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Review: Old Towne Teams and Bronx Bombers

Notable baseball books of the spring

By Todd Leopold

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning
  • By Jonathan Mahler
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Non-fiction
  • 368 pages
    Luckiest Man
  • By Jonathan Eig
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Non-fiction
  • 432 pages
    Reversing the Curse
  • By Dan Shaughnessy
  • Houghton Mifflin
  • Non-fiction
  • 256 pages
  • By Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Non-fiction
  • 432 pages
    New York
    Lou Gehrig
    New England States

    (CNN) -- Maybe it's better to finish second.

    The Boston Red Sox may be the world champions, but it's the Yankees who have the better books this spring -- a change from the norm, in which New England's favorite sons generally get the better literature (Leigh Montville's 2004 bio "Ted Williams," occasional articles from John Updike, Charles P. Pierce or Roger Angell) and the Bronx Bombers take home the flags.

    Of course, it helps that the New York books in question -- a biography of Lou Gehrig and a chronicle of Gotham in 1977 -- have subjects that go beyond baseball, whereas the Red Sox works are content to relive the 2004 season.

    The best of the bunch is "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which manages to combine Reggie Jackson's arriving ego, George Steinbrenner's imperiousness and Billy Martin's combustibility (a cocktail that's sustained books from Sparky Lyle's "The Bronx Zoo" to Martin's "Number One") with a hotly contested mayoral race, blackout-fueled devastation, Rupert Murdoch's rampaging New York Post and the city reeling from it all.

    Author Jonathan Mahler originally intended, he writes, to focus on Jackson and the Yankees, with the city as a secondary character. But New York being New York, it pushed its way to the front, and that's fortunate for Mahler: Though the stories of the Yankees' contentious clubhouse are still entertaining, it's the sweaty heat of a city struggling to survive that carries the day.

    The chapters on the July 1977 blackout and ensuing destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick are worth the price of admission alone. Moreover, the history has given a new perspective to the mayoral candidates: the almost-forgotten firebrand Bella Abzug, the tragic Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo and the eventual winner, Ed Koch. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning" -- an actual line spoken by Howard Cosell, viewing a school fire during the World Series -- is a winner as well.

    "Luckiest Man" (Simon & Schuster), a biography of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig, manages to provide some dimension to one of baseball's more colorless stars.

    To generations, Gehrig has been a cardboard cutout known by three labels: Larrupin' Lou (for his hitting prowess); the Iron Horse (for his consecutive-game streak); and Lou Gehrig's Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that eventually took his life). Eig gives him flesh and blood, highlighting the surprisingly varied aspects of the Yankee first baseman's personality and surroundings, including a smothering mother, feisty and smart wife and determined character. Gehrig deserves our admiration, but Eig also grants him our understanding.

    Of Dan Shaughnessy's "Reversing the Curse" (Houghton Mifflin) and Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan's "Faithful" (Simon & Schuster), the former is the better book, the latter the better diehard Red Sox fan's book. Shaughnessy, a longtime Boston Globe sportswriter who has ridden "the Curse of the Bambino" for two decades (he even wrote a book with that title), knows his team and its fans well, and offers an engaging condensation of Red Sox history and the 2004 season.

    Even more entertaining are the comments of Red Sox fans on, most of who can't stand Shaughnessy for some reason (too honest?) and are retaliating by giving his book one star. It's better than that -- a solid three- to four-star effort.

    King and O'Nan are rabid fans, and it shows. "Faithful" -- which came out last winter, just after the World Series -- is a diary of the 2004 season by two fine writers who sometimes let their devotion to minutiae get in the way of a good story.

    Horrormeister King is the emotional hand wringer; O'Nan ("The Good Wife," "Wish You Were Here") the slightly more controlled detail man. Both seem as shocked as anyone that the Sox pulled themselves off the mat and beat the Yanks in the American League playoffs -- passages that make for the book's best writing. Other sections may be of interest only to Sawx fans, but if you're one, you'll be hanging on every comma.

    And two other books of note:

    - "Three Nights in August" (Houghton Mifflin) by Buzz Bissinger: The author of "Friday Night Lights" follows St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa around and focuses on a three-game set against the Chicago Cubs in 2003. Watch this space for a story on Bissinger.

    - "The Book on the Book" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press) by Bill Felber: Newspaper editor Felber examines some of baseball's conventional wisdom, with fascinating conclusions.

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