‘Great’ is definitely the wrong word

Richard Bradley’s fact-challenged book on the Sox-Yanks’ ’78 season finale is filled with Buckner-esque errors.
By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  January 28, 2010

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The dust jacket of Richard Bradley’s new book describes a game played on the “afternoon of October 4, 1978” as “the culmination of one of the most intense, emotionally wrought seasons ever, between baseball’s two most bitter rivals.”

There was a baseball game played on October 4 of that year, all right, but it took place at Royals Stadium — in Kansas City. The Royals’ Larry Gura beat the Yankees’ Ed Figueroa to even the American League Championship Series at a game apiece.

The one-game playoff in which the Yankees defeated the Red Sox to advance to the ’78 ALCS had taken place two days earlier at Fenway Park — on October 2. If getting the date wrong was the only error Bradley committed to print in this book, one would be guilty of nitpicking to even mention it, but it turns out to be but a portent of what awaits the reader of The Greatest Game.

I don’t know about your reading habits, but when I come across an obvious factual error in a book, my initial inclination is to wince in sympathy for the soon-to-be-embarrassed author.

Unless, that is, the mistake is infuriatingly egregious, in which case I’m more apt to throw the book up against the wall in disgust.

In the case of The Greatest Game, Richard Bradley’s account of the 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and the Red Sox, less than a minute elapsed before it went flying across the room.

On the very first page of his introduction, Bradley sets the scene by noting, “After 162 games, the regular season had ended in a tie. Baseball hadn’t seen such an outcome since 1948, when the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians took part in the first such playoff.”

Two words here: Bobby Thomson.

Whether what is recalled in New England as “the Bucky Bucking Dent game” was in fact “great” is open to serious dispute. On the other hand, Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” probably ranks as the most celebrated home run in baseball history.

It occurred in a 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers — one occasioned because the regular season had ended in a tie. In 1951. It’s famous.

I’ve read two books over the years called The Greatest Game Ever Played (Mark Frost’s on golf’s 1913 US Open playoff in Brookline and Jerry Izenberg’s on the 1986 Mets-Astros playoff), and yet another called The Biggest Game of Them All (Mike Celizic on the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame tie). John Mosedale’s celebration of the 1927 Yankees was entitled The Greatest of Them All, and another new book called The Best Game Ever (Mark Bowden on the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL Championship Game) hit the stands in approximate tandem with Bradley’s book.

Suffice it to say that the aforementioned five tomes described greater games — and they were all better books, too.

That its outcome was so emblematic of the frustrations endemic to Red Sox partisans over the years certainly made the ’78 playoff a memorable game, but in the 30 years since it took place it has never occurred to me once that it was the “greatest” anything, and I’ve never heard anyone else who was present that day — my colleagues or the participants themselves (including the Yankees) — describe it that way, either.

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