‘Bronx’ Cheer: Tale Of 1977 Yankees Is Told With Compelling Crime Backdrop

By Tim Cowlishaw
Updated: August 27, 2007

DALLAS — It’s not often that I get hooked on a television show. It’s even more seldom that I get hooked on one that I’m not even sure is any good.

But when “The Bronx is Burning” concludes Tuesday night with Reggie Jackson hitting three home runs to lift the Yankees past the Dodgers in Game 6 — hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone — I’m going to want to go back and watch all eight episodes again. And I’m fairly confident some offshoot of ESPN will allow me to do that.

This is despite the fact that the cartoon character Oliver Platt has chosen to play bears no resemblance to the George Steinbrenner he’s supposed to be playing.

Notice of disclosure: Yes, I do work for ESPN but, no, I am not shilling for the network. I don’t think everything they do works. I’m not sure the “Who’s Now” tournament that played out on SportsCenter this summer was the greatest concept to come out of Bristol.

Some of “The Bronx is Burning” is a little on the cheesy side. The actor who plays Reggie Jackson has a few of his mannerisms down but not many. The cuts from made-for-TV action and the actual 1977 footage can be a little disturbing.

And why Mickey Rivers has been given such a small role is strange.

But the tale of the Yankees in the summer and fall of 1977 against the backdrop of the Summer of Fear created by the Son of Sam killings is a compelling story line.

And the heavy use of ABC footage takes me back to college and a special time when the Yankees, after years of slumber, were just starting to return to greatness.

Actually what they call the “Backstory” at the end of episodes is as good or better than the series itself, featuring interviews with Steinbrenner, Jackson, members of the New York media who covered the team — just about all the principles of the story except the late Billy Martin.

After you’ve watched seven episodes, it’s easy to start thinking of John Turturro, standing on the dugout steps, hands in his pockets, as Martin. Even if they overdid it on the Dumbo ears, he’s terrific at capturing the Yankee manager’s paranoia.

If you were a Yankees fan in addition to a Jackson fan as I was in college, 1977 was a wonderful year. The Yankees had made it to the World Series in 1976 for the first time in 13 years, but they had no shot against the Cincinnati Reds and lost in four games.

Then, Steinbrenner brought Jackson to New York and the mix of the owner, the slugger and the manager was, at the time, the most volatile in sports.

You have to remember that 1977 was a completely different time in sports. There was no cable television. You couldn’t watch any team of your choosing any night of the week.

If you lived in Texas, you might catch the Yankees a few Saturday afternoons on the Game of the Week or on one of their two trips to Arlington, but that was it.

Still, Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson managed to create headlines as if they were leading SportsCenter five nights a week.

Watching Tuesday’s seventh episode, I remembered the Game 2 fire that gave the series its name. ABC’s cameras showed a major fire roaring through a building just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, prompting Howard Cosell to say, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

In last week’s episode, I didn’t remember that Martin had actually benched Jackson for the deciding Game 5 of the ALCS against Kansas City. Jackson came through with a key pinch hit to hel

p the Yankees win, making Martin look like a genius.

But just watching the old footage and listening to Keith Jackson and Cosell reminds me of how the games themselves seemed so important back then because they used to provide us with almost all of the information we got. There was no 24-hour peripheral sports programming around it.

There were no VCRs, either, so you had to be there for the game or you weren’t going to see it.

Getting the opportunity to relive it 30 years later, even through a flawed made-for-TV series, is something special.