Book Review: ‘78 by Bill Reynolds

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Crap—if there’s one thing this world doesn’t need, it’s another damn book about the Boston Red Sox. And if there’s one thing this world needs even less than that it’s one that features both the Red Sox and Yankees.” Surely, books that feed Red Sox Nation must be one of the world’s leading killers of the Amazon rainforest.

At any rate, the above was my first reaction to hearing about the new book by Bill Reynolds, ’78: The Boston Red Sox, a Historic Game, and a Divided City. Heck, just last year Richard Bradley wrote The Greatest Game, which focused on the “historic game” of Reynolds’ title. Is another book along the same vein really necessary?

Ah, but this is one of those times when first impressions are misleading. Yes, Reynolds’ new book centers on the day Bucky Dent got a new middle name, but it really isn’t mining the same vein as Bradley did. The Bradley work was simply a baseball book. Reynolds aims for something a bit more ambitious.

The key to understanding ’78 is to look at its full title. It doesn’t merely look at the game, but goes beyond it, to examine city of Boston and the troubles it experienced in the 1970s.

Anyone who knows their history or is old enough to remember the 1970s will immediately have one image spring to mind when they think of Boston’s 1970s difficulties: busing.

In that decade, federal courts ruled that the city’s housing patterns led to segregated schools and ordered busing programs to remedy it. Beginning in 1974, members of the white working class neighborhoods of South Boston and Charlestown engaged in sizable (and sometimes violent) protests. The Athens of America became the Little Rock of the North.

The issue was still a present-tense concern during the 1978 pennant race, when the Red Sox blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees before losing a one-game playoff when Bucky Dent hit his famous three-run dingers.

Reynolds uses the Dent game to address the paradox of how a city torn apart on racial matters in the schools could relax and cheer on a team dependent on prominent black stars such as fan favorite Luis Tiant and 1978 AL MVP Jim Rice. With the press accounts of the time alongside several books written about Boston and race (and at least one book on cultural life in the 1970s) as his sources, Reynolds uses the game as a framing device to examine the team, the franchise, the times, Boston, the overall national culture, and how all of those elements reflected on and interacted with each other.

Rather than just a straight baseball book, Reynolds is delving more into social history. These are very dangerous waters to enter. For every successful attempt to do sports-as-social-history, there are numerous abject failures.

The ones that flop simply note that while A happened in The Particular Sport, B happened in Society At Large, therefore A and B are related and perhaps even helped cause each other. Such approaches badly overestimate the importance of sports in the real world and also show an inability to distinguish coincidence from meaningful correlation.

Using athletics to enlighten us about the values and attitudes of society can be done, but the analogies have to be earned, not merely spouted. A fine example of a book that succeeded in this approach was David Remnick’s King of the World, which looked at Muhammad Ali’s emergence as heavyweight champ and the public images of himself, Sonny Liston, and Floyd Patterson to make points about where America stood with regard to race relations in the early 1960s.

’78 can’t easily be classified into either the success or failure categories. Reynolds avoids the most lamentable errors of this stripe of sports book while not quite achieving the heights for which he’s aiming.

On the one hand, this book does contain several illuminating points. Reynolds argues that the dispute between flake/southpaw Bill “Spaceman” Lee and skipper Don Zimmer represented the clashing values between counterculture and establishment. That’s a fairly easy point to make as Lee would talk to reporters about politics when he wasn’t explaining to them how he put marijuana on his pancakes, but it’s a good point nonetheless.

Reynolds does an even better job explaining the role race played in establishing Rice’s public demeanor. He grew up in South Carolina when segregation was common. He attended a once all-white high school (while his siblings didn’t) because he could play ball and help them win games. Before he stepped onto Fenway’s grass, he knew all too much about racism in America, but also that he could get by if he focused on the game.

He arrived in Boston at virtually the same moment the busing protests began. Rice knew what to do: don’t get involved, just go about his business. He wasn’t going to try to be a leader, just someone who did his job.

He avoided getting caught up in controversy, but by not embracing the media or city he never got as many accolades as some teammates, leading to growing anger and bitterness over the years. Race wasn’t the only factor pushing Rice down this road, but it was part of it.

While these are worthy and true intersections between sport and society for Reynolds to explore, they are also secondary. The heart of the book remains unfulfilled: how could a city mired in such racial turbulence consistently turn out to support the integrated Red Sox roster?

Reynolds is well aware an obvious and easy answer exists for him to use. He needs to merely say the Red Sox and the 1978 pennant race helped heal the city, bringing everyone together so they could live in brotherhood and harmony and all that stuff forevermore.

He doesn’t go for it though. I appreciate that because while an obvious answer, it also doesn’t appear to be the correct answer. In his narrative on the busing protests, Reynolds notes the controversy was on the ebb even before the season began. It likely crested in 1976, when the local press published a photo of a middle-aged black man wearing a suit being attacked in downtown Boston by white youths wielding an American flag. (They hit him with the flagpole, breaking his nose.) That caused revulsion, even among busing’s opponents. In the fall of 1977, the leading busing opponents lost elections in Boston. Game or no game, busing was in the midst of an ebb tide in Boston.

That leaves Reynolds without much of an answer at all, though. I respect him for his discipline because that leaves him without an effective answer. You can tell he really wants to answer it. There is a several page segment in which he keeps going back and forth. He goes up to the edge of the “baseball = interracial harmony” idea and perhaps even steps over the edge from time to time, without ever really committing to it.

He’ll say that the game helped bring the city’s racial groups together, then admit two pages later that wasn’t really true because Fenway’s fans were almost entirely white. In one paragraph he’ll start arguing the game had some Special Meaning and then demolish that point in the next paragraph.

In this whole stretch I found myself rooting for Reynolds. He’d presented a good history of the game alongside a gripping narrative of Boston’s busing brouhaha. He wanted to make the two halves whole without doing it on the cheap, and I was hoping he could pull it off because each part of the book was good.

He can’t quite make the square peg fit into the round hole though. It’s a damn shame. He somewhat lamely says the game helped the city move on, even though it didn’t really bring the city together, but that’s not much of a point.

Perhaps the best answer the book has is one Reynolds only elliptically notes. He notes the late 1970s saw the rise of a new culture—the “Me Generation” as Tom Wolfe called it—personified by the disco music of the day. It was an era when people’s main priority was their own self-interest and pleasure, in contrast to the attempt at greater causes that marked the 1960s.

Though one doesn’t think of busing protests as akin to Vietnam protests or civil rights marches, they all demonstrate an intense awareness of and interest in larger political issues of the day in a way that is lacking among trying to turn that beat around.

While most baseball fans wouldn’t like to hear their game placed on the level of disco, both popular music and spectator sports exist largely for the enjoyment of the fan. They create pleasure in your life. Both can reflect and illuminate a nation’s culture, but neither is central to it.

However, I’m not sure if Reynolds ever makes that particular point too clearly. Many of the elements are introduced, but they aren’t put together so forthrightly. Instead, he spends several pages wrestling with the notion of what the game meant even if he can’t say it meant that much.

Though the book ultimately fails to unite its strands, that does not mean it’s a bad book. As I just noted, both the baseball and busing sections are very good. He glosses over some parts of the game—the fourth inning lasts three sentences for instance, and the fifth inning is about as long—but does a wonderful job discussing the parts on which he does dwell. His accounts of Dent’s (in)famous seventh inning at-bat and Piniella’s defensive gamesmanship in the ninth are both spectacular.

Though the book is centered on the game, it really spends most of its time detailing the history of busing in Boston. He regards the entire process as an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. However well meaning it was, it turned prejudice into hatred in the white communities. Even in black areas, support for busing fell from half of those polled when it began to only one in eight several years later.

A main knock with this book was that it told the story almost exclusively from the point of view of whites. The central controversy involved the interaction between whites and blacks, and Reynolds at least explores the notion of how the game affected the city’s racial climate, but only one side of the story is really made clear.

There are occasions when black voices come through, but they are rare. Reynolds includes a two-page segment about Howard Bryant, the African-American author who wrote Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. Bryant reminisced how all the older people in his Boston neighborhood hated the Red Sox because they were the last team to integrate. If this was a widespread sentiment among Boston’s blacks, it should be explored in more detail than just two pages. However, aside from depictions of black Red Sox like Rice, the rest of the book focuses on the white parts of Boston.

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to because of its considerable strengths. Though it couldn’t quite fuse its elements, Reynolds didn’t try to force fusion to occur.

References & Resources
Obviously, the main source for this is: Bill Reynolds. ’78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City. New York City: New American Library, 2009.

That being said, a really great book is: David Remnick. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. New York City: Random House, 1998.

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