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May 17, 2011

Talkin' Baseball with Dan Epstein

Typically, this is where I try and think of something clever that is going on in the world, type it out as quick as I can and hope that I can tie it in with whoever I'm talking with.

Unfortunately, I have nothing witty to say about my friend Dan Epstein…author of the FANTASTIC book Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s. The book is a must read for any baseball fan and he has been VERY supportive of this site.

What's not to love?  Here goes!

HOVG: There are a lot of guys out there writing baseball books and, honestly, they look like guys who should be writing baseball books. At first glance, you don’t fit in the same mold as a Jonah Keri, Rob Neyer or Matt Silverman. That said…you’re probably the perfect guy to take people on a Dock Ellis-style trip through the decade of the ‘70s. What was the inspiration behind Big Hair and Plastic Grass? What was the process behind writing the book?

EPSTEIN: Well, you’re right in the sense that I don’t come from a sportswriting background. I’ve been writing about music and pop culture for nearly thirty years, going back to when I was penning record reviews for my high school newspaper. But to me, the 70s were the most rock n’ roll decade in baseball history, and I felt that no one had written a book that really looked at the period through that particular lens. The process mostly involved getting my hands on every baseball book and sports periodical from the era, and finding ways to connect the dots between all the info I gleaned from those sources and the pop cultural and political happenings of the era.

HOVG: I know you’ve spent a majority of your life living either in New York or Los Angeles, but I’ve gotta wonder…who do you root for? Is there a team that you claim as your own or do you follow particular players?

EPSTEIN: I also spent a lot of my life in Chicago, and Ann Arbor Michigan…and much of my 1970s summers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I could watch the unbelievably shitty Atlanta Braves teams every night on TBS. The teams I still feel the biggest emotional attachment to are the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs, but my overall attachment to either isn’t what it used to be. I could take the usual line about being disillusioned by the economics of the game, etc, but truthfully I’m still pissed about the Tigers and Cubs curling up in pathetic fetal positions in the 2006 World Series and 2008 NLDS, respectively.

HOVG: Is there a clubhouse that you would have liked to have been a fly on the wall?

EPSTEIN: Man, so many of ‘em! The “Mustache Gang” A’s, the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees, the “We Are Family” Pirates are all obvious choices because there were so many interesting characters on those teams…but you know the late 70s Phillies and Royals teams must have been pretty interesting to eavesdrop upon, as well. But if I had to pick one “fly on the wall” moment, it would be for the Steve Garvey-Don Sutton clubhouse brawl in ’78…both because I would like to have heard what precipitated the fight, and because I would have really enjoyed watching Sutton kick the shit out of Garvey. There was also a very brief period in ’77 where Dick Allen and Dock Ellis were on the A’s at the same time; I would have definitely loved to eavesdrop on a couple of their conversations.

HOVG: Your book is full of stories that conjure up iconic imagery of the 1970a. I’d like to throw some at you and get your thoughts on some of the decade’s best/worst memories. Since it is immortalized on the cover of your book…Oscar Gamble’s afro.

EPSTEIN: A thing of supremely funky beauty, which confused a lot of older white folks in the sport. Oscar was simply lookin’ as superfly as he could manage, but some of the more conservative writers and management types tagged him as a troublemaker, because they didn’t understand the distinction between black pride and black militancy.

HOVG: Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Gang”.

EPSTEIN: The one true dynasty of the 70s, the “Mustache Gang”, proved that you could play winning baseball with long hair and facial growth…a novel concept to many people at the time. But they were also a testament to both Charlie Finley’s savvy (he pretty much hand-built the team himself) and his hubris (he also single-handedly destroyed them). If Finley hadn’t pissed off Catfish Hunter and given him reason to file for free agency, the A’s might have won four straight world championships, and possibly even five.

HOVG: The San Diego Chicken.

EPSTEIN: The classic mascot of the era, and a relic of a time when a man could simply show up to a ballgame in a chicken outfit and convince the home team to let him cavort on the field. Those days are long gone, my friend.

HOVG: Those God awful 1976 Chicago White Sox shorts uniforms.

EPSTEIN: You know, I love Bill Veeck; if I could pick five baseball men, living or dead, to have a steak dinner with, he would unquestionably be on the guest list. But those White Sox shorts uniforms were truly ridiculous and embarrassing; they win the “worst unis of the decade” award, even if the team only wore them three times during 1976.

HOVG: And since I mentioned the Sox…Disco Demolition Night.

EPSTEIN: Like Bill Veeck said, it was his greatest promotion and his worst, all rolled into one. There has been a lot of ink spilled by cultural commentators who claimed that Disco Demolition Night was a celebration of racism and homophobia, but I think it was really mostly just a celebration of being young, drunk, stupid and into Led Zeppelin. As a thirteen year-old boy, I was totally thrilled by the mayhem, even though I owned quite a few disco records at the time.

HOVG: I’d love to get your thoughts on a bunch of the decades most influential players, but we can save that for (shameless tease) a future “Friday 5”. But, until then, what player (or players) had the best hair? This could be Pete Rose’s bowl cut or Luis Tiant’s Fu Manchu. Simply put…whose “look” sums up the decade?

EPSTEIN: Well, there’s a reason that Oscar Gamble is on the cover of Big Hair and Plastic Grass…you see a picture of Oscar in his afro-tastic prime, and you know exactly what era we’re dealing with. But my vote for best mustache would have to go to Al Hrabosky, Sparky Lyle, or Rollie Fingers; but then again, Mike Marshall sported a pretty interesting chops and Fu Manchu combo. So much great hair to choose from, really.

Dan Epstein is an award-winning journalist, pop-culture historian and, obviously, an avid baseball fan. His work can be found everywhere from the USA Today to Guitar World. He currently lives in Southern California. You can check out his website HERE and pick up his book HERE.

If you’d like a copy of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s sent to your doorstep for FREE…fill up the comments with your favorite player of the ‘70s.  And no, no extra points for saying Ross Grimsley.

It’s that easy!


jaxtigerfan said...

Mark Fidrych was all I though about when I was 16. He was a rookie that year, 1976, and my friends and I would try and pitch like him. We never missed a game he pitched, radio or TV, and I never missed the sportscast on the 11PM sports. Mark Fidrych captured the hearts of Tiger fan all over the state, including my little section of it, in Portage. The Bird was the word.

netherton said...

Al Hrabosky. My Cardinals buddies may cringe if they only know him as a broadcaster for Fox Sports Midwest, but he was a total blast to watch pitch.

Beady eyes starting at the batter from somewhere under the bill of a ballcap, barely containing the Mad Hungarian's hair. Walking off the mound, talking to himself (and the baseball). Then a delivery that can only be described as a confluence of arms and legs in a counter-rotation motion.

8-1 and 13-3 with a handful of saves. They just don't make 'em like that any more.

Dan McCloskey said...

Considering I made my own home-made "Louisiana Lightning" t-shirt, using a black permanent marker, and wrote a poem about him when I was in 5th grade, I would have to say Ron Guidry.

Tom Knuppel said...

Being a Cardinals fan the 70's were a stretch to like many since they failed to win. However, Bob Gibson won his 2nd Cy Young in 1970 and was my all time favorite player among the Birds. Joe Torre was 2nd on that list and won NL MVP award in 1971.

blcloney said...

Greg Minton, 1978.

He fits the times perfectly as he looked nothing like a baseball player and more like a high school shop teacher.

Catfish said...

Building off this story I had to put together a quick piece called "Sideburns and Muttonchops: '70s Style". See I mentioned both the Hall of Very Good and Dan Epstein. The imagery within my article is classic! Take a look at Yes, a copy of Epstein's book would be awesome!

Catfish said...

Oh, and my favorite hairy look from the '70's was Catfish Hunter.

Ryan aka Orioles Magic said...

Brooks Robinson!

Mark A. said...

At the time it was Carl Yastrzemski.

Now, looking back on the hair and stuff I'd have to go with Al Hrabosky.

Eugene Tierney said...

Another Cardinal - Lou Brock. The man could flat out run.