Friday, May 21, 2010

Canon Book Review: The Bronx Zoo

Recently I bought and read The Bronx Zoo, which is New York Yankees' pitcher Sparky Lyle's day-by-day account of the 1978 season. After winning the Cy Young Award in 1977, Lyle, a relief ace, was expected to be once again amongst the top pitchers in the game, but 1978 proved to be a struggle for Lyle, and a lot of different factors played into his struggle. Also, the Yankees that year had an incredible season, coming back from 14 games back to win the AL East after a one game playoff with the Boston Red Sox, than beating the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers on their way to a second straight World Series title. So with all of that going on, you would expect this to be a very interesting book. Fortunately, it is, although the book does have a few flaws.

One thing the book does have going for it is the author, Sparky Lyle. Lyle's an interesting person who is unafraid to speak his mind. This quaility makes for a more interesting book than it would have been had Lyle held back to appease management. Lyle lets his feelings known about a lot of topics, from his own playing time being diminished, to the seemingly never-ending feud between owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin, to the antics of superstar outfielder Reggie Jackson, who seems to spend every waking moment dreaming of ways to draw attention to himself. Steinbrenner is a puzzle all to himself, as he's a man that not only wants total control over his team, but he wants everyone to know that he has total control and that all the Yankees' success is do to him. His constant overreactions and meddling is a theme throughout the book, and he puts Martin under so much pressure that when Martin finally resigns (although he basically resigned just before he was to be fired, due to a derogatory comment towards Steinbrenner), it's almost seen as an act of mercy more than a punishment.

Lyle's portrayal of his teammates seem to be fair. With the exception of Reggie Jackson, Lyle has a lot of respect for his teammates, speaking highly of pitchers Ron Guidry, Dick Tidrow, and Catfish Hunter, along with third baseman Graig Nettles (whom Lyle calls the best third baseman in the game) and catcher Thurman Munson. Lyle also has nothing but good things to say about Goose Gossage, which is interesting because Gossage basically took Lyle's job after signing a contract that paid him a lot more than what Lyle is making. But to his credit, Lyle never takes out his frustrations on Gossage, and is actually quite supportive and complimentary of him.

With a name like The Bronx Zoo, you would think the Yankees would have some big time characters, and boy do they ever. There's Reggie, the egomaniac superstar, Steinbrenner, the egomaniac owner who does not hesitate to criticize his ballclub for every little thing to the newspaper writers, and Billy Martin, a man who normally doesn't take crap from anyone, but takes his fair share from Steinbrenner in order to keep the only job he ever wanted, to manage the Yankees. There's also Mickey Rivers, the speedy centerfielder who's brash and outspoken and seems to spend every free moment at the horse track, and Lou Pinella, the outfielder who throws a tantrum (as well as his batting helmet) after every out he makes. Some players settle right into the chaos, like the humorous Nettles and the laid-back Hunter. Others, like backup catcher Cliff Johnson, struggle to find their place amongst the madness surrounding them.

One criticism about this book that I've heard is that Lyle spends too much time moaning and whining about his lack of playing time. Well, he does, which part of me can't blame him for because he was coming off of a season where he had won the Cy Young Award and was a large part of the Yankees Championship team that year, and then he becomes an afterthought the next year. However, his attitude and antics (refusing to come into games, walking out one night after a snag in his contract negotiations) do not help matters, and often makes Lyle look like an unprofessional ass. Also, his situation actually harms the book, as by August it was clear that Lyle just wasn't as interested in the project, or his pitching, as he had been earlier in the season. This attitude is shown at the end of the book, where Lyle spends a whole two pages talking about the 1978 playoffs, and seems to write as little as possible about the Yankees' run in September, with the exception of the Yankees' one game playoff with Boston and an interesting take on then Indians manager Jeff "Style Master" Torborg.

Despite those flaws, The Bronx Zoo is an entertaining book for any hardcore baseball fan, especially a fan of the Yankees and of 1970s baseball. It's not for all audiences, as the book has strong language and some lewd situations, so I would hold off letting the children read this book. Overall, I'll give The Bronx Zoo a 7 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any recommendations for future posts, than send them to me either by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at

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