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It's doubly sad whenever time claims a ballplayer, because the game is predicated on the suspension of ordinary temporality. "Uniquely among team sports, baseball proceeds outside of time," Roger Kahn observes in his new book October Men (Harcourt; 382 pages). "There is no clock." But the air of eternity that lingers over the grass only shows up the ephemerality of those who play on it--baseball is not a sport of the gods, it's a sport of mortals, and ballplayers are even more human than other athletes. They tend to be of average size and weight, unlike the Star Wars cantina of humanoids who participate in football and basketball. October Men is about a baseball team that was all too human.
Baseball is often held up as a microcosm of or a metaphor for America, and it's rarely true--but in 1978, in the Bronx, it was. A turbulent country was reflected in the tempestuous Yankees locker room, where racial tension crackled, where women sportswriters were allowed for the first time and where the first wave of baseball's free agents--led by two Yankees hurlers, Catfish Hunter, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper, and Andy Messersmith--were pulling down astronomical salaries. At the center of the maelstrom, stirring it for all he was worth, was manager Billy Martin, a man who once took pitcher Goose Gossage aside--before a spring-training game in which he would face a black player--and told him, "I want you to drill the little n_____ in the head." Meanwhile the team's slugger was Reggie Jackson, an emerging black superstar who the previous year had hit four home runs in the World Series with four successive swings of his bat. The irrepressible Jackson, who had an IQ of 160 and quoted Frost fluently from behind his mirror shades, is the book's hilarious, hyperverbal hero. He once baffled a reporter with this spitball of a question: "If my team loses a big one, and I strike out with the winning runs on base, are you aware that 1 billion Chinese don't care?"
This was before the days of the flacks and handlers whose job it is to make athletes talk like robots. With owner George Steinbrenner fanning the flames, the Yankees butted heads in the ugliest, most public manner imaginable, then pulled it together to triumph over the hated Red Sox in a one-day tie-breaker play-off that remains one of the most beautiful, jewel-like ball games ever played. Kahn's glittering group portrait paints the Yanks as both goats and heroes, and they are vividly, engagingly, enragingly human in both roles. Kahn is the author of The Boys of Summer--which Sports Illustrated named last year as the second greatest sports book of all time (behind A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science)--and he has been covering the Yankees for 50 years. His prose is the quintessence of the newspaper school of sportswriting--he can epitomize a player with a single swing of the pen, as it were. If you're wondering how that's done, consider his 18-word skewering of Yankees centerfielder John Milton ("Mickey") Rivers: "He may well be the only person named for John Milton who has never heard of John Milton."