[30 July 2012]
Our memories section off decades into neat blocks of time as if they were more than just ten-year increments of life going on as usual. Especially in the second half of the 20th century, each new decade became more distinct from the last, and it’s hard wired this metric into our memories as well as the way historians approach their subjects. Examining the ‘60s is interesting because of the social, political, and sexual upheaval which dominated the times, but the driving force behind much of that change—the Baby Boomers—merely came of age during that time. It was in the ‘70s that they grew up, for better or for worse.
Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass takes us out to the ball game in the ‘70s, a time when hair, fashion, drugs, and disco collided with America’s past time, often with strange results. In his introduction Epstein writes that “the golden age of baseball… almost always refers to the era during which you first fell in love with the game,” and it’s this idea which inspired him to write to write the book. Epstein’s love for his material is obvious and infectious, and one needn’t be a child of the ‘70s to enjoy his telling.
Baseball, Epstein writes, remained largely insulated against the tumult of the previous decade, but the shadow of the ‘60s loomed large over the early ‘70s. Woodstock’s peace and love and even the thrill of the moon landing were all tainted by events like the Tate-Labianca murders, the tragedy at Altamont, the Stonewall riots, and the continuing specter of Vietnam.
The game’s conservative facade began to crack early in the decade when African American players like Dick Allen began to speak openly about racial issues in the country and the game, and Curt Flood famously set in motion the labor feuds which helped usher in the era of the free agent. Drug use, though already prevalent in the form amphetamines or “greenies”, came to the fore with Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s admission of sprinkling marijuana on his pancakes, and pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.
Epstein chronicles each season like a wonderfully constructed short story, filling in just enough details of baseball’s long, slow seasons to give us the whole picture. There are heroes, like the Pirates Roberto Clemente, who died in a helicopter crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims; and there are villains, like the Oakland A’s notoriously cheap owner Charlie Finley, a man who wouldn’t spring for real jewels on his team’s World Series rings. Throughout the book, Epstein sorts through the rise of bland stadiums, Astroturf, the designated hitter, and a rainbow of uniforms with a clarity and humor that will make you want to run to the nearest ballpark or, failing that, go to the backyard to have a catch.
The book’s only drawback is something of a necessary evil. Baseball is a statistics-laden game, and the endless stream of batting averages, ERAs, RBIs, and home run totals feels like homework after a while. It would be incomplete without this tsunami of numbers, though, and it wouldn’t be much of a baseball book, either. The numbers are the game, even if they start to run together after a while.