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Redeemed Yankees

October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978, Roger Kahn, Harcourt: 382 pp., $25

May 18, 2003|Anthony Day | Anthony Day is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Now that the days are getting longer, thoughts in America turn to baseball. Spring fever breeds desire, and desire summons up nostalgia for baseball seasons long gone and teams that long ago changed their home bases. Will Brooklyn and its fans ever give up mourning their lost Dodgers?

Like the Ken Burns television series -- any Ken Burns television series, for that matter -- the stories tend toward the elegiac, toward the celebration of lost causes (those Brooklyn Dodgers again), toward the mythic memories of childhood.

Roger Kahn, the cherubic grand old man of baseball writers, long ago, in "The Boys of Summer," did his part in the sweet memory school of baseball writing. More recently in "The Head Game: Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound," he employed his strong power of analysis to examine the great pitchers of the game and how they plied their art.

Now in "October Men," Kahn takes up a harder challenge: to tell the story of how a rich, powerful yet apparently dysfunctional ballclub, filled with some not very likable characters, picked itself up off the floor and won the pennant and the World Series.

It was, of course, the Yankees of 1978. Here they are, as Kahn introduces them:

"The New York Yankees of the late 1970s, specifically the championship teams of '77 and '78, would certainly hold the record, if such records were kept, for the greatest number of clashing egos on a single ball club. As it happened, many of the principal players, Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent and the late Billy Martin, came from broken homes. The late captain, Thurmon Munson, would not speak to his father for many years. Remembering Psych 101, or simply looking about, we know that families in conflict do not always produce tranquil offspring. Add powerful and willful owner George Steinbrenner, a media that can well be described as hyperactive and some subtle and not-so-subtle racism, and what you find in that big ball yard in the Bronx is 'double, double, toil and trouble.' Still, conflict is the stuff of drama. With the 1978 Yankees, you also find a time that many believed, and many still believe a quarter century later, was the Yankee season nonpareil."

So, it's not a nice story but a gripping one. And Kahn tells it with his customary verve.

But he begins with some history because baseball is, after all, a seamless web, with everything that happens today connected to something that happened, say, 100 years ago ("Teams," he says, "like almost everything else, flow out of history"). Kahn is particularly fond of John Joseph McGraw's Giants of 1905 and their pitcher, "the restrained cow-licked collegian, Christy Mathewson." McGraw-style baseball, Kahn writes, was "the sporting equivalent of war." He quotes a writer of the day as saying that baseball was not "a step-sister to parlor tennis" nor a "foster-brother to drop the handkerchief" but a game played "by real men with real tempers and real enthusiasm" -- not a bad introduction to the 1977 and 1978 Yankees.

Dodger fans will, with keen regret, remember the 1977 Yankees. They were the ones who beat the Dodgers in the World Series; they were the ones whose Reggie Jackson hit four home runs on four swings, the last of which drove Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda to utter his never-to-be forgotten cry: "That was a helluva pitch. When I seen him hit that pitch that far I seen the greatest performance I ever seen in a World Series."

"Their first World Series victory in fifteen years brought with it no tranquillity," Kahn writes deadpan of the Yankees. In the spring of 1978 their manager, Billy Martin, was drinking even more than he had before, and Steinbrenner, still not a wholly seasoned owner, had reservations about him; players were unhappy and grousing about money; and on top of it all, female reporters were being admitted to the locker rooms.

It was a ballclub in which, Kahn writes, no one was in charge and everyone was in charge. The front office was in disarray. Ballplayers were fined because they refused to go to a charity luncheon Steinbrenner wanted them to attend. And Martin was unable to enforce discipline; he was, Kahn writes, a feudal manager out of the 1950s in a time when the old feudalism had gone from baseball. The New York Daily News summed it up with a headline: "Everything Well in Yank Family, Discord Returns."

As spring moved toward summer, things got no better. "As events were demonstrating," Kahn writes, " the greatly talented Yankees were, as [Yankee President Al] Rosen said, not choirboys, but neither were they a team. Webster's first definition of that word is applicable: 'A group of animals working together.' Whatever else the Yankees were doing as the summer of 1978 neared, they were not working together."

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