The Bronx Is Burning meets Chuck Klosterman in this wild pop-culture history of baseball’s most colorful and controversial decade
The Major Leagues witnessed more dramatic stories and changes in the ‘70s than in any other era. The American popular culture and counterculture collided head-on with the national pastime, rocking the once-conservative sport to its very foundations. Outspoken players embraced free agency, openly advocated drug use, and even swapped wives. Controversial owners such as Charlie Finley, Bill Veeck, and Ted Turner introduced Astroturf, prime-time World Series, garish polyester uniforms, and outlandish promotions such as Disco Demolition Night. Hank Aaron and Lou Brock set new heights in power and speed while Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk emerged as October heroes and All-Star characters like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych became pop icons. For the millions of fans who grew up during this time, and especially those who cared just as much about Oscar Gamble’s afro as they did about his average, this book serves up a delicious, Technicolor trip down memory lane. A Q&A with Dan Epstein courtesy of Scratchbomb.com, May 2010
As a kid, I was fascinated by 1970s baseball. The huge afros, the amazing facial hair, the retina-burning uniform designs--it seemed like such an insane, colorful era, particularly when compared to the heavily moussed 80s, where I spent most of my kid-dom. (Of course, there were some colorful characters then, too, but that's a tale for another time.)
Whenever I had some disposable income (which was not often), I would spend it at a baseball card convention or store, usually on a large plastic box filled with completely worthless cards from 1977 or 1975, just so I could savor such sartorial majesties as Willie McCovey's sideburns. My elementary school library had these slim books on each major league team, all published in the mid-'70s, which I borrowed repeatedly. And whenever my grampa took me to Cooperstown, I'd seek out the unbelievable mini-exhibit on the technicolor uniforms from those years (sadly, no longer there).
While there are some chronicles of players and teams from the 1970s (The Machine
and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning
are great, recent examples), there haven't been many (if any) retrospectives about the decade in total. When people speak of a Golden Age of Baseball, they usually save such mythologizing for the 1950s and its stainless, sepia-tone heroes.
But now there is finally an evangelist for game as played in the Me Decade. Journalist Dan Epstein has penned a love letter to 1970s baseball entitled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s
. ESPN's Rob Neyer has said of this tome, "What the 1960s were to America, the 1970s were to baseball, and Dan Epstein has finally given us the swinging book the '70s deserve." The book drops May 25 from Thomas Dunne Books, and there will be a big ol' release party at the Bell House in Brooklyn on May 26 (I for one am excited to try the Oscar Gamble hot dog that will be served there).
Dan was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer some questions via email about Astroturf, day-glo erseys, the best Topps card designs, and the worst promotions of all time. Read all about it after the jump. What compelled you to write this book?
About ten years ago, I went in search of a good book on '70s baseball; I was born in 1966, so this was the era when I first fell in love with the sport, and I wanted to relive some of those memories, and maybe gain a greater understanding of the period. At the time, the only thing out there that came even close to what I was looking for was Phil Pepe's Talkin' Baseball: An Oral History of Baseball in the 1970s
; but while that's a highly enjoyable read (and one I would recommend to anyone interested in the era) I didn't feel like it showed as much appreciation for the funkiness and uniqueness of the era as much as I would have liked--nor have any other of the decade-spanning '70s baseball books that have been published since then. I don't come from a sportswriting background--music and pop culture has been my beat for the past two decades--but I felt that, as a baseball fan, a student of pop culture, and a child of the '70s, I could write a love letter to '70s baseball that also truly celebrated the weirdness of the period. I have a theory that some of the excesses of 1970s baseball--huge afros, crazy facial hair, drugs, wacky uniform designs, etc.--were the product of the sport desperately trying to catch up after being so resolutely square for so long. Your thoughts?
I would have to vehemently disagree--who exactly in the baseball establishment was desperately trying to be hip? Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was as square as they came, and would have been happiest if baseball had resembled a perpetual Norman Rockwell painting; most of the team owners and executives (with the notable exceptions of Bill Veeck and Ted Turner) weren't much hipper. I think the "excesses" you mention were more the result of the freak flag-flying spirit of the late '60s finally worming its way into all elements of mainstream America, baseball included. Think of the JC Penney fashion catalogs from the '70s with all the wacky leisure suits and patterned shirts with giant collars--white, middle-class Americans actually wore that shit without batting an eye, but they wouldn't have even dared to do so ten years earlier. You also had players coming up to the majors who had been college students in the late '60s and early '70s, and thus felt more comfortable engaging the sort of self-expression (ranging from facial hair to outspoken sharing of political beliefs) and drug use that would have been unthinkable in the majors just a decade earlier. And while I do think many of the baseball uniforms of the era were reflective of the more flamboyant trends in '70s male fashion, they were chiefly designed to look impressive on color TV--a device which most American households didn't own until the 1970s.
Arguably, the two greatest teams of the 1970s were a study in contrasts: the '72-'74 Oakland A's--a hirsute, hard living, pugnacious bunch--and The Big Red Machine--a mostly strait-laced group that was forbidden to grow long hair or beards. If you had to pick one (not necessarily for purely baseball reasons), which team do you prefer and why?
Just from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I'm always gonna side with a team of hairy, ornery dudes in gold jerseys and white shoes. But while the Big Red Machine was obviously a force to be reckoned with, the '72-'74 A's were the most well-rounded team of the era. Like the Reds, they had speed and power, but they also had much stronger pitching (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Kenny Holtzman, Rollie Fingers, et al.). And not only did the A's win three straight World Series, but they also won five straight AL West crowns ('71 through '75) and came very close to winning a sixth in '76. Sorry, Joe Morgan--the A's were the one true dynasty of the '70s.
Let's say I'm a younger baseball fan unfamiliar with the game in the 1970s. What is the one event/team/player who would clue me in to the awesomeness of this era?
God, there are so many to choose from, and for so many different reasons. But I guess Bill Lee or Dock Ellis would be the most obvious choices. Both men were way more outspoken, irreverent, hip and intelligent than your stereotypical major leaguers, both had great taste in music, and they both engaged in some pretty epic battles with the conservative baseball establishment. And, of course, Lee advocated pot use and Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD--but they were also incredible competitors who loved the game, and never let their teammates down on the field. If we're going to pick a single event, I'd have to go with the Atlanta Braves' Wet T-Shirt Night in 1977; they just don't do baseball promotions like that anymore!
Looking back on it now, which player most exemplifies the 1970s?
Who were your favorite team and player as a kid? Least favorite?
In the '70s, I split a lot of time between Los Angeles and Ann Arbor, Michigan, so my two favorite teams were the Dodgers and the Tigers. My favorite Dodger was Ron Cey. I loved that he was known as "The Penguin," and that this oddly-proportioned guy with the funny walk could actually be an All-Star third baseman. I wore #10 on my Little League jersey in his honor. For the Tigers, I loved Willie Horton, Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, etc., but my true favorite was Lou Whitaker. When Sweet Lou came up from the minors, I told all my friends he was going to be a star; and unlike my other grade school baseball predictions (like my brief championing of the Blue Jays' Doug Ault as a sure bet for superstardom), it actually panned out!
Least favorite t...