“’78: The Boston Red Sox, a Historic Game, and a Divided City” (New American Library, 310 pages, $24.95), by Bill Reynolds
In the entire star-crossed history of the Boston Red Sox, perhaps no single swing of a bat caused more angst among the team’s loyal fans than one taken by Bucky Dent in a playoff at Fenway Park on Oct. 2, 1978.
The light-hitting New York Yankees shortstop’s three-run homer sent the Red Sox on the path to a crushing defeat that day — a loss all the more excruciating when considered that in midsummer the hated Bronx Bombers sat 14 games behind Boston in the standings, staggering on the field and squabbling off of it.
Reynolds’ story of that game unfolds against the backdrop of forced busing in Boston, a social cataclysm that pitted black against white and neighborhood against neighborhood, forever tarnishing the city’s reputation as a bastion of enlightened thought.
While Reynolds tries to weave together the threads of the busing and baseball stories, mostly in alternating chapters, “’78” often reads like two books, or what the author himself concedes were two parallel universes that never fully intersected.
Reynolds does remind us that the simmering race issues that exploded in the busing crisis were not fully removed from quaint and nostalgic Fenway. After all, the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Too many black athletes felt uncomfortable playing in Boston and too many black residents viewed Fenway as unwelcoming, if not downright hostile.
Short of a healing or uniting force, the Red Sox in the 1970s were — at best — a distraction from the violence and tension in the city’s neighborhoods. Most players were largely oblivious to the upheaval as were many fans, who rode the Massachusetts Turnpike or took commuter trains to the park and retreated to their suburban enclaves after the final out.
The events of busing are recounted concisely, before and after Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 desegregation order. Some of the most scarring images are recalled: buses carrying black children pelted with bricks as they enter white South Boston; a black attorney brutally attacked — with an American flag as the weapon — at an antibusing rally at City Hall.
Reynolds, a Providence Journal sportswriter, sets the stage for the baseball showdown with brief portraits of the combatants. Aptly nicknamed The Bronx Zoo, the Yankees at the time were a talented but unstable mix of some of baseball’s most colorful characters — Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage — all answering to their mercurial owner, George Steinbrenner.
The Red Sox had their own unique personalities, including outspoken left-hander Bill Lee, a product of the 1960s counterculture who called his old-fashioned manager, Don Zimmer, a “gerbil.” And, of course, there was Yaz, the revered Carl Yastrzemski, trying in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career for the world championship that had and always would elude him. His harmless pop-up with the tying run at third ended the game and Boston’s season.
The loss was a dagger at the heart of Red Sox Nation and triggered a prolonged period of self-pity in which superstitious fans even came to believe in the “Curse of the Bambino,” a notion that the team’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees had somehow placed a hex upon their beloved team for generations.
In his epilogue, Reynolds points out that Boston has made considerable progress in healing the wounds left by busing. Likewise, two World Series titles have lifted the “curse” and made memories of Bucky Dent’s fateful swing a bit easier to endure.
"'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City"
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