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?
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 team? I hated the Reds, because they were so damn good and always gave the Dodgers a hard time–and I also hated them for sweeping the Yankees (who I liked at the time) in the ’76 World Series. Least favorite player would have to be Fred “Chicken” Stanley, at least when he was on the Yankees; he was the weak link in that lineup, and a really mediocre shortstop, and I couldn’t understand how he continued to have a job in the majors.
With the disappearance of non-retractable domed stadiums from baseball, Astroturf is all but gone from the game. What players from the 70s would suffer the most if they had to play in this new carpet-free world?
The players who benefitted the most from artificial turf were the guys who didn’t have a lot of power but could make contact with the ball and run like hell, and infielders (especially shortstops) who had good range but not so great arms. Dave Concepcion, Larry Bowa and Freddie Patek all fit the above profiles, and all figured out how to get extra mileage on a throw to first by one-hopping it off the turf. They were all key members of their teams, to be sure; but they also all would’ve had a tougher go of it playing full-time on real grass.
Worst promotion: Cleveland’s Nickel Beer Night or Chicago’s Disco Demolition Night?
Nickel Beer Night–actually, it was Ten Cent Beer Night [D’oh! — ed.]– hands down; if not the “worst” promotion, it was certainly the era’s most idiotic. Disco Demolition Night was obviously a disaster, but that was largely because the White Sox organization had no real understanding of how popular the “Disco Sucks” movement was in Chicago, or that it would primarily bring rowdy rock fans to Comiskey. But you can’t offer your fans unlimited beer at a dime per cup, like the Indians did, and not expect that things will eventually get WAY out of hand; Jesus, even a third grader could tell you that.
Bigger waste of talent: Dave Kingman or Dick Allen?
I don’t think it’s fair to dub either Kingman or Allen a “waste of talent”–they both enjoyed long careers and put up some impressive numbers along the way. Did Allen’s attitude hamper his production during his final few seasons? Possibly, but he was also getting into his mid-30s and dealing with the after-affects of the broken leg he suffered during the 1973 season. And would Kingman hit 442 career homers–would he have hit more if he were less of an asshole? I doubt it. To me, a true waste of talent was someone like David Clyde, the brilliant Texas high school pitcher who the Rangers signed and immediately sent to the big leagues–without necessary minor league training or seasoning -because they knew he would bring the locals out to the ballpark. Clyde couldn’t handle the pressure, or the hard-partying lifestyle of the veterans he hung out with, and he was out of the majors for good by the time he was 24. That’s just sad.
Best uniform of the 1970s? Worst? (My vote for the latter goes for those black and red Indians tops with the inexplicably jagged letters or pretty much any Padres jersey from the entire decade.)
Hideous as they were, I’m actually really fond of the Houston Astros’ “tequila sunrise” jerseys–to me, they beautifully embody both the colorfulness and ridiculousness of the era. But aside from the truly awful 1976 White Sox uniforms with short pants (which the players only wore in a handful of regular season games), my vote for Worst Uni of the 70s goes to the 1978 San Diego Padres. As if the fecal brown and mustard yellow color palette wasn’t bad enough, the lettering on the jersey looks like Ray Kroc had ’em thrown together in about five minutes at an iron-on t-shirt store at the local mall. My ’78 Little League jersey looked classier than that.
Do you like the recent trend of teams bringing back alternate powder blue jerseys, another 1970s innovation? (Brewers, Royals, Blue Jays)
I do, actually–or at least, I far prefer them to the dark solid “softball” alternates that have been so unfortunately prevalent in recent years. I wish the Phillies would go back to the zip-up powder blues (with the red “P” on the front) that they wore on the road for most of the ’70s and into the ’80s–I still think those look really sharp.
Best year for Topps baseball card design? (I vote for 1972 or 1975)
1972, no question. I would describe the design template for that year as psychedelic Hollywood retro; it’s as if each player was briefly transported into the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence from Yellow Submarine. And it made even the scrubs look like superstars.
What are the features you look for in an awesome 1970s baseball card, in terms of design, pose, facial hair, etc.?
Simply depends on the card. It’s hard to beat funky facial hair or a voluminous ‘fro, and action shots can be really cool, too. Then again, would a card of Roberto Clemente or Hank Aaron be any more awesome if they’d sported Fu Manchu moustaches? I don’t think so.
Dock Ellis’s no-hitter-on-acid has gotten a lot of renewed interest, thanks to the No Mas animated short that came out last year. How prevalent was recreational drug use in baseball in the 70s? What was the drug of choice among players? And had performance enhancing drugs entered the picture yet?
I don’t have anything other than anecdotal evidence to go on, but pot use seems to have been fairly prevalent among major leaguers in the ’70s. Coke much less so, though (like in the rest of America), it became more common by the end of the decade. As far as performance-enhancing drugs, it’s not inconceivable that steroids had entered the picture by then–they’ve been around since the ’30s, and there’s evidence that football players were using them as early as the late ’60s–but they were hardly widespread. Back in those days, weight training and getting buff wasn’t a regular part of the major league baseball fitness regimen; the prevailing wisdom of the time was that you should run a lot, and that lifting weights would make you too “muscle-bound” to be effective in the field. Use of amphetamines, however, was extremely common; I’m sure a lot of players wouldn’t have made it through a 162-game season without them–though whether or not “greenie” use actually improved anyone’s play or jacked up anyone’s numbers in the long run is still pretty debatable.
Is there a game or playoff series from the 1970s that you consider a “lost classic”–something that should still be remembered now but isn’t?
Well, it’s not been completely forgotten, but the June 28, 1976 game between the Yankees and Tigers is pretty dear to my heart. That was the night that Mark “The Bird” Fidrych made his national TV debut, beating the Yankees 5-1 on Monday Night Baseball in front of an ecstatic Tiger Stadium crowd. He’s so goofy on the mound, yet also so dominant–and during the post-game interview, he’s just radiating pure joy. “The Bird” was the real deal, both as a pitcher and as a human being, and clips from this game always bring that home beautifully.
What event marked the death knell of 1970s-style baseball (other than the arrival of the year 1980)?
Just like the increasing freakiness of the ’70s, it’s hard to ascribe the demise of 70s-style ball to one particular event, though it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, as America became increasingly conservative during the Reagan years, the game did so as well. I do think that 1980 was the last truly “70s” year of baseball–after being denied for half a decade, the Phillies and Royals finally made it to the World Series, and played the first all-Astroturf fall classic. Then came the players strike of 1981, followed by the “Pittsburgh Drug Trials” of 1985, owner collusion in the late ’80s, and (as we know now) the spread of steroids. Baseball definitely changed in the ’80s, and for the worse.
Are there any modern players you can imagine playing–and thriving–in the 1970s?
I’d say the most “70s” player out there today is Tim Lincecum — not just because he has long hair and got popped for weed, but also because of his natural charisma, his unusually slight build (at least for a 21st century starting pitcher) and unorthodox delivery and mechanics. And if he can do this well against bulked-up batters in the PED era, just imagine how well he would have done in the ’70s.