Cooperstown Confidential: A trip through the ‘70s

While much of this year’s baseball book publicity has centered on biographies of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and the late George Steinbrenner, a lesser known book deserves acclaim for bringing some light and depth to the underrated decade of the 1970s. Published this spring by St. Martin’s, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, successfully captures the roller coaster journey that fans and players experienced from 1970 to 1979. I highly recommend it.

Earlier this month, I posed a series of questions to the book’s author, Dan Epstein, who responded with some thoughtful and in-depth replies. Dan sheds light on characters like Jose Cardenal and Oscar Gamble, offers a definitive opinion on the issue of Dock Ellis’ “LSD” no-hitter, discusses the “other” Bob Hope, lays down the hammer on “Ten Cent Beer Night,” plays the role of Tim Gunn on the decade’s uniform fashions, and compares the legacies of The Boss and Charlie O.

Markusen: Dan, let’s start with the title, which is terrific. Who came up with the name Big Hair and Plastic Grass?

Epstein: Aw, thanks—that was me. When I was a little kid back in the early ‘70s, I was fascinated by Afro hairdos, and used to refer to them as “big hair.” Given that Afros and artificial turf were both at their peak during the ‘70s, Big Hair and Plastic Grass seemed like a nicely descriptive (and appropriate) pairing for the book title. I can’t remember when I came up with it, but I know I had the title before I even finished writing the book proposal.

Markusen: The cover of the book features images of Oscar Gamble, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Bill Buckner, Jim Rice, and Luis Tiant. I can think of no better characters to represent the 1970s than Gamble and Fidrych. What did those two players mean to you personally?

Epstein: To me, Gamble represents the coolness and funkiness of the era. He actually owned a disco in Alabama—“Oscar Gamble’s Players Club”—and with his gigantic ‘fro, handsome features, and flashy off-the-field fashions, he could have easily passed for a member of the Chi-Lites or the Spinners. As a kid, I thought he was the coolest-looking cat in the big leagues. Fidrych, on the other hand, represents the pure joy of playing baseball; I loved him and related to him because he was so unabashedly STOKED to be out there on the mound, and I think a lot of baseball fans of the era felt the same about him.

Markusen: You write extensively about Dock Ellis, another icon of the 1970s. His 1970 no-hitter, allegedly pitched under the influence of LSD, remains both controversial and a source of debate. Some have questioned whether he was actually under the influence of LSD at the time. On what side of the fence do you fall?

Epstein: I absolutely believe Dock Ellis was tripping when he threw that no-hitter against the Padres in 1970, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, after he retired, Dock got clean, turned his life around and became a highly respected drug counselor, and part of the sobriety process is copping to the full extent of your drug and alcohol intake and abuse. Dock admitted that he took a lot of acid in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so it’s entirely plausible that he would have accidentally found himself tripping on a day where he was scheduled to pitch.

For another thing, anyone who’s done a lot of acid and is used to functioning in a lysergically altered state will tell you that it’s definitely possible get in a serious “groove” if the circumstances are right, whether you’re playing music, painting a canvas or throwing a baseball. Also, Dock walked eight Padres during his no-no, which is a clear indication that SOMETHING was up with him that day. He had excellent control, averaging 2.9 walks per nine innings over the course of his 12-season career, and he never walked more than six batters in any major league game before or after the no-hitter.

What I love most about the story, though, is the fact that he went through with pitching the game, despite his acid-fried state. If one of today’s players found himself in a similar situation, he’d most likely tell the manager that he wasn’t feeling well and ask to be pulled; Dock’s reaction was to score some speed to level things out, and take the mound anyway. That, my friends, is the mark of a true competitor.

Markusen: Ellis and Fidrych have received their fair share of attention over the years. Among all the great characters in the 1970s, is there anyone who remains particularly overlooked, someone like a Norm Cash, a Ross Grimsley or a Gorman Thomas?

Epstein: There were so many great characters from the ’70s—and since St. Martin’s didn’t want BH&PG to be 600 pages long, I wasn’t able to find room for all of them, or go as in-depth as I would have liked on most of the ones I did mention. One colorful player who remains particularly overlooked (and my book is also at fault on this score) is Jose Cardenal. He was a very good hitter had his best years with the Cubs, but they were during 1972-1976, a period where the Cubs slid from the excitement of the Leo Durocher years into dull mediocrity, so few fans or writers outside of Chicago really noticed him.

His ‘fro was nearly as big as Oscar Gamble’s; his cap was constantly flying off his head when he ran, though he often moved at a more leisurely lope. Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko once called Cardenal “an inspiration to those of us who believe in sleeping late, walking slow and calling in sick at the office.” That might be a slightly unfair appraisal, but Jose did come up with some memorably bizarre excuses for sitting out spring training games, including being tormented by crickets during one sleepless night and waking up from another to find that his eyelids had fused together. And when I met him at Cubs fantasy camp this past January, he told a hilarious story about chasing an opposing pitcher across the field with a switchblade during a minor league game in Texas. A true character.

Markusen: Among executives, former Atlanta Braves promotional director Bob Hope (no relation to the comic actor) is criminally overlooked. I was glad to see you write about some of the memorable stunts he pulled off in Atlanta. Give us some of your thoughts on Hope.

Epstein: I think Hope probably gets overlooked because people (then as now) tended to associate the Braves’ promotional stunts with their high-profile owner Ted Turner, who also participated in many of the team’s promotions, including the infamous ostrich races. But I think Hope ranks right up there with Bill Veeck in terms of coming up with outlandish promotional concepts—I’d be willing to bet that Veeck kicked himself for not thinking of “Headlock and Wedlock Night” first. Though I’m guessing that even Veeck might have been too prudish to go through with the “Wet T-Shirt Night” that Hope and his staff put on at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1977.

Markusen: In terms of failed promotions, none were more monumental disasters than “Ten Cent Beer Night” and “Disco Demolition Night?” If you had to pick one as the worst, which would it be?

Epstein: I’d have to go with “Ten Cent Beer Night.” As much of a disaster as “Disco Demolition Night” was, you can at least cut Bill Veeck some slack, since at his age he would have been only dimly aware at best of how virulent the anti-disco sentiment was at the time, or that the Disco Demolition promotion would be more likely to draw avid stoners to Comiskey than avid baseball fans. But how could anyone in the Cleveland Indians front office think for even a moment that unlimited beer at a dime a cup wouldn’t wind up causing some major problems? Or that it wouldn’t be necessary to hire additional security to handle such a promotion?

And unlike at Disco Demolition, where the patrons mostly just trashed the field and the stands, “Ten Cent Beer Night” saw the drunken Cleveland fans actively duking it out with the players, including members of their own team. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

Markusen: Let’s talk about 1970s fashions. Two of the best and most entertaining chapters of the book are the ones in which you write about hairstyles and uniform trends. What do you think that the long hair, the Afros and the beards tell us about ballplayers in that decade?

Epstein: This is the most obvious example of how the countercultural trappings (if not necessarily the actual ethos) of the 1960s had fully infiltrated the mainstream by the 1970s. Players of the ’60s looked pretty similar to the players of the ’50s and ’40s—and they all looked (at least in terms of grooming) like they could have just gotten back from military service. By the 1970s, however, players felt much more comfortable expressing their individuality on the field than their predecessors did, and that often took the form of crazy hair, wicked mustaches, voluminous Afros, etc. Oscar Gamble, for instance, wasn’t nearly as outspoken as Dock Ellis, but his gigantic Afro made it very clear to all that he was proud to be a black man.

Markusen: How about the colorful uniforms? When I think of the ’70s, I think of Oakland’s green and gold, the Astros’ rainbow uniforms, and the awful brown and yellow of the Padres. Your thoughts on each?

Epstein: I still think the Oakland A’s’ green, gold and white combinations look incredibly cool—even with the v-neck jerseys, which I’m generally not into from an aesthetic standpoint. They were flashy, yeah, but they had both a touch of class (though maybe that’s just my perception in the wake of the team’s three straight World Series victories) and a definite touch of Star Trek.

The Astros’ “tequila sunrise” jerseys are about as aesthetically indefensible as anything the ’70s produced, yet I still kind of dig them; they really say “1970s” to me, and they remind me of how much I loved to watch the All-Star Game during the ‘70s, because that was the only time that you got to see a lot of those players (and their uniforms) on TV. I can’t say anything nice about the Padres’ ’78 jerseys, however. With their truly awful colors and their questionable font choices, they looked like Ray Kroc had ‘em run off at the iron-on t-shirt store in the local mall. I wore jerseys in Little League that looked more professional.

Markusen: With the recent death of George Steinbrenner, memorable owners are on the minds of many fans. Who had the bigger impact during the 1970s: Steinbrenner or Charlie Finley?

Epstein: I’d say Finley, since he built the one true baseball dynasty of the 1970s. His A’s won three World Series in a row, and probably could have made it to five or six Fall Classics in a row if a few trades and bounces had gone the right way, and then completely trashed it before the decade was out. He was also an early proponent of the DH rule, which was first implemented in the 1970s, for good or (in my opinion) ill.

While Steinbrenner did restore some shine to the Yankees franchise during the ’70s, I don’t think his impact on the sport was truly felt until the 1980s and ‘90s, when player salaries really began to take off, thanks in part to the kind of mega-bucks that Steinbrenner was always willing to throw around in order to get what (or who) he wanted.

Markusen: Is Steinbrenner worthy of the Hall of Fame?

Epstein: If we’re just talking in terms of impact on the game and the sheer number of pennants and World Series titles his teams won, I’d have to say yes. But of course there’s a whole lot of other moral, legal and intangible sides to his story, which I’m sure voters will engage in much public hand-wringing and grandstanding over. (Editor’s Note: With the recent changes imposed by the Hall of Fame on its Veterans’ Committee voting, Steinbrenner will be eligible for election this winter, rather than during the winter of 2011.)

Markusen: With owners like Steinbrenner and Finley, so many oddball on-field characters like Ellis and Gamble, several dynastic teams like the A’s and Reds, and a number of classic World Series, why does the decade of the ’70s seem to be given short shrift. I often hear talk of the 1950s as the golden age of baseball, but couldn’t an argument be made for the 1970s?

Epstein: I think the decade gets short shrift for a variety of reasons. For one thing, with the exception of the ’77 and ’78 Yankees, none of the World Series champs played in major media markets. (Compare to, say, the 1950s, wherein New York or L.A. teams won all but one World Series.) For another, the decade’s power numbers weren’t particularly impressive. George Foster was the only player to hit 50 or more homers in a season, and there were four seasons where no player in the American League hit more than 32 or 33 taters.

And with the proliferation of Astroturf, the insanely colorful uniforms, bizarre promotions and hairy freaks in the dugout, I think the era was simply too weird for many sportswriters and baseball historians to fully come to grips with. I suppose from their perspective it’s easy to write off ’70s baseball as a campy anomaly, but the decade was still filled with legendary players, amazing feats and some truly classic postseason match-ups. I’m not going to say that the ’70s were THE golden age in baseball; but for a fan who fell in love with the game during that decade, it will always be MY golden age.

I think it’s really interesting that Josh Wilker’s excellent Cardboard Gods came out around the same time that my book did, because he’s a writer about my age who covers the same era, albeit from a more personal perspective. It’s like the children of the 1970s are finally stepping up and owning the baseball of the era in all of its freaky glory.

Markusen: Final question for Dan Epstein. If you could take one aspect of 1970s baseball and inject it into today’s game, what would it be?

Epstein: Honestly, it’s more about what I’d like to see REMOVED from today’s game—including the DH, one-batter situational lefty relievers, baggy uniforms, dark “softball”-type pullover jerseys, choreographed home plate celebrations, umpires warning both dugouts after a batter gets hit, Bud Selig, etc. But I guess if I could inject one aspect of the 1970s into today’s game … I’d love to see the return of fat knuckleball pitchers like Wilbur Wood.

For more on the book, or to purchase a copy, visit the web site, http://www.bighairplasticgrass.com.

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Comments

  1. Richard said...

    The “Swingin A’s!” Reggie and Bill North feuding, fighting, and rassling in the clubhouse. That great pitching staff, “Vida Blue and Catfish too”!. White buck spikes, long hair, sideburns, The irascible, irrepressible and far too cheap, Charlie Finley.  3 consecutive world series, the best damn baseball team of that era.  Great memories. What a decade! What a team!

    Thanks for the memories!

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