Sports Collectors Digest: BRONX ZOO

By Marty Appel

The Yankees’ Sparky Lyle was the first relief pitcher to ever win the American League Cy Young Award. A few days after the award was announced, the Yanks went out and signed Goose Gossage to take his job.

That meant that the 1978 season would have all the makings of a zoo.

Naturally, it wasn’t announced that way. Gossage was too good to let pass, and the Yanks merely said that Lyle and Gossage would share the job of closing games for the world champions. Both pitchers knew that was unlikely, and with the money Gossage was to get, it certainly seemed that Lyle would be the odd man out. And he was.

Add the oversize characters of George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers and Thurman Munson, and you might as well make a soap opera out of it and call it “As the Clubhouse Turns.”

“In fact”, thought Peter Golenbock, a 32-year old author at the time, “that was the working title of what turned out to be “The Bronx Zoo.”

They don’t give Cy Young awards to books, but “The Bronx Zoo” would go on to spend 29 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, an all-time record for a baseball book, breaking Roger Kahn’s mark of 24 for “The Boys of Summer.” The record would stand for 11 years before George Will broke it with “Men at Work.” It still holds the number two standing.

Golenbock had spent a lot of time in Yankee Stadium researching his first book, “Dynasty,” about the Yankees of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He got to know Lyle, one of the easiest guys to know, as a “player’s player,” a man’s man, someone everyone liked. Sparky, no hardcover book reader he, would come to joke that “The Bronx Zoo” was the first book he ever read.

Golenbock got the idea for a book from Doug Newton, Lyle’s agent, who was also a partner with Billy Martin in a western wear clothing store in Manhattan. (Golenbock later collaborated with Martin on his autobiography, “Number One”). Newton brought the two of them together in February of 1978 and they hammered out a concept of maintaining a diary and turning it into a book. No one knew how the season was to play out.

The idea had been worked before, and successfully so, first by Jim Brosnan with “The Long Season,” and “Pennant Race,” and then by Jim Bouton with the celebrated “Ball Four.” Bouton’s success had translated into a general ostracism by the baseball community. This wasn’t going to happen to Lyle. He was too well liked, for openers, and the fact that everyone around him was experiencing the unfolding drama in a similar manner, would be to his advantage. Bouton saw things differently than his teammates did while Lyle seemed to speak for them. The question of violating confidences, so critical to the outcry over Bouton’s book, seemed not to matter in Lyle’s case, and he didn’t cross any of the lines that got anyone in trouble.

“Great, let’s do it,” was Sparky’s reaction.

The plan was for Lyle to record his thoughts and send tapes to Golenbock. But it didn’t work; he couldn’t speak into a tape recorder without being interviewed. So the work plan changed, and Golenbock would instead speak to him over the phone, or visit his home in New Jersey two or three times a week, to get his thoughts as the season unfolded. (Golenbock still has all the tapes).

“Sparky spoke with anger and with humor all at once,” says Peter. “His role was being reduced, as he had predicted, his salary was well below what it should have been, and he was finding himself more of an observer than a contributor. So, he let it all out in the book.”

According to Golenbock, they both knew they were creating something controversial early on. But Lyle never came close to abandoning the project. “In fact,” he says, “he loved doing it.

“And I made sure that he read every word and signed off on it at the end. I knew it was strong stuff.”

What the book really accomplished for Lyle was providing him with an outlet for his frustration, and he was able to weave humor into his plight. He was such a competitor, that the book may have saved his sanity, as he dove into oblivion just one year after his Cy Young.

“Cy Young to Sayonara,” was how Nettles put it. (Golenbock later collaborted with Nettles on his book, “Balls”).

It was an amazing season. It was the year that the Yankees came roaring back after firing Billy Martin and hiring Bob Lemon, leading to Bucky Dent’s home run in a one-game playoff at Fenway Park, a third straight Yankee pennant, and a second straight world championship. Everyone was mad at everyone, but a newspaper strike coincided with the switch to Lemon, tensions eased, and the team caught fire. It was one of the great comebacks in baseball history. “Greatest Comeback Ever” is written on the 1978 World Series rings.

This spring, Roger Kahn will review the ’78 season with a much-anticipated book, “October Men.” It is quite different from the Lyle book, in that Lyle’s book was personal. He felt so insignificant as a member of the team by the end of the season, that the Dent homer, the late season heroics, are merely diary entries mixed into his desire to move on with his career, to escape. The book is not really about the remarkable comeback, but about one person’s plunge to the edge of worthlessness after he had accomplished so much.

Larry Freundlich, an editor at Crown, came up with the title, “The Bronx Zoo”, although the Crown sales force was not in agreement. They thought buyers might literally think it was a book about the New York Zoological Society.

When the manuscript was handed in, Golenbock knew it was controversial. But he didn’t know how big it would be.

The book unfolded first as an excerpt in Sport Magazine, which included a cartoon of animals in a cage. Bouton, by now a TV commentator, talked about it on the air. The early attention was a precursor to the sales that would hit, immediately. “Within two weeks, we realized that large checks would be rolling in,” said Golenbock. The book sold 220,000 copies in hardcover, and then even spent a month on the Times’ paperback best-seller list.

Steinbrenner was furious over the book, but Lyle had already been traded to Texas by the time it came out, and Sparky being Sparky, all was eventually forgiven and he was a regular figure at Old Timers Days before long. Today, Lyle, now 58, is the manager of the Somerset Patriots (in Bridgewater, NJ), of the independent Atlantic League. Golenbock, 56, has written 15 books since “Bronx Zoo,” and lives in St. Petersburg, FL. The two remain in touch, and Lyle was a guest last year at a class Golenbock taught at Rutgers University.

And “The Bronx Zoo,” a quarter of a century old, is as funny today as it was when it came out.

“Rawly {Eastwick} is getting married tomorrow. Tonight, before I left the park, I went over and shook his hand. He was kind of nervous about it, and I told him to get a good night’s sleep. I told him, ‘Don’t worry. Things’ll work out. She can only take half your salary.’”