Before delving into the game, Richard Bradley, author of The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78 (Free Press, $25), sets a high bar for himself. How exactly does one go about determining the “greatest game” ever with such certainty?
In my life — which started a good four and a half years after the 1978 playoff game — I’ve seen two perfect games, an amazing World Series game 7 and a 3-0 playoff series lead evaporate. Depending upon your perspective, most of those games could be considered the greatest game ever, and when Buster Olney wrote about that World Series game 7, he just called it the last night of a dynasty.
Bradley has no qualms about his claim. Game 163 of the 1978 regular season — played only by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park — stands as baseball’s greatest game. For nine innings, two bitter rivals duked it out with the victor becoming the heavy favorites to win the World Series.
For Yankee fans alive at the time, that game stands as one of the greatest baseball games of all time, and in his book Bradley takes his readers through both the game and the season. In alternating chapters of game play and 1978 baseball history, Bradley sets the stage for an epic showdown. It’s Carl Yastrzemski’s last hurrah, and the culmination of a Bronx Zoo-type season in the Bronx. It’s Yankee grandeur and success against the Red Sox’s decades of failure. It’s Mike Torrez trying to prove his former employees wrong, and it’s Bucky Dent trying to prove his manager wrong.
Bradley starts out inside the minds of Goose Gossage and Yaz. What takes this book that extra step are his sources. Bradley relied on a lot of interviews with players. It brings up questions of historical memory: What does Goose Gossage remember in 2007 of a game 29 years earlier? How do Mike Torrez and Bucky Dent recall seminal moments in their careers after volumes of ink have been spilled over the game’s most famous rivalry? But for now, we can let the players take it away.
And take it away they do. Bradley describes the characters involved. There’s the irascible Billy Martin, the pugnacious Thurman Munson, the arrogant Carlton Fisk. He discusses recent Yankee history and recent Red Sox history. We learn about Reggie Jackson and Dwight Evans, about Lou Piniella and Catfish Hunter, about Yaz’s time in Fenway and Don Zimmer’s managerial failures.
For avid baseball readers, Bradley’s book treads some familiar ground. Jonathan Mahler’s excellent Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning covers the Bronz Zoo Yankees and the 1977 season is detail, and Bradley rehashes that in an early chapter. But Bradley’s book is the logical literary sequel to Mahler’s seminal tome. Bradley’s writing and reporting takes you inside the minds of the players of this game, and for those of us who are fans of the game — alive or not in 1978 — the book takes us back to that crisp fall day in October 1978 when two teams laid it all on the line for a chance to move on.
Was the game really the greatest one ever? Two aces without their best stuff faced off against each other; the lead changed a few times; an unlikely hero emerged in Bucky Dent. A closer — Gossage — nearly blew the game, and a late-inning home run by Reggie Jackson would be the difference. Carl Yastrzemski was fitting the last out just as Gossage and Yaz imagined the game would unfold. For all that, it’s still tough to top that 2001 World Series Game 7.
But this book is also about baseball at a moment in its history. It’s is about baseball on the cusp of change. It’s about how the onset of free agency would forever alter the game’s economics but how playoff baseball remains the pinnacle of the sports world.
You didn’t have to be there or be alive to still feel the goosebumps as Bucky F***in’ Dent blasts a three-run home run over the Green Monster to give the Yanks a lead they would not relinquish. It was a good day for Yankee fans.