I took the news of Bill Reynolds’ new book, ’78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, And A Divided City (New York: New American Library, 2009, 320 pages, $24.95), with a heavy dose of ambivalence. After all, this was one of the most exciting seasons ever played and it’s maintained a Greek tragedy hold over Red Sox Nation for 31 years, in much the same way that Rocky’s defeat kept us coming back for five sequels. And yet, the juxtaposition of these two particular digits, coupled with the portrait of Boston as a racial bastion during its forced busing era, sent a foreboding chill down my spine.
Sometimes, the past is better left right where it is.
Then to, from 30,000 feet Reynolds’ subject matter is seemingly close to other contemporary works. In our busy lives, and with so much content at our disposal, that’s a formidable barrier to ever creasing this book’s spine. I mean, you’ve got Richard Bradley recounting the 1978 American League East race, Michael Connelly’s analysis of the Boston busing riots’ effects on the city and the C’s, and Jonathan Mahler’s chronicle of the Yankees amid a turbulent Empire the summer before. It’s like looking out the cabin window and seeing three other planes in the sky when you never want to see one.
So why would you read this? Simply, those other stories were not told by Bill Reynolds and this one is. Reynolds can describe a Fenway Frank such that that spicy mustard will burn your sinuses as you read it. Nor did the urban unrest of the mid-seventies have the same effect on the Sox as it did on the C’s, or as Son of Sam had on the Yankees. For one thing, those other franchises still managed to win championships. Ouch!
Although there are no new facts introduced – not to spoil the ending, but Yaz still pops out to Nettles in this one, too – Reynolds skillfully explores the yin and yang relationship of busing and the Sox on the City of Boston, tracing each back to its sixties roots while grounding everything with new first-hand accounts from folks who lived it. You may already know what happens, but Reynolds now explores the causative factors and puts you in the hot seat as violence and pennant race vie for each day’s headlines, whether that seat is on a school bus being pelted with rocks en route to South Boston High, or in the bleachers at Fenway Park as Jerry Remy laces a one-out single to sun-baked right to represent the A.L. East-winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Reynolds masterfully uses a sequential account of the one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees that would decide the American League East to pace his story’s advancement, while otherwise freeing himself for extemporaneous exploration of race, busing, and baseball in Boston . There’s an inherent risk of chronologic tedium in any book named after a year, but he sidesteps this by popping up and down a time continuum as his subjects dictate. Readers become modern-day Billy Pilgrims as we visit Carl Yastrzemski in his transforming 1967 campaign, then again in his alienated rookie season of 1961, before swinging back to Fenway Park in time to see him take Ron Guidry deep for a 1-0 lead to start the bottom of the second.
And, like Billy Pilgrim, we’ve seen our death a thousand times over the last 31 years, yet we’re inexplicably compelled toward it with each turn of the page. My hands were sweating as Yaz awaited a 1-0 offering from the struggling Goose Gossage in what would be the final at bat of this remarkable season, as if he somehow was not going to pop the next pitch up to Graig Nettles.
For me, a good book is one that entertains and educates, and ’78 does both. Not being a Bostonian, I was ignorant of the forces pitted against each other during this dark time in the Athens of America. Nor did I have an accurate recollection of the waning days of the 1978 season, or of how the one-game playoff unfolded, having tucked the episode away in the bottom drawer of a chest full of ill memories. But Reynolds made me relive it all, and for that I’m grateful.
Aside from an unscheduled tour of the Boston music scene of the sixties and seventies that I feared would cause me to miss the ninth inning, my only issue with this book is one of modest redundancy. Some similes are tested, whether you’re a fly ball away from the Boston Common, a jump shot away from the Boston Garden, or a popup away from Kenmore Square. But even in apparent weakness lies strength; his knowledge of the city and its history that is interwoven throughout his story give Reynolds additional tools to plant you in 1970s Boston.
I’m not sure the Nation could have handled Reynolds’ account before 2004, but after a couple of World Series titles we now have a safe word to escape the world into which he has so vividly dispatched us. If you can handle a day when winning wasn’t the norm, spend next weekend in ’78.