Want a real sense of the '77 Yankees? Try these DVDs
Posted: Monday July 9, 2007 7:19PM; Updated: Monday July 9, 2007 7:23PM
After Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three consecutive pitches in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, giving the Yankees their first championship since 1962, New York third baseman Graig Nettles said, "Twenty or 30 years ago you might have made a movie like this. Today people would never believe it."
Thirty years later, a movie -- or, more to the point, a TV mini-series -- has been made of the 1977 Yankee season. ESPN's The Bronx is Burning begins Monday night after the Home Run Derby. It is based on Jonathan Mahler's highly engaging account of New York City in the summer of '77. The Yankees are just part of Mahler's narrative but the mini-series is certain to focus almost exclusively on one of the most famous battling teams in baseball history.
"The Bronx Zoo Yankees," as relief pitcher Sparky Lyle dubbed them, are easily one of the most written about Yankees teams ever. They have all the makings of a great sports movie. Everybody on the team hated each other and yet they still won. The power struggle between George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, set in the early days of free agency, was tabloid heaven. Newsday reporter, Steve Jacobsen described Jackson as "a magnificent athlete, blessed with a rare personal magnetism and marked by the brooding pride and sensitivity of an opera star."
Steinbrenner had a genius for grabbing headlines and the season unfolded like a tawdry melodrama, even during the World Series: Ed Figueroa, Mickey Rivers and Munson talked publicly wanting to be traded and after New York won Game 3, losing pitcher Tommy John said, "So, the soap opera goes on. Will Billy Martin find success and happiness in a continuing shower of champagne?"
It's a cinch for a movie, but I'm skeptical about the ESPN series, first, because ESPN has yet to produce any original entertainment of lasting value. Second, a team as crude and vulgar as the 1977 Yanks don't deserve to be sanitized as they invariably will be on EPSN. The spirit of the team was perfectly captured in the slapstick hockey comedy, Slapshot, which was released nationwide in June of '77, the day before Martin famously pulled Jackson from the field in the middle of a nationally televised broadcast for not hustling after a ball. The best thing ESPN's series has going for it are John Turturro, who is physically too tall to play Martin (too bad Harry Dean Stanton isn't twenty years younger), and Oliver Platt, two exceedingly talented actors who don't mind chewing up the scenery.
No matter how the mini series turns out, if you want a real look at the Bronx Zoo Yankees, look no further than A&E's new box set of the 1977 World Series. It includes all six games of the Fall Classic, un-cut, as well as Game 5 of the ALCS. A&E has now released a handful of complete World Series, including 1975, 1979, 1986, 1987. Since MLB doesn't have an equivalent to NFL Films, they are a revelation for baseball fans.
ABC covered the '77 Series, which was called by Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Tom Seaver, an unlikely three-man team (Die-hard Yankee fans will enjoy local announcers, including Bill White and Phil Rizutto calling Game 5 of the ALCS). Jackson, more suited for college football and auto racing than baseball, handles the play-by-play and is continually interrupted by Cosell. Even in the middle of a home-run call, Cosell thinks nothing of jumping in on Jackson, and stealing the moment. (The joke is on them in the end as collectively they manage to bungle the call on Jackson's third home run in Game 6, surely an announcer's golden moment if there ever way one.) The straight-laced Seaver -- who was unceremoniously shipped out of New York earlier that summer by M. Donald Grant and Dick Young -- offers the inside take and Cosell graciously lobs him bp fastballs all series long.
The broadcasts indicate the larger troubles New York experienced that summer. During Game 2 in the Bronx, the ABC cameras capture an abandon building not far from the Stadium burning out of control. They return to the image several times during the course of the game. "There it is, ladies and gentlemen," said Cosell, "the Bronx is burning." The Dodgers lead all the way and in the eighth inning fans started running onto the field. First one, then another, and then a smoke bomb is tossed into the outfield. Play was halted and Mickey Rivers stood in centerfield in the midst of a stream of blue smoke. "That's a lovely display, isn't it?" says Cosell. Seaver jumps in and sings the praises of New York baseball fans, but Cosell interrupts him. "To put it kindly and literally, they confuse liberty with liscence."