“WHAT THE 60’S WERE TO AMERICA , THE 70’S WERE TO BASEBALL…”
SPECIAL FOR THE AJT
An American kid’s first major league baseball game is a rite of passage shared by millions of adolescents every year. From the shock of green seen through the tunnels leading to the stands to the sharp crack of bat meeting ball, it’s an experience that forms an often life-long affiliation with the sport.
Writer Dan Epstein’s attraction to baseball began as a 10-year-old in the bicentennial celebration year of 1976 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. That attraction grew into a love for the game and its history, which in turn led to two popular books on the game in context to the decade he discovered it. His first book, “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s,” was an overview of that calamitous era of change for the sport and country. The just released “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76,” is an informed and humorous chronicle on that auspicious year for baseball, the U.S.A. and Dan Epstein.
“I was a 10-year-old kid in Ann Arbor [Michigan] when I first got into baseball in 1976,” says Epstein. “Because the Tigers were so close, I saw my first major league ballgame at Tiger Stadium. There was a domino effect. I went to see the [movie] “The Bad News Bears” with some friends and completely freaked out at how great the film was. Afterwards, we went back to my friend’s house for his birthday party. As party favors, we got packs of baseball cards—these were the first baseball cards I owned.”
After his father explained what all the numbers and statistics on the back of the cards meant, he gave Dan a copy of the book “The Boys of Summer,” Roger Kahn’s account of being a young beat reporter covering the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s. A few weeks later, The Epstein men went to Tiger Stadium to see a Tigers-Yankees game. “By that time I was off the deep end over baseball,” Epstein recalls. “Within a year, my friends were calling me the ‘Baseball Egghead’ because I memorized all information. By the time I was a teenager, baseball and music were my two main obsessions—and they still are.”
These obsessions with baseball and music helped Epstein carve out a niche and gain some acclaim as a scholar and pop culture historian on a decade most people associate with Pet Rocks, mood rings, disco, punk rock and the three unique individuals who held the office of President: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter. Epstein ties in these things as well as a love of funky music and such classic touchstones as outfielder Oscar Gambles’ immense Afro hairstyle and the Bermuda shorts worn as part of the Chicago White Sox uniforms and the impact each had on the national pastime.
In 2000, the impetus behind the books came from a desire to re-explore the sport. “I really got back into reading about baseball history,” he explains. “The switch clicked on again and I just wanted to read as much as I could. I really wanted to read a book about the 1970s, because that was my decade and it seemed so different than the other decades I was reading about, but there was very little out there on it. Eventually, I decided to write “Big Hair and Plastic Grass.” If nobody else will, I’ll cover it.
“One of the reasons it’s been relatively untouched by baseball historians is that it’s a very complicated decade in the sport, Epstein continues. “A lot of things change about the game that are dissonant with the [documentarian] Ken Burns kind of sepia-toned narrative, where baseball is pure and an expression of our higher selves. It’s a decade where what’s happening in the rest of America really starts influencing the game. You see black players wearing Afros and expressing their personalities the way black players had not been doing. Players of all colors were speaking their minds to the press and engaging in contract disputes. Things like [Pittsburgh Pirate] Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter while on LSD—all of these things that you just could not imagine happ
The book was well received, with reviews lauding both Epstein’s scholarship and humorous writing style. ESPN.com’s review of “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” praised the book, saying: “What the 1960s were to America, the 1970s were to baseball, and Dan Epstein has finally given us the swinging book the ‘70s deserve.”ening even five years earlier. In “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” I wanted to trace how these changes happened. If a baseball player went into a in 1970 and woke up in 1979, the changes that happened in the sport would be mind blowing. “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” was a year-by-year look at what was happening in the sport in 300 pages.”
As successful as the book was, the author still felt it was incomplete. “While I was writing the first book,” he explains, “the chapter on the 1976 season was the most difficult to finish. I felt there was so much that year that was important to the game and so much that was hilarious in terms of anecdotes and interesting in terms of the characters involved that it was hard to shoe horn it in to about 20 pages. I felt it deserved a book all its own. So even before “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” came out, I thought if the book did well, the next book would be on 1976.”
Although the focus is on one season, Epstein picked a year that was a microcosm of a tumultuous decade. “Stars and Strikes” covers such important developments as the end of the Reserve Clause which bound a player to a team for his entire playing career and opened the door to lucrative free agent contracts. Along with the patriotic celebrations taking place in ballparks and cities the year saw bustling riots in the north and the outbreak of a mysterious disease which came to be called Legionnaires’ disease. Epstein illustrates the year’s relevance by citing such films as Taxi Driver and Rocky in terms of illustrating the division and changes occurring in the nation; and such albums as the Eagles’ “Hotel California”, Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive” and the first Ramones album as examples of America’s divided attitudes and tastes.
For all the pop culture, however, the strength of “Stars and Strikes,” however, is Epstein’s examination of the players and owners –not just their struggles against each other, but also the truly eccentric and often baffling attitudes presented by some of the most unique characters the national pastime has ever seen.
High on the list of the year’s eccentrics was Detroit pitcher Mark Fidrych. Nicknamed “The Bird” for his resemblance to “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird, Fidrych enthralled baseball fans in the 1976 season for both his winning ways and such on-the-mound antics as being his own groundskeeper and having conversations with the baseball.
Epstein calls Fidrych, “emblematic of the whole celebratory spirit of the Bicentennial. Being a kid in Michigan, we were the first to get on the ‘Birdmania’ train and that was incredibly exciting. The timing of his arrival is really important. He shows up after there was all this talk about the owners locking the players out of Spring training, the players’ victory in overturning the reserve clause. The sports media played up the angle of the ‘disloyal, greedy player.’ So to have a guy like Mark Fidrych show up—who is happy just to be there and is radiating this joy on the mound—people just fell in love with him. Along with his eccentricities, there was something just so pure about him. There was a feeling that he would almost pitch for free. He never pitched a complete season after that, yet he burned so brightly that one year.”
It was not only the players who stood out for their strange behavior. Among the owners that season were such world-class eccentrics as Oakland’s Charles O. Finley, New York’s George Steinbrenner, master showman Bill Veeck of the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta’s own Ted Turner. Not before and not since has such a collection of independent minds gathered for owner’s meetings.
A combination of businessman and court jester, Turner had just purchased the Braves for $10 million to be paid off in $1 million installments over a decade. His lack of knowledge about the game didn’t stop him from arranging promotions ranging from ostrich races and pushing the ball around the field with his nose.
“He’s somewhat of a visionary,” Epstein declares. “At a time when nobody was televising their games on a regular basis, he understands that the Braves will be this great vehicle to grow his TV station. What he ended up doing with WTCG (Watch This Channel Grow), set in motion what we have today with the MLB package and every team having its own cable deal. At the time, that went against baseball’s conventional wisdom that if you put all your games on TV, no one would come out to the ball park. As much as the Braves are a key component in his television investment, he really liked the idea of owning a team and palling around with the players. He didn’t get the boundaries that are in place between an owner and his team.”
Epstein was born in New York City, and after his parents relocated to Ann Arbor when he was two years old, he spent his early childhood in Michigan and later lived in Chicago and Los Angeles. He attended college at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie N.Y., and now resides in southern California. He claims the Tigers and Chicago Cubs as his favorite teams
“My father was the quintessential homesick New York Jew,” says Epstein. He basically spent the ‘70s in Ann Arbor watching TV shows like “The Odd Couple” and “Kojak,” as well as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks’ films and everything else that was based in New York. His father moved back to New York and Epstein calls the city “my second home.”
He uses the New York connection to explain the Jewish affinity for the national pastime. “To some degree, there have been more Jewish stars than in any other sport,” says Epstein. “So naturally, Jews would be drawn to that sport. But, I also think the Dodgers had a lot to do with that. When they were in Brooklyn, they were in such a heavily Jewish area. My dad was such a Brooklyn Dodger fan, and it seems so much of his experience as a Jewish kid who was a baseball fan was wrapped up in the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
Although Epstein’s grandparents came from Eastern Europe and immigrated to such heavily Jewish neighborhoods as the Lower East Side and Brownsville, his father is not observant, nor is he. “I’ve always been Jewish culturally,” he states, “feeling a big connection with the Jewish- American experience. Being raised on Mel Brooks and Woody Allen had something to do with that. I’ve always identified culturally as being a Jewish- American.”
While he’s written on music, sports and pop culture for publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today to Guitar World, one of Epstein’s favorite outlets is the venerable Daily Forward, the New York Jewish newspaper known by its readers as the “Forvitz.” He became involved with the publication through his college newspaper editor, Adam Langer, who ended up as the “Forvitz” culture editor.
“When I told my dad about it,” says Epstein, “he thought it was the greatest thing. He said ‘your grandparents would be so proud of you right now.’ My grandmother never really understood what it is I do for a living, but if she were alive to see what I do for the Forward, she’d get it.”
Along with articles on music, sports, and book reviews, Epstein puts together playlists of rock and roll songs that might be thought of as appropriate for holidays like Purim. “It’s fun and also an opportunity for me to learn a little more about that aspect of my heritage,” he explains, “so I enjoy it from that level.”
Although he claims not to have an idea yet of what his next book project might be, Epstein is sure it will follow the same basic pop-culture exploration of the subject. “I have a couple of things in mind: music book idea and a sports idea,” he says. “Whatever I do will have an element of cultural history and context because I believe it’s important to music or baseball.”
Dan Epstein is an award-winning journalist. His latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76 was recently released. He does his best writing in his bathrobe. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org