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Books | Sports

August 29, 2010

When Baseball Let Its Hair Down

It may not have featured the best players of all time, but the 1970s marked, for author Dan Epstein, the pinnacle of the national pastime's funkiness.

Joseph Ax

Baseball traditionally has viewed change with a wary eye, preferring to maintain the illusion that what occurs between the white lines does so in its own universe, unaffected by the broader trends of society. The sport's attitude towards change, in fact, seems frequently haughty; witness the reluctant response to the steroids scandal before baseball had its hand forced by crusading journalists and camera-hogging politicians.

Dan Epstein
"Some of that spirit of the '70s is still around. It was the era when baseball was figuring out how to market itself—and figuring out it needed to market itself."

Dan Epstein

And so it shouldn't come as a surprise to recall that while the tumult of the 1960s transformed America forever, baseball continued on its merry—and stodgy—way. That is, it did until the 1970s, when the rebellion of the '60s swept over baseball, just as it had already swept over mainstream America.

In his book Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s, pop-culture writer Dan Epstein chronicles perhaps the zaniest decade in the history of our nation's pastime. The '70s brought us characters such as Bill "The Spaceman" Lee, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and the incorrigible—and, perhaps, slightly unbalanced—Billy Martin, whose antics were so extreme that it is difficult to believe he was hired so many times. That decade also gave us owners such as the penurious Charlie Finley of the Oakland A's and the irrepressible Bill Veeck, as well as a commissioner in Bowie Kuhn whose autocratic style makes Bud Selig look like, well, a used car salesman.

The decade introduced us to Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, free agency, the designated hitter, Disco Demolition Night, the high five, the Bronx Zoo, the first players' strike, and the inconvenient truth that many players were routinely using a little pick-me-up known as "greenies." You don't need to know much beyond that the Pirates won two World Series and the Braves held a Wet T-Shirt Contest promotion to know that this was a different era. As Epstein writes, "In those categories that continue to defy statisticians—weirdness, hairiness, overall funkiness, and sheer amusement—the 1970s still tower over every other baseball decade before or since."

In the following interview, edited for space and clarity, Epstein tells Gelf why baseball isn't what it used to be, why greenies weren't as bad as steroids, and why 10-Cent Beer Night may have been the dumbest idea in baseball history.

Gelf Magazine: How did you decide to write this book?

Dan Epstein: Well, first of all, the '70s were the decade when I first fell in love with baseball. I was born in '66, so I was 10 years old in '76, the first year of Mark Fidrych's career. That was the year the Yankees made it back to the World Series after a long drought. I've been a fan ever since.
I don't come from a sportswriting background. For the most part, my beat has always been pop culture and music. A while back, I was going through a baseball-history kick. I really wanted a '70s baseball read that would kind of capture the magic of the era and put it in its pop-culture context, because that was the era when American sport and pop culture collided in a way that had never been seen before. I couldn't find that book. After a while, I thought, maybe I could write that book.
Ten years later, here I am with the book. While I was working on it, I found out all sorts of things I didn't know or didn't remember from back in the day. I wrote the book that I wanted to read, basically.

Gelf Magazine: What were some of the things you learned that you didn't remember?

Dan Epstein: The Cleveland Ten-Cent Beer Night promotion. I didn't remember it from the period, and really, I think that of all the crazy promotions that I found out about, that still stands out for me as just the most insane concept. Somebody at the Cleveland Indians front office said, "We're not getting anybody at the park, so if we offer them unlimited beer at 10 cents a cup, they'll come out, and we don't have to worry about paying for more security or anything." You ended up with fans attacking Indians players. The Indians and the Rangers, who were mortal enemies a week before when they had a brawl, had to band together to protect each other from the fans. That blows my mind every time I think about it.

Gelf Magazine: Your book reads almost more like a history text than a journalistic work, although of course it's journalistic in nature, as well. But you go through each year of the decade chronologically, telling the story of each season, rather than, say, seeking out players of the era now and asking them questions. Why did you make that choice?

Dan Epstein: There were a couple of reasons. One, I didn't have the connections or the financial ability to run around the country interviewing players. But I also thought, in terms of capturing the era, it would be better to go back to the primary sources and secondary sources from the era. When you talk to somebody about something that happened 40 years ago, at the very least their recollection will be colored by the passage of time. But they may also not remember stuff, or they might make stuff up. I thought to capture the era, I needed to go back and read accounts and books of the time, and the old Sporting News issues.
The reviews for the most part have been very positive, but some people have taken issue with it. Things like, "I didn't want all the stats," or sometimes, "I wanted more stats." Or they say, "Why did you include all of that historical stuff?" But to really appreciate the era for what it was, you needed not only the pennant races and who the star players were every year; also you needed the context of what was happening in America at the time: the gas crisis in 1973, or the rise of disco in the late '70s.

Gelf Magazine: It always seems to take baseball longer to adapt to what is happening in society, because it has this inherent stodginess. That's one of the main themes of your book, right?

Dan Epstein: As the '60s were to the rest of America, the '70s were to baseball. And part of the reason is because of that ingrained stodginess. When you think about how long it took baseball to even bring black players in to any great degree … and also flaky oddball players in general were not really welcome in the sport. In the '70s, that's the highest percentage of black players up to then, and also the highest percentage of college players that had come into the sport. Of course, in the '70s, a lot of the players who came from college had been in college in the late '60s, which was a pretty radical time to be on campus. Chances were, even if you were playing baseball, if you were in college you were probably wearing your hair long, you were probably smoking weed, and you were probably exposed to radical politics. Bill Lee is a prime example of that. He came from USC, which is traditionally one of the best baseball programs. He attended USC in the late '60s—you know what that means.

Gelf Magazine: And baseball has returned to its stodgy ways since the 1970s, right?

Dan Epstein: Baseball has gotten more stodgy. I think some of that spirit of the '70s is still around, at least in the sense that the '70s were the era when baseball was figuring out how to market itself—and figuring out it needed to market itself. You still see today that every team has a bobblehead night, towel giveaways, and fan-appreciation nights. You can trace all that back to what Bill Veeck was trying to do with his crazy promotions. Since then they have figured out ways to bring people to the park that are less chaotic. The Dodgers had a baseball giveaway in the '90s, where they gave out souvenir baseballs. They had people throwing baseballs onto the field. So they figured out that they should probably give the baseballs away as people left the ballpark. The '70s were when most teams went through the learning process.
I also think from a fan's standpoint, the '60s were that fly-your-flag, rebellious era. The '70s are when that attitude really seeped into mainstream America as well as baseball. You know, there were riots before at ballparks, but this was the first time when fans were really tearing shit up.
In 1980, when Philly beat the Royals in the World Series, as Tug McGraw was about to throw the final pitch, you have a phalanx of mounted policemen circling the field. I really think that was a visual metaphor for what the Reagan years would bring—a more heavily authoritarian period. And very few people ran out onto the field.
One of the things that was amazing to me when I researched the book was how quickly attitudes changed. Baseball in the '80s was a very different animal than in the '70s. Things did seem to change when the cultural attitude of America turned when Reagan took office. You saw that in the sport, as well.

Gelf Magazine: It's hard to believe some of the stuff that players and managers did in those days: clubhouse fights, crazy benders, talking shit about each other in the newspaper. And, of course, Billy Martin. Why don't we see that stuff anymore? Is it the saturation of media coverage?

Dan Epstein: The money. The stakes are so high that players don't want to risk their multimillion-dollar salaries. For the most part, unless you're Manny Ramirez, you don't want to risk it because you're an oddball, or rubbing people the wrong way, or deviating from the carefully crafted public image that most of these players have. There are still the occasionally oddball players. But in the '70s, before the salaries got huge, I think players were more willing to speak their minds.
Sal Bando could talk shit about Alvin Dark to the Oakland media, and maybe a bit of that would make it to the next week's Sporting News, but it wouldn't be all over TV. It wouldn't be all over talk radio. The coverage was all very regional. You had Sparky Lyle sitting bare-assed on someone's birthday cake in the clubhouse. That would be all over ESPN these days, and he would probably never do it again.

Gelf Magazine: Even though the money wasn't as good then, your book contains plenty of examples of both players and owners acting just as cravenly as they do now when it comes to money.

Dan Epstein: Well, I don't know if craven is the right word. But the emergence of free agency in the '70s was obviously hugely important and changed the game and the way we know it. Something had to happen—the players were, by and large, underpaid. Even now, the players deserve an equitable slice of the financial pie. The players are who we care about. We don't go to the ballpark to see the owners. And I absolutely think [former union chief] Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame. I think it's absolutely criminal that players in a few decades have forgotten all that he did, and the sacrifices that Curt Flood made.
Back then, there were certainly contract disputes going on. Owner Charlie Finley of the Oakland A's is the most obvious example. He would really drag his players through some ugly negotiations. After winning the World Series in '72,' 73, and '74, he gave some of his starting players pay cuts. I don't blame the A's players for wanting to go elsewhere.

Gelf Magazine: So do you still watch and love baseball?

Dan Epstein: I still love baseball. I still love going to games. I still have my teams that I root for. I don't root as intensely as I did in the '70s, partly because I'm an adult now, and I have other things I have to do. Also, there were a lot fewer teams back then, and it's a little harder to keep up with 30 teams than 24.
I think in some ways the players have gotten better—and I'm not even talking about performing-enhancing drugs; they have better conditioning. Most of the players now could have played in the '70s. I don't feel like the '70s were this golden age. It wasn't this period where we saw the best players ever and will never see again, although we did see great players: Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew.
There is something about the style of play now that I find a bit boring. The use of relief pitching has changed drastically since the '70s. Managers will bring a guy in to face a batter and then take him out again. It just takes forever and slows down the game. I have fond memories of when you would bring in a guy like Rollie Fingers and have him pitch three or four innings. It wasn't like today: Only bring your closer in for one inning in a save situation. There was more of an anything-goes attitude from the managers. So much of it is down now to number-crunching. That may not be a bad thing, but there was something fun about the old way. Think about Omar Moreno for the Pirates—he was the leadoff hitter, had a .320 on-base percentage, and would steal 70 bases. You don't see those kinds of players anymore—slap-hitting, slick-fielding, fast-running guys have been replaced by guys who hit for power and don't run as much.
I was watching the final game of the '77 ALCS the other night on DVD. Billy Martin brings in Mike Torrez in relief. This is a guy that was a starting pitcher all season, and he brings him in, in a key situation, in relief, because he had a gut feeling. You never see that today. I miss that kind of unpredictability.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of players admitted to using greenies in the '70s, though they often backtracked after a private chat with Kuhn. Does that affect your feelings about the steroid debate now?

Dan Epstein: I don't think of it as a performing-enhancing drug in the sense that I don't think greenies helped anybody hit a ball farther, and I don't think greenies helped anybody throw for more accuracy. I do think greenies helped guys get through the season. They were playing a lot more day games and a lot more doubleheaders. The season wasn't stretched out like it is now, where teams have days off and don't play a lot of doubleheaders.
There's a school of thought—there's some disagreement as to whether steroids help guys hit more home runs, or help guys stay on the field or get back after they're injured. I do think greenies did play a role in the game, but I also think if you look at the '70s, and if you go by power numbers, only one guy hit over 50 homers in a season, and that was George Foster in '77. From a numbers standpoint, I don't think greenies had much effect on the game.

Gelf Magazine: Is there any player you feel like truly captures the essence of the '70s whom you might not have known as well before this project?

Dan Epstein: Dock Ellis. I definitely did not realize as a kid how out-there he was. He was on the Yankees when I first started following baseball. I saw him pitch once for the Mets in '79, and he just got creamed by the Phillies. But I had no idea who he was or what his personality was. The most famous story about him now is the LSD no-hitter. But it's really important that people remember that he wasn't just a druggie. Yes, he enjoyed his recreational pharmaceuticals, and his alcohol as well, but he was also a really strong competitor. I think he really embodies that sea change in player attitude in the '70s. This was a guy who was really competitive, really intelligent, and was not willing to shut up and just go with the program. If he felt like the opposing team wasn't giving them enough respect, he would just go out and start beaning guys.

Gelf Magazine: And, of course, Ellis played an important role as a black player.

Dan Epstein: The '71 All-Star Game is the prime example. That was the year that Vida Blue was coming into his own. Blue was a shoo-in to be the starting pitcher for the American League. Ellis was having a great season as well in the NL, and he made a big stink with reporters, saying, "Sparky Anderson would never pick me, because baseball has never had two black starters in the All-Star Game. The game would never have two brothers start an All-Star Game." He kind of forced Sparky's hand. And Sparky was one of the most colorblind managers in the game—he didn't care whether you were black, white, pink, whatever. Dock kind of put himself on the line by saying that and really forced Sparky's hand. Then, of course, Dock gets completely creamed by Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson. It was instant karmic payback.
But he was the guy who wasn't just thinking about himself. He was very aware of the attitudes towards black players that had been prevalent in the game and that in some circles still were. He got chewed out for wearing curlers in the bullpen. His attitude was like, "This is what black men in America are doing. Baseball is behind the times."

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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