Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

4.6 16
by Jonathan Mahler

View All Available Formats & Editions

A passionate and dramatic account of a year in the life of a city, when baseball and crime reigned supreme, and when several remarkable figures emerged to steer New York clear of one of its most harrowing periods.

By early 1977, the metropolis was in the grip of hysteria caused by a murderer dubbed "Son of Sam." And on a sweltering night in July, a


A passionate and dramatic account of a year in the life of a city, when baseball and crime reigned supreme, and when several remarkable figures emerged to steer New York clear of one of its most harrowing periods.

By early 1977, the metropolis was in the grip of hysteria caused by a murderer dubbed "Son of Sam." And on a sweltering night in July, a citywide power outage touched off an orgy of looting and arson that led to the largest mass arrest in New York's history. As the turbulent year wore on, the city became absorbed in two epic battles: the fight between Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson and team manager Billy Martin, and the battle between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo for the city's mayoralty. Buried beneath these parallel conflicts—one for the soul of baseball, the other for the soul of the city—was the subtext of race. The brash and confident Jackson took every black myth and threw it back in white America's face. Meanwhile, Koch and Cuomo ran bitterly negative campaigns that played upon urbanites' fears of soaring crime and falling municipal budgets.

These braided stories tell the history of a year that saw the opening of Studio 54, the evolution of punk rock, and the dawning of modern SoHo. As the pragmatist Koch defeated the visionary Cuomo and as Reggie Jackson finally rescued a team racked with dissension,1977 became a year of survival but also of hope.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning is a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the basis of the 2007 ESPN miniseries, starring John Turturro as Billy Martin, Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner, and Daniel Sunjata as Reggie Jackson.

Editorial Reviews
With this dazzling book, Jonathan Mahler brilliantly reminds us that before steroid scandals rocked the sports world, all was not placid on the diamond, in the locker rooms, or in the world beyond the bleachers. In this riveting look at New York in the seething '70s, Mahler spray-paints an indelible portrait of the Yankees in the Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson era -- as the "Summer of Sam" gripped a city teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Pop culture, history, and baseball come together as the author pulls off a literary triple play.
For New Yorkers, 1977 was an exceptionally turbulent year. By January, the "Son of Sam" killing spree of David Berkowitz had the city paralyzed in fear. In July, a sweltering night of heat resulted in a citywide power outage that ignited an orgy of looting and arson in a number of areas. Even the dugout of the revered New York Yankees was not exempt from turmoil, as slugger Reggie Jackson and tart-tongued manager Billy Martin indulged their mutual dislike and nearly engaged in fisticuffs. In a fierce mayoral election, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo swapped barbs and alarmist accusations. In this absorbing narrative, Jonathan Mahler probes beneath the thin skins of Gothamites to find the real reasons behind this summer of rage and hope.
Library Journal
Mahler (contributing writer, New York Times Magazine) points to New York's summer of 1977, when widespread looting and arson followed a crippling power outage, the Son of Sam killer continued his murderous rampage, and the Bronx Bombers struggled to regain the title of baseball's best team after 15 years. But his sweep is still wider, traversing the political, cultural, and racial currents that recast the nation's leading metropolis from the 1960s through the next decade. Indeed, Mahler's baseball focus, while skillfully delivered, is largely secondary. Mahler captures the zeitgeist with near perfection. For general libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.] Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 lockerrooms 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.
From the Publisher

"Ambitiously conceived, marvelously told . . . Mahler weaves several stories into one grand narrative of the city's death and rebirth. . . . It all comes back, in living color . . . a tour de force.” —The New York Times

“Entertaining and illuminating . . . It should not be surprising then that Mahler . . . believed a layered account of a single year in the life of the city, 1977, could sustain a book--nor should it be surprising that he was right. . . . A nuanced portrait of this wild year.” —The New York Times Book Review (front cover)

“Compulsively readable . . . Mahler's innocently emblematic figures careen vividly through their historical moment.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A rich canvas . . . an excellent new book.” —Sports Illustrated

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning is a terrifically entertaining, knowledgeable book about one of the most tumultuous years in the history of New York--both on and off the ballfield. Read it and weep, read it and laugh, for the incomparable circus that was our greatest city.” —Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

“Damon Runyon where are you now? Mahler's rollicking evocation of New York in 1977--the year of Son of Sam, the year of the blackout, the year it refuses to Drop Dead, the year, dammit, the Yankees take the World Series--is full of Runyonesque characterizations, energy, and biting wit. Mahler chooses to portray the city from two alternating perspectives, the bleachers and the political clubhouse, and the result is a stereoscopic image in color of a troubled city in search of itself. With characters like Reggie Jackson and Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Jimmy Breslin, the bases are loaded and Mahler smokes it.” —Harold Evans, author of They Made America

“Jonathan Mahler takes us back to one tumultuous year in New York, and through masterful storytelling and rich portraits of the leading characters of the day--Reggie, Billy, Koch, Cuomo, Murdoch, Steinbrenner--reminds us that what defines and ultimately saves a city, in any era, are its outsized citizens. In Mahler's expert hands, they are flawed, fierce, brilliant, bickersome, and as indomitable as the metropolis itself.” —Michael Sokolove, author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw

“A fascinating city, a fascinating team, a fascinating time. This book took me back. Where were you in 1977?” —Tim McCarver

“[Mahler] 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 precint 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 . . . An informed picture of a bright city in a dark hour.” —Kirkus Reviews

“What a book! What a year! Just when it looked like New York was down for the count--its heart and soul and civic fabric seemingly bankrupt and burned--the city rose, incapable of dropping dead. Jonathan Mahler takes us on a mesmerizing trip down into the dark recesses of racist politics and up into the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, transporting us back to a year that turned out to be not the end but morning at last after the city's longest night.” —Robert Sullivan, author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

“You begin this book thinking, reasonably, that Bella Abzug, Billy Martin, Son of Sam and Studio 54 can't possibly occupy the same narrative space, but as Jonathan Mahler's story of New York circa 1977 unfolds, the disparate gritty elements start to resonate off one another. The result isn't harmony--the city has never known such a thing--but rather what a great book about New York should be: a story that's oversized, blaring, impossible, and true.” —Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

“Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning is an energetic synthesis of a year in the life of a great city in manic conflict with itself.” —Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher was A Spy

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning
PART ONE1.ON the evening of July 3, 1976, some fifty thousand New Yorkers sat on blankets in Central Park's Sheep Meadow eating picnic dinners, drinking wine, waving red, white, and blue sparklers, and listening to Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic in a surging birthday concert for the United States of America.The next day, a Sunday, dawned bright and brisk. Millions of people set out early to secure spots along the waterfront, crowding onto the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn or staking out space on the West Side Highway, the pockmarked stretch of crumbling concrete and rusting steel that had been closed to traffic for two years now, ever since an elevated portion of the road had collapsed under the weight of a city dump truck loaded with asphalt. The water was scarcely less congested. Thousands of boats jockeyed for space in the New York Harbor, from yawls to sloops to runabouts. It was a forest of masts and sails, "an unbroken bridge of small craft that reached from the shores of Brooklyn to the coast of New Jersey," as the lead story in Monday's New York Times described it. Some boats dipped in and out of view in the chop; others circled idly, their sails bent against the breeze, waiting for the parade to begin.It began promptly at 11 a.m., when the three-masted Coast Guard bark slipped under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Fireboats sprayed plumes of red, white, and blue water. Cannons boomed. One by one, an armada of tall ships chugged north against the Hudson's current and a downstream wind: the Danmark (Denmark), the Gorch Fock (West Germany), the Nippon Maru (Japan), the Dar Pomorza (Poland), and on and on.New York's five-foot two-inch Democratic mayor, Abraham Beame, watched the whole spectacle through his Coke-bottle-thick horn-rimmed glasses from the ninety-foot-high flight deck of the host ship, the gargantuan aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. By his side wasnone other than President Gerald Ford, who had only days earlier reversed his position and conceded to loan New York City five hundred million dollars--enough, for the moment anyway, to stave off bankruptcy. When the show was over, Beame, who was wearing a light blue seersucker suit and USS Forrestal cap, boarded a Circle Line craft that had been hired out to ferry dignitaries to the nearby shore. The boat strayed into the wrong channel and was seized by the Coast Guard. Beame laughed off his rotten luck, as did his wife, Mary. "If they put him in the brig," she joked, "it'll be the first vacation he's had since running for mayor!"Darkness ushered in the biggest fireworks display in the city's history, thirty minutes of thudding guns and streaking rockets fired from Liberty Island, Ellis Island, Governors Island, and three separate barges. The splashes of color against the night sky were visible for fifteen miles around. Transistor radios were tuned to local stations, which played snippets of great American addresses, from Lincoln at Gettysburg to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. After the last chrysanthemum exploded into thousands of beads of light, the crowd turned toward the Statue of Liberty and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a helicopter towing a huge flag made up of thousands of red, white, and blue lightbulbs floated overhead.Nobody wanted the party to end. Fortunately, there was another one just around the corner, the thirty-seventh Democratic National Convention. The last two--Chicago '68 and Miami '72--had been notoriously rancorous, but this one was guaranteed to be a love fest. The party's presidential candidate, the genteel Jimmy Carter, had already been anointed, and the city was primping for its close-up. Special repair crews were sent out to patch potholes in midtown, the Transit Authority changed its cleaning schedule to ensure that key stations would be freshly scrubbed for the delegates, and more than a thousand extra patrolmen and close to one hundred extra sanitation men were assigned to special convention duty. With the help ofa hastily enacted antiloitering law, the police even managed to round up most of the prostitutes in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden. New York's holding cells were overflowing, but its streets were more or less hooker-free. A red, white, and blue crown glowed atop the Empire State Building.Come opening night, July 12, the Garden was stuffed to capacity. Beame, who had been the first big-city mayor to throw his support behind the ex-governor of Georgia, welcomed the throngs to "Noo Yawk" in his Lower East Side monotone and then proceeded to hammer the administration of his erstwhile shipmate. "It has been Noo Yawk's misfortune, and the misfortune of this entire nation, that the very men who should have been healing and uniting this land have chosen instead to divide it!" the Mighty Mite thundered.That night Rolling Stone magazine threw a big bash for Carter's campaign staff at Automation House on the Upper East Side. A month earlier the magazine had splashed Hunter S. Thompson's maniacal twenty-five-thousand-word profile of Carter--JIMMY CARTER AND THE GREAT LEAP OF FAITH--on its cover, thus sewing up the youth vote for the Democratic candidate. (Thompson insisted that the article wasn't an endorsement, but you would have to have been high to read it as anything less.) Pious Christian that he was, Carter may not have been rock 'n' roll ready--in a few years' time, a disillusioned Hunter would be comparing him to a high school civics teacher--but he'd do in a pinch. At least his campaign team, which included the likes of Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan, and Pat Caddell, passed for young and hip, especially for a magazine that was aspiring to get out of head shops and onto newsstands.The party was the hottest ticket in town, a strictly A-list affair--the drugs were to be contained to the bathrooms and closets--to which only an elite five hundred had been invited. Thousands more, including dozens of congressmen, turned up. The party started at 11 p.m. By midnight the doors had been barred, and taxis and limousines were still disgorging hundreds more. Lauren Bacall,Senator Gary Hart, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Warren Beatty, Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, Ben Bradlee, and Katharine Graham all were stuck outside, vainly brandishing their invitations. The scene inside was a little more subdued, as the Establishment (Walter Cronkite) mingled seamlessly with the anti-Establishment (John Belushi). At 3 a.m. the landlord of Automation House, the labor lawyer Ted Kheel, asked the magazine's thirty-one-year-old founding father, Jann Wenner, for a couple thousand dollars to keep the party going. Wenner shouted at Kheel for a few minutes before writing another check, and the booze continued to flow into Monday morning.It was a bleary crew at the Garden that night, when the Democratic Party adopted a platform that promised, among other things, a "massive effort" to help New York. Twenty-four hours later Jimmy Carter was nominated. As the convention drew to a close, delegates, well-wishers, surely even some reporters sang along to "We Shall Overcome."LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING. Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Mahler. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and has published journalism in The Washington Post, New York, The New Republic, Talk Lingua Franca, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Brooklyn.

Jonathan Mahler, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and The Challenge: How a Maverick Navy Officer and a Young Law Professor Risked Their Careers to Defend the Constitution--and Won.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I grew up in the nyc of the '70s, and it was a gritty, rough and tumble and yes a dangerous place. By comparison the city of today has more of a disney world feel. My wife thought I embellished my memories, but this wonderful book valdates them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book to read. I enjoyed it from begining to end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MagzMW More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As someone born years after '77 whom, until now, never reads outside of the fiction genre, I was pleasantly surprised by how much i enjoyed this book. I was afraid that it would be written like text books where each chapter is an overview of each event. Instead it is a retelling of these being told a story from your elders who lived it. Truly enjoyable from beginning to end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read! Anyone who was in NYC at that time will really be brought back to a City that does not exist today. Baseball - will there ever be another match-up of team owner, manager and hot-headed superstar like the one with Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie? Politics - Beame, Abzug, Sutton, Koch - what a politicial arena. The '77 blackout - the looting and the fallout that followed. The Son of Sam and the terror he wrought on the City. All of these events are woven into a great story. Seriously, the book was hard to put down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Captures the spirit of New york 1977 like nothing else ever has. Beautifully written and carefully researched. You can smell the streets, see the riots and hear the crowd 'Reggie, Reggie!' Absolutely great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Loved it! Captures the feel of the city at the time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
easy to read and full of fascinating information relating to New York in the 70's. Recommended to baseball fans, political fans or those in need of a trip back in time to a New York some are too young to remember.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book will bring back crazy memories of the summer of 1977. Anybody who grew up in the boros and born during the late sixties will love this book. This book summed up all the 'conversations' that my parents were having in 1970's Staten Island. Events that took place during that time has directly affected my ability to make a living and stay in this area
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is such a great book! Should be on everyone¿s summer reading list or as a gift for a New Yorker living outside of the state. In 2005 having recently returned from the Peace Corps I decided to enter graduate school @ Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy. Even though I¿m a native New Yorker I was still very unfamiliar of the City¿s past. Long story short the book definitely helped me better understand New York City¿s fiscal crisis of the 70s and the struggling Bronx Bombers. Also, sections on the Son of Sam made the book even more fascinating. The BN summer special is such a deal being that I paid almost full price. Can¿t wait for the 8 part ESPN novella airing in July. Happy Reading!