The death of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner earlier this month may have signaled the last, belated breath of 1970s baseball.
Steinbrenner, who bought the Yankees in 1973 for the now laughable sum of $8.8 million (the Yankees' currently highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, will make $33 million this year), came to represent much of what defined that decade: selfishness, machismo, invidious bluster, maverick individualism, felonious misdeeds and headlong trendsetting that could be either brilliant or disastrous.
The French-born scholar Jacques Barzun famously wrote in 1954, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." That dictum applies forcefully to the 1970s, a decade as full of color, contradiction and discontent as its national pastime. Recall that the juicy excesses of the 1970s were soured by economic recession, political distrust fueled by the Vietnam War and Watergate, and a sort of social civil war that rattled the nation, as Nixonian conservatism brawled with a counterculture in full bloom after its 1960s bud break.
So beware the catchy cover and title of Dan Epstein's new book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s, a sort of Boogie Nights for baseball: a fan's paean to an orgy of fun that not only came to a grim, corporate end but, looking back, wasn't really all that fun in the first place.
Epstein's approach is straightforward: one chapter devoted to each year of the 1970s, in chronological order, with a few inserted detours like "The Polyester Proliferation," and "Rows, 'Fros and Anything Goes." Most chapters begin with a brief portrait of the zeitgeist in that particular year: the Jonestown massacre, Son of Sam, Saturday Night Fever, Jimmy Hoffa, Patty Hearst. Epstein's background as a pop culture journalist comes in handy here. He then devotes a few paragraphs each to the highlights (or lowlights) of the season before giving a summary of the season itself: which teams contended, which players had good seasons—with quick stat lines— and then a rundown of the playoffs.
The effect is rather like a tour bus in book form. To your left is Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while tripping on acid (Epstein wryly notes that the pitcher's name, printed in a box score, is "Ellis, D."); to your right is Pete Rose's 44-game hitting streak; over there is the Kekich-Peterson wife swap; if you look up you can see Roberto Clemente's plane crashing; crossing in front of us is Morganna the Kissing Bandit chased by a streaker; and we'd better move on before we get swept up into that brawl over there—oh, and please enjoy a complimentary Reggie! candy bar.
The digest approach is good for cramming everything in, and will appeal to casual readers more than baseball devotees, who will probably already have read, or will want to read, much deeper and richer accounts of the era like Jim Bouton's succès de scandale, Ball Four, and Bill "Spaceman" Lee's vivid The Wrong Stuff. Serious fans will also disregard the white noise of Epstein's old-school statistics, which have since been superannuated by much more useful metrics. But if you don't know (or remember) much about the druggy decade, Big Hair and Plastic Grass provides a serviceable overview.
That's about all it does, though. Very little in the book gets more than a couple of paragraphs, and so everything gets roughly equal, and cursory, treatment. Epstein leaves the reader to pick and choose the right keys to the decade from his over-full party bowl. The bases were loaded with stellar stuff for Epstein to drive home—wife swaps, Astroturf, the designated hitter rule, Billy Martin—but his book is the equivalent of a sacrifice fly: It's modestly productive, but a bigger hit could have blown the game open.
So could bigger hair, so to speak. Big Hair and Plastic Grass seems to be intended as a short, strange trip through a funky decade, but the trip isn't funky enough. Epstein's prose includes a few slangy moments ("Allen hadn't vibed too well with his previous managers"), but it's basically casual fan-journalism that lacks much commentary and attitude. (And it omits one of the great quotes of the decade. Asked whether he preferred grass or Astroturf, the pitcher Tug McGraw answered, "I don't know. I never smoked Astroturf.")
The benign, cleaned-up approach is at odds with the jock-itchy, substance-abusing, blackout-and-heatwave agita of the time. You want to see Epstein mix it up with his subject, throw high and tight rather than right down the middle, let his storytelling hair down to match the mane in his author photo on the back flap. And speaking of photos, why are the plates in black and white?
Still, the account is refreshing in this time of baseball gone corporate, when players and managers and owners give carefully manicured, sanitized answers to questions (or just release "statements"); when heroes like Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Roy Halladay exude all the charisma of sand; when the drugs of choice enhance performance rather than pleasure; when what passes for controversy is inanity like the exchange of bitchy barbs that ensued earlier this season after Alex Rodriguez trotted over Dallas Braden's pitcher's mound while returning to first base following a foul ball (making a mountain out of a molehill, indeed). Today's players come off like spoiled, prissy overgrown adolescents.
That's because ballplayers today are spoiled, prissy overgrown adolescents, coddled from an early age and then cautiously escorted through school and then the minor leagues to their multimillion-dollar careers. Back in the early 1970s, Richie Hebner supplemented his income by digging graves in the off-seasons. Nowadays, some ballplayers are forbidden by their teams from playing winter baseball. Barzun himself (still chugging along at 102) has given up on the sport. "I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore," he said a few years ago. "The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of ... It's a disaster."
But when you hear your cranky old uncle pining away for the good old days, when men were men and wives were for swapping, don't take the bait when he offers the 1970s as his golden age. The new cookie-cutter "multi-use" stadiums (Shea, Three Rivers) were soulless, the players brawled and bickered and the uniforms and the stadiums were ugly, and so was the players' behavior. There were harebrained promotions like Ten-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland and the infamous Disco Demolition at Chicago's Comiskey Park. There were ugly polyester Day-Glo uniforms and racist death threats aimed at Hank Aaron as he neared Babe Ruth's home run record. There were meddling, pompous, shortsighted owners like Charlie Finley, who was so cheap that he gave his players World Series rings with plastic emeralds in them, and Bill Veeck, the Disco Demolition mastermind, who made his players wear shorts. Ted Turner canned his manager and took the job himself for one dismal day.
And there was the emblem of the era, George Steinbrenner. He was born on the Fourth of July and an American in the best and worst senses. He committed crimes, he bullied people, he "hired and fired and rehired and refired," as the sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote. His reckless spending made the Yankees a billion-dollar empire and brought joy and grief to millions of fans. He was the deserving butt of jokes and opprobrium. He won a lot and lost a lot; rescued a franchise, nearly destroyed it, and rescued it again. The heartfelt reaction to his death, at age 80, on the morning of baseball's 81st All-Star game, was a reminder of something else Steinbrenner did recklessly—something his buttoned-down, modern-day descendants seldom seem to do, but which gave the Me Decade its hairy, funky attitude: He took it personally.