Sipping my tall Peroni draft at the bar of Frankie’s Restaurant, a legendary old world Italian spot hiding among the dainty bistros and hip clothing boutiques on Melrose Avenue, I turn my head and see my funky brother-in-arms Dan Epstein strolling into the room. (Truckin’? Naw—too ’60s.) He orders what I’m having and within a minute of our conversation we’re connecting on the same cheesy baseball wavelength we deeply admire.
Dan is the author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, and when I learned back in April the book was being published by St. Martin’s Press, I knew I had to meet this man eventually. Dan has appropriately scrambled hair and excellent mutton chops, comes off like a vastly more coherent Jack Black, and before long we’re reminiscing about the homeliest ballparks we’ve been to, the worst uniforms we’ve seen, and the most insane fan promotion ideas ever conceived. Basically, we discuss the 1970s.
What is most awesome about Epstein’s book is that it exists. When people discuss “golden ages” of baseball, they’re either talking about the 1920s, 1940s, or 1950s, and rarely include teams outside the greater New York metropolitan area. Big Hair and Plastic Grass methodically covers a decade where the craziness in the 1960s streets flooded and altered the 1970s baseball world, changing the game forever. Each year receives its own chapter, and there are ones set aside for Astroturf, polyester, hair styles, and even one for the decade’s signature bizarro promotions, like the Phillies’ Hot Pants Night, the Ten-Cent Beer riots in Cleveland, and the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey in 1979 that…well…just watch it begin for yourself.
Epstein, who wrote an earlier book on 20th century pop culture, has his own cool blog, and is also managing editor of a music Web site called Shockhound, admits he had a lot of chopping to get Big Hair down to a length the publisher demanded. Left on the snipping room floor was a treasure trove of fabulous Jose Cardenal nuggets, such as the time the Cubs outfielder pulled a switchblade on a pitcher during a minor league game and chased him across the field, or how he hid spare baseballs in the Wrigley Field ivy so he could pluck one out during a game at the right moment, or the time he couldn’t come into a game because two of his eyelids were stuck together.
“Stuff in the 70s was just too weird. It didn’t fit the mold,” Epstein says, discussing why it’s barely been written about, “It scared people.” I tell him I remember specifically when the 1970s ended: the moment I saw police horses and attack dogs on the field right before the Phillies won the 1980 title. Less than a month later Ronald Reagan was president, and a month after that John Lennon was dead, both events basically ending the 60s as well. But baseball had somehow survived an amazingly turbulent decade that saw the birth of free agency, the horrors of Astroturf, and a series of blinding, stretchy uniforms that would make Liberace gag.
Maybe it helps when you also have fabulous pennant races, postseason thrillers, and unforgettable, colorful characters playing the games. Regardless, Dan Epstein has captured every beauty mark and wart of those years, and baseball bookshelves are all the richer for it.
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In other writerly news, I was invited to submit guest posts for a pair of excellent baseball blogs last week. Just in time for Hawk Dawson Induction Day, check out my Wezen-Ball piece about the 1981 NLCS, as well as a Daily Something account of my special 1994 redemption replay.
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EAST AND WEST ARE BACK HOME TOMORROW!
Phillies at Pirates (Reed vs. Candelaria)
Expos at Reds (Bahnsen vs. Norman)
Cards at Dodgers (Underwood vs. Sutton)
Cubs at Astros (Bonham vs. Richard)
Orioles at Red Sox (Palmer vs. Cleveland)
Indians at Yankees (Garland vs. Torrez)
Twins at Royals (Goltz vs. Hassler)
White Sox at Rangers (Kucek vs. Alexander)