Monday, April 20, 2009

Book Review: The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball's Team's Collapse Sank a City's Spirit

Mitchell Nathanson, a legal writing instructor at the Villanova University School of Law, has written a very intriguing book titled The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team's Collapse Sank a City's Spirit.  Published in 2007 by McFarland Co., this 264 page softcover book provides a fascinating juxtaposition of the loss of a single playoff game by the 1977 Phillies with the social history of Philadelphia.  For anyone who wants to understand the contentious relationship between Philadelphia and the rest of the baseball world and between Phillies fans and the team they love to hate, this book is absolutely mandatory reading.  I was 16 years old when the Phillies collapsed in 1977, and I remember it like it happened yesterday.

Nathanson dissects the critical third game of the 1977 National League Championship Series, between the Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a game that has become infamous in Philadelphia as Black Friday.  The Phils had just completed their second straight 101-win season and had won the National League Eastern Division by 8 games.  From top to bottom, the 1977 edition of the Phils were probably the best team that the Phillies have ever fielded.  Featuring Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, and the National League's best bullpen, the Phils were the best team in the National League.  The players liked each other, and they had harmony.  And best of all, the fans loved this team.  For once, the notoriously fickle Philadelphia fans embraced the Phillies wholeheartedly and without reservation, and they had their collective hearts broken.  He presents the Black Friday game pitch-by-pitch.

In one 10-minute frenzy of poor play and a horrendously bad call by an umpire, the wheels came off, and the Phillies lost game three of the NLCS in the ninth inning.  Their usually reliable bullpen failed them that night, manager Danny Ozark inexplicably failed to make a defensive replacement in left field, Greg Luzinski failed to catch a fly ball that his defensive replacement easily would have caught,  and umpire Bruce Froemming blew a call at first base for what would have been the third out of the inning.  Along the way, the Phillies fans caused Dodger starting pitcher Burt Hooton to have a meltdown on the mound so bad that he had to be removed from the game.  The Phils lost this game and then lost the playoff series, to the disgust of their fans, who were not shy about making their disappointment and displeasure known.  Thus ended the honeymoon between the Phillies and their fans, opening their door to a new era of bitterness and hostility that not even the 1980 World Series championship helped.

The heartbreak of Black Friday is juxtaposed against the social history of why Philadelphia has historically played second banana to New York City, as well as a history of baseball in the City of Brotherly Love.  Nathanson concludes that the wrong team--the Philadelphia Athletics--left town.  He contends that it would have been better for all if the A's had stayed in 1954 and the Phillies had left instead.  The A's had a winning tradition, while the Phillies had a tradition of wretchedness.  He argues--quite convincingly--that the 1977 team was the apex of Philadelphia baseball (at least prior to the 2008 World Series champions), and that the collapse of the Phils on Black Friday led to a collapse of Philadelphia as a whole.  As proof, he points to the tragic MOVE episode of 1978 and the continuing impact of that event decades later.  As the Phillies collapsed, so did the spirits of Philadelphians, who sank back into the depths of despair.

I'm not 100% convinced of the validity of the theory, but the book certainly makes for an interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking read.  The history of baseball in Philadelphia, in particular, is eye-opening.  It will help you to understand the love-hate relationship between Phillies fans and their team, and it also proves that baseball truly is a game of inches.  

In short, I can't say enough good things about this book.  It really should be mandatory reading for any Phillies fan who wants to understand the complicated relationship between the City of Brotherly Love and the Phitin' Phils.

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