson gives at a bar while Martin was hobnobbing with former Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford nearby, is one of the book's highlights.