Book Review: “The Greatest Game”

"The Greatest Game," by Richard Bradley

The Greatest Game is Richard Bradley’s exploration of the 1978 one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees for a spot in the AL Championship. The game is best remembered for Bucky “F—ing” Dent’s three-run home run in the seventh inning that turned the momentum in New York’s favor. The Yankees won 5-4, beat the Royals to win the pennant and the Dodgers to win the World Series. Bradley’s account is a pitch-by-pitch look at the game, with brief biographies of the players and managers sandwiched in between. Bradley also takes the reader through the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s regular seasons.

Not a Book for Red Sox Fans

I had planned to write how, were this book published in 2003 instead of 2008, it would have capitalized on the masochistic side of being a Red Sox fan and sold millions. However, two-thirds of the way in I realized that this isn’t a book for Red Sox fans at all; it’s for Yankees fans to learn more about one of their team’s crowning moments.

There’s very little about any member of the Red Sox that most older fans wouldn’t already know. There are brief bios of Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, but all of this could be learned for free elsewhere. Red Sox historians already know about Don Zimmer’s managerial failings that cost the Red Sox their 14-game lead. Only Red Sox starter Mike Torrez’s deep resentment towards the Yankees a year after helping them win the World Series felt like a unique insight. The rest is just enough background to give off the appearance of objectivity.

Don’t be fooled: Bradley is a tried-and-true Yankees fan pretending to be a sports journalist, and he’s only really a fan of certain Yankees. Bradley calls Reggie Jackson’s eighth-inning home run during the “greatest game” attention-seeking, showboating and arrogant, despite it ultimately winning the game. He thinks catcher Thurman Munson’s arguing balls and strikes and framing pitches makes him the greatest catcher of all time. And in a season characterized by the ongoing power struggle between owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin, Bradley comes down squarely on Martin’s side.

Perhaps Bradley had a family member or friend who suffered from alcoholism, because Bradley is incredibly apologetic for Martin’s attitude and behavior. He has no problems criticizing Steinbrenner’s micro-managing, but he can’t come down on Martin for anything, including ordering reliever Rich Gossage to throw at a black player’s head during a spring training game and calling the player a racial slur (it was really hard to like Martin after reading that).

All of this would be fine, except for one teensy, tiny issue that barely deserves mention: Billy Martin did not manage the 1978 playoff game. Bob Lemon did. Furthermore, multiple Yankees said that had Martin not resigned from the team in late July, the team never would have caught the Red Sox in the first place. So why does Martin get so much ink? Why does Lemon only get a page when Martin gets chapters? Why do I have to learn the entire life story of Martin when I know barely learn anything about Bob Stanley, who gave up Jackson’s home run? Jerry Remy went 2-for-4 with a run, why don’t I get a deep psychological treatise on him?

Too many words are devoted to a person who had nothing to do with the Yankees’ playoff win, and their presence in this book kills its credibility as a work of impartial journalism.

An Exciting Game Made Interminably Boring

Bradley takes readers through every pitch of every at-bat of the game. A review on the back calls The Greatest Game “page-turning.” That is literally true: you do indeed have to turn the pages to continue reading. Most books (except those read on e-readers) work that way. There’s no figurative truth to this term, however: I crawled through this book, plodding through endless diversions, both good (player bios) and bad (extended descriptions of the movement of shadows across Fenway Park).

One third of the way into this book, you’re only through the first inning. The book quickens slightly as it gets through the final few innings, but this book should have been so much shorter.

Take a look at the actual box score from that game. There are maybe 10 players about whom you’d really need anything more than the season stats. For the Yankees, Graig Nettles could be skipped, as could Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss and everyone who hit in the eight-hole. For the Red Sox, everyone who batted seventh, eighth or ninth could be skipped. Journalism is about discretion, and Bradley lacks it. By flooding us with information, he turns what was objectively a very exciting game (three home runs, two by franchise players, a dramatic late-game lead-change, a near-comeback in the bottom of the ninth) into a boring slog.

Is This Truly the “Greatest Game?”

That question is never answered by Bradley. He takes it as self-evident that this is, as the cover says, “the most memorable game in baseball’s most intense rivalry.” But without explanation of why this is the greatest game – without any real insight into the impact of this game – the justification for how he writes this book disappears.

Perhaps this was the greatest game to that point. Perhaps. 1978 marked the end of dominant eras for both the Red Sox and Yankees. Both teams only returned once to the World Series through the entire 1980s, and both lost. The Yankees rebounded in the late 90s, and the Red Sox followed suit in the mid-2000s.

I would argue the greatest game in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry was Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, in which Dave Roberts gave us the greatest steal in postseason history, Bill Mueller beat the greatest closer ever, and the Red Sox pulled off the biggest postseason comeback in baseball history. The game helped forever put the Red Sox on even-footing with the Yankees and wiped out the fatalism that had plagued Red Sox Nation for so long.

Game 4 was, by far, the “greatest game.”

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