Sunday, May 5, 2024

Books: Jimmy Breslin's Classic Writing In A Library Of America Collection


Jimmy Breslin: Essential Writings

By Jimmy Breslin; Edited by Dan Barry

Library of America; hardcover, 734 pages; $40.00

Jimmy Breslin was one of the leading columnists during New York's Golden Era of Journalism, crafting a legacy in his writing for the Daily News, the New York Journal American, the New York Herald Tribune, and Newsday. A master of deadline writing, his columns were events, attracting millions of readers, earning the admiration of other journalists, and the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1986.

Breslin was renowned for uncovering the hidden human dimensions in every story, as he captured tales about larger-than-life people and ordinary New Yorkers to give the complete vision of the urban metropolis. He also became a major voice on the national scene, with a keen understanding of American life, with its political scandals, its Mafia subculture, its indifference to immigrants and other vulnerable people, a view that continues to have resonance.

Dan Barry, a reporter and columnist for the New York Times, edited this extraordinary collection of 73 columns and longform magazine articles by Breslin, as well as two of his books, How the Good Guys Finally Won, from 1976, on how House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill and special counsel John Doar set about taking down President Richard Nixon because of the Watergate scandal; and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez (2002), the story of an immigrant laborer who was killed at a construction site in Brooklyn, as well as the malfeasance of developers, city officials, and others that enabled the accident to happen.

One of Breslin's most renowned pieces was on Clifton Pollard, the man who was set to dig out President John F. Kennedy's grave after he was assassinated in November 1963. This set the thirty-five-year-old columnist apart from most of the media, from across America and around the world, who focused on the stricken first lady and world leaders who converged on Washington for Kennedy's funeral. Breslin created a portrait of a nation's grief in the form of a single, solemn task.

Some of the other acclaimed writing from Breslin are accounts of his involvement with the "Son of Sam" case, on the serial killer who terrorized New York City in 1977; dispatches from the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam;  his story on John Lennon's murder in 1980; and Breslin's appalled glimpse in 1990 of Donald Trump conning the press corps into covering his every move. There also are Breslin's moving personal reflections, such as the elegy he wrote for his first wife, and his tribute to fellow scribe Murray Kempton. There also are stories on New York life of a certain time, including The Wake for a Newspaper, on the end of the New York Mirror in 1963; Holiday in Automat; and The Last Gallo Living at 51 President Street

Breslin also wrote about the sporting scene, with such writing including Racing's Angriest Young Man, on Bill Hartack, the jockey for 1960 Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way; Feat of Clay: TKO in 7th, on Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964; and Hero of '54 World Series Watches '66 Epic from Prison Bench, on Henry Thompson, who caught the final out of the New York Giants' 1954 clinching victory.

In this excerpt, from Breslin's Worst Baseball Team Ever, he writes about the 1962 Mets: "It was long after midnight. The bartender was falling asleep, and the only sound in the hotel was the whine of a vacuum cleaner in the lobby. Casey Stengel banged his last empty glass of the evening on the red-tiled bartop and then walked out of this place the Chase Hotel in St. Louis called the Lido Room.

In the lobby the guy working the vacuum cleaner was on his big job the rug leading into a ballroom, when Mr. Stengel stopped to light a cigarette and reflect on life. For Stengel this summer, life consists of managing a team called the New York Mets, which is not very good at playing baseball.

'I'm shell-shocked,' Casey addressed the cleaner. 'I'm not used to gettin' any of these shocks at all, and now they come every three innings. How do you like that?' The cleaner had no answer. 'This is a disaster,' Stengel continued. 'Do you know who my player of the year is? My player of the year is Choo Choo Coleman and I have him for only two days. He runs very good.'

This accomplished, Stengel headed for bed. The cleaner went back to his rug. He was a bit puzzled, although not as much as Stengel as later in the day when the Mets played the St. Louis Cardinals in a doubleheader. 

Casey was standing on the top step of the dugout at Busch Stadium and he could see the whole thing clearly. This was the trouble. 

In front of him the Mets had Ken Boyer of the Cardinals in a rundown between first and second. Marvin Throneberry, the marvelous first baseman, had the ball. Boyer started to run away from him. Nobody runs away from Marvin Throneberry. He took after Boyer with purpose. Marv lowered his head a little and produced wonderful running action with his legs. This amazed Stengel. It also amazed Stan Musial of the Cardinals, who was on third. Stanley's mouth opened. Then he broke for the plate and ran across it and into the dugout with the run that cost the Mets the game. (Throneberry, incidentally, never did get Boyer. Charlie Neal finally made the putout.) It was an incredible play. It also was loss No. 75 of the season for the Mets. In the second game Roger Craig, the Mets' starter, gave up so many runs so quickly in the seventh inning that Casey didn't have time to get one of his relief pitchers ready. The Mets went on to lose No. 76.

Following this, the team flew to New York, where some highly disloyal people were starting to talk about them. There seems to be some sort of suspicion around that the New York Mets not only are playing baseball poorly this season but are playing it worse than any team in the modern history of the sport. As this week began, the Mets had a record of 28 won and 79 lost and seemed certain to break the modern record for losses in one season. This was set by the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who lost 117 games - an achievement that was challenged by the Boston Braves of 1935, who lost 115 games and were known as The World's Worst Team. But, by using one of the more expensive Keuffel & Esser slide rules, you discover that the Mets, if they clung to their present pace, will lose 120 games. You cannot ask for more than that.

Figures, of course, are notorious liars, which is why accountants have more fun than people think. Therefore, you just do not use a record book to say the Mets are the worst team of all time. You have to investigate the matter thoroughly. Then you can say the Mets are the worst team of all time...

The Mets are bad for many reasons, one of which is that they do not have good players. The team was formed last year when the National League expanded to 10 teams. ('We are damn lucky that they didn't expand to 12 teams,' Manager Casey Stengel says.) The other new team, the Houston Colt .45s, has done a bit better than the Mets. It's in eighth place, 11 1/2 games ahead of New York. For players, the Mets were given a list of men made available to them by the other eight National League teams. The list was carefully prepared and checked and rechecked by the club owners. This was to make certain that no bona-fide ballplayers were on it.

'It was so thoughtful of them.' Stengel says. 'I want to thank all of them owners who loved us to have those men and picked them for us. It was very generous of them.'

Actually, the Mets did wind up with a ballplayer or two. First Baseman Gil Hodges was fielding as well as ever before a kidney ailment put him in the hospital. Center Fielder Richie Ashburn, at 35, is a fine lead-off hitter, although he seems to be on his way to setting some sort of a record for being thrown out while trying to take an extra base. If Jim Hickman, an outfielder, ever learns to swing at good pitches he might make it big. Here and there Al Jackson and Roger Craig produce a well-pitched game. And Frank Thomas can hit. But all this does is force the Mets to go out of their way to lose."

About The Library of America: An independent nonprofit organization, the Library of America was founded in 1979 with seed funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. It helps to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. 

Library for America editions will last for generations and withstand the wear of frequent use. They are printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat. Flexible, yet strong binding boards are covered with a closely woven rayon cloth. The page layout has been designed for readability, as well as elegance.

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