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1977, the Yankees, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

by Jonathan Mahler

Pub Date: April 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-17528-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sports and politics overlap in an exhibition of municipal excitement in a city that, scarcely a generation ago, was in ferment.

New York journalist Mahler vividly recalls the Big Apple’s spirit of ’77 (though he was only eight and living in California at the time). The city was in a fiscal crisis, with doom, ruin, and Rupert Murdoch pressing forward. There were subway strikes, garbage strikes, and job actions by the city’s finest—the police. President Gerald Ford, according to the headlines, invited the metropolis to drop dead. An emergent gay scene, punk rock, Studio 54 (“a fifty-four-hundred-square-foot dance floor crowded with undulators, balconies crowded with fornicators”), and diverse raunchy venues like Plato’s Retreat marked New York’s special culture. Then, in the sweltering midsummer, came Con Ed’s great power blackout, followed by rioting and looting throughout the five boroughs. The newspapers delighted in indigenous characters named Bella Abzug, John Lindsay, Abe Beame, Albert Shanker, and Son of Sam. The epic campaign for the mayor’s slot on the Democratic ticket boiled down to Messrs. Koch and Cuomo. Meanwhile, the ineffable Yankees contended with their own epic battle between belligerent manager Billy Martin and self-important slugger Reggie Jackson. And, most cleverly, Mahler devotes a major portion of this chronicle to the period’s baseball history. Despite the odds against such a combination being successful, he pulls off an expert historical double play by blending front-page political news and sports-page action. The result recalls the ambient atmosphere of the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, the natural argot of the precinct houses and of the locker rooms of New York just a few years ago. And it’s all done with the knowing acumen and street smarts of an old-fashioned beat reporter.

With a nice touch for pop culture, Mahler paints an informed picture of a bright city in a dark hour.