It was a hurt that took a quarter century to undo.
I was 12 years old in Oxford, England when I heard the news that the New York Yankees had defeated my beloved Boston Red Sox, 5-4, in a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978 to win the American East divisional championship.
Light hitting shortstop Bucky Dent had dealt the critical blow, hitting a three-run shot that had carried into the net above the Green Monster, controversial superstar Reggie Jackson had extended the lead and fireballing reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage had gotten Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski to pop up to third baseman Graig Nettles for the final out.
The collapse was complete.
Just three months earlier, my brothers and I had been exulting over the Sox’s 14-game lead over the Yankees and inevitable divisional victory.
Mom issued a cautionary note, telling us, in essence, that anything could happen.
Addicts of the volumes of statistics contained in Boston Globe sports pages, we knew that Mom could talk with authority about poetry, but were notbout to hear her dire predictions. Our mockery violated the rule that you should listen to your mother.
We also didn’t realize that Mom had some experience of her own.
She had been just a little older than us when her childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had blown an almost identical lead in 1951 before losing the final frame of a three-game series when Bobby Thomson took Ralph Branca deep while Willie Mays waited on deck in a blow instantly known as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”
Unfortunately, Mom was right.
Award-winning sportswriter Bill Reynolds recreates the single-game playoff between the bitter American League rivals and delves into Boston’s tense racial scene at time in an engrossing book, ’78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City.
Reynolds opens the action with the games before the game, in which the much-loved Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant had pitched a complete game gem over the expansion Toronto Blue Jays while Rick Waits and the Cleveland Indians had triumphed over the Yankees. The victory, Boston’s seventh in a row, completed its comeback from a 2 .5 game deficit in the final week and set up the playoff.
From there, Reynolds alternates between the playoff game’s progression, into which he intersperses descriptions of both team’s history, players, owners and managers, and Boston’s tense racial relations at the time.
Drawing heavily on the seminal work about busing in Boston, J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground, as well as Michael Patrick’s MacDonald’s haunting memoir All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, Reynolds shows how Boston in the late 70s was very much a divided city in which the antibusing movement was losing steam after years of protest, but still had plenty of emotional supporters behind it like School Committe member Elvira “Pixie” Palladino.
Reynolds takes the reader through the violence in South Boston in 1974, its continuation in Charlestown in 1975 and the uneasy truce that existed during the time the game was played.
To his credit, Reynolds links sports and race by writing about the Red Sox’s troubled racial history-late owner Thomas Yawkey was considered by many to be a racist and the Red Sox were the last team in all of baseball to integrate their squad-and the incomplete way the presence of black players like George ‘Boomer’ Scott, Tiant and 1978 MVP Jim Rice united the city.
Reynolds also includes a shorter, less developed exploration of the waning years of what author Tom Wolfe called the ‘Me Decade’ and a paean to the 1970s Boston Globe sports writing team, which included local legends like Ray Fitzgerald, my childhood favorite, and also people who went onto national prominence like Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville.
Of course, the game ended with Nettles squeezing the ball Yaz popped up and a 45-second silence that Reynolds describes beautifully. Reynolds gives a brief postscript about the team’s deterioration the following year and redemption not arriving until 2004, when the Red Sox made history by overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first championship in 86 years.
Reynolds’ book is a useful snapshot of a troubled time in an historic American city. There are a few factual errors-Brown v. Board of Education was a court case, not a piece of legislation, for example-he does not introduce much new material about race relations, and his description of the decadent 70s is a bit thin. Still, for those members of Red Sox Nation who want a dose of tetrospective Memorial Day machocism, ’78 might just be the one for you.
What do you remember about the ’78 Red Sox?
Has Boston changed in any meaningful way?
Does Jim Rice deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?