Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Baseball and the Me Decade: A Conversation with Dan Epstein and Josh Wilker

Beyond the game on the diamond, baseball is a a prism through which the lights of culture pass, illuminating the trivial, the profound, and everything in between. And like many professional sports, baseball is a deeply personal game to its fans, a connection reflected not only in wins and losses but in the ways the game can shape and reflect character and a fan's ways of defining himself, writ small and large.

Two recent books, Dan Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s and Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods: An American Tale, explore baseball and the 1970s in engrossing ways. Epstein's book is vibrant history, a chronicle of a game that kept on truckin' as many of its traditional aspects were warped by the decade's cultural experimentation and freak-flag-wavin' loopiness. The book's hilarious, written with great affection, and thoroughly researched, a kind of winking time capsule that doesn't shy away from history's less-celebratory moments. Wilker's book is something different altogether, an affecting narrative memoir in and as baseball cards, an autobiography of adolescence shaped by the author's deeply felt love of his card collection. In raw and candid ways, Wilker recognizes that many of our childhood passions originate in complicated emotional truths.

Both Big Hair and Plastic Grass and Cardboard Gods rack-focus baseball in foreground and background in highly entertaining, novel ways: Epstein looks through the window of his subject to see its place in culture at large, while Wilker peers through his window and sees his reflection back. Interesting stuff. Epstein resides in Los Angeles, Wilker in Chicago. Recently, the three of us virtually sat down for a conversation.


Dan, Josh, both of your books explore the 1970s through baseball, one culturally, one personally. Could each of you discuss your approach?

Dan Epstein: I was mainly inspired to write Big Hair & Plastic Grass for three reasons: 1) I became a baseball fan in the 70s, 2) there were surprisingly few baseball books out there that covered the entire decade, and 3) those that did cover baseball in the 70s made little attempt to connect the dots between what had happened on the field to what had happened in the rest of American pop culture during that time, even though you really can't talk about Dock Ellis' LSD-assisted no-hitter, Disco Demolition Night, etc. without putting those things in a greater cultural context. I wanted to connect those dots, while also trying to capture the uniqueness of 70s baseball — how it was played, how it looked, the crazy shit that went down on and off the field, and the many remarkable personalities who were involved.

Algonquin (2011)
Josh Wilker: My own approach to writing Cardboard Gods evolved over time, I guess, and grew out of playfulness, among other things. Just before I started writing every day about my baseball cards I was a little creatively worn out by spending the previous 15-20 years trying and pretty miserably failing to be Raymond Carver or Jack Kerouac or Rick Moody, etc., so I started playing around by just writing whatever came to mind when I looked at my old cards. Also, for most of my adult life, I had lived in close proximity to my brother, who was deeply connected to my childhood baseball cards, and that geographical closeness was no longer true when I started writing about the cards, so I was probably searching for a way to keep that bond alive, as well as maybe to try to understand it. Stories of my life started rising up fairly organically and oddly from meditations on the old cards, and the more they did so the deeper I wanted to go into both the personal material and into the weird old world of 1970s baseball the stories seemed to be tangled up in. I wanted to bring it all back, or as much as I could. I remember thinking at times of Pagan Kennedy's term "guerilla nostalgia," which she coined in her book about the 1970s called Platforms. If I remember correctly, the idea was that in a world where nostalgia is generally used to smooth out the rough edges of history and move product, it's important to try fight that deadening commodification. I wanted to go back not to anesthetize myself but to try to wake up a little to my singular experience of the weird old days.

DE: Josh's reference to the "weird old days" is the perfect way of putting it. It was weird being a kid in the 70s, and one of the many things I loved about Josh's book was how oddly similar (and similarly weird) his childhood was to mine. Both of our fathers were older Jewish intellectuals from New York City who married younger, free-spirited hippie types; we both got caught in the emotional fallout when our parents split, our mothers went off to "find themselves"; both of our lives lacked stability, but our love of baseball gave us both something else to focus on. Still, my memories of baseball in the 70s are inextricably linked to the weirdness of the era; for instance, I went to my first National League game—Reds vs. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, August 1976—with my sister, my mom and one of my mom's freaky pals in his white Volkswagen microbus, the interior of which was completely covered with images of Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba.

What role does nostalgia play in your book, Dan? If you were born a decade earlier or later do you think you’d still prefer/be attracted primarily to the 1970s?

As far as nostalgia goes, I have to say I utterly loathe the term, since it often implies a superficial, rose-colored look back at a time when things were "better" or at least "less complicated," and Big Hair & Plastic Grass isn't that at all. The 70s are unquestionably my favorite decade of baseball history, but that's partly because it was such a complicated, confusing, and fucked-up era—which is also why I think most sportswriters and documentarians have shied away from trying to tackle it, since it really doesn't sync up with the All-American, feel-good image that's been imposed upon the sport for generations. I'm not saying in my book that everything about baseball was unequivocally better in the 1970s, but I am saying it was an incredibly unique, fascinating and significant period that deserves far more attention than it has thus far received.

I definitely aimed Big Hair & Plastic Grass at baseball fans in my demographic: i.e., forty-somethings who became baseball fans in the 1970s, and who will always have a special place in their hearts for teams like the "Moustache Gang" A's, the Big Red Machine, the "Bronx Zoo" Yankees, and the "We Are Family" Pirates. But even if I'd been born a decade later or earlier, I would still find the 70s incredibly interesting, just for the incredible characters like Dock Ellis, Bill Lee, Mark Fidrych, Al Hrabosky, Dave Kingman, Luis Tiant, Reggie Jackson, etc, etc. But the 70s are also extremely important from a historical perspective—aside from the fact that more baseball records were broken during that decade than in any before or since, the 70s also saw the advent of the designated hitter and free agency, two things which still have a profound impact on the way the game is played. To fully grasp why the game today is the way it is, and how we got here, you need to understand what happened in the 1970s.

Josh, do you think that every personal object has the potential to be a touchstone, as baseball cards are to you? Why or why not?

Wilker and pal
The baseball cards are really my only surviving relics of my past, and I think there is a kind of magic to them in their ability to bring me out of myself or into myself or whatever. I'm sure other objects would work for other people, and there are probably other objects that would have worked for me if I hadn't lost them along the way, like my collection of Mad Magazines, or my old KISS records. But the baseball cards, like I said, had the element of being something that grew out of my connection to my brother, which is one of the defining elements of my life, so it's probably not just an arbitrary thing that I held onto the cards long enough for them to be the objects that pulled the story out of me.

As you guys moved from adolescence to adulthood how did your relationship to the game of baseball—as opposed to the sport (i.e., the industry)—change? Has it deepened in any ways? Or has your enthusiasm waned over the years?

JW: My connection to baseball started waning a bit at puberty, and from then on for a few years, through high school and college, it kind of existed at a bit of a remove from me, at least relative to the singular connection I'd had to it as a kid. Probably I was just smoking too much pot. In my early years of adulthood, there was a weird element of hurt in my connection to the game—it wasn't the same for me as when I was a kid, not as all-engrossing, and that new form of detachment hurt. This probably was one reason why some friends and I decided one year to go to The Last Baseball Game Ever. But life went on, baseball went on, and now I follow it pretty closely and even, with the near-daily practice of the Cardboard Gods blog, use it via my baseball cards to get through the day, so it's kind of come around full circle to how it was when I was a kid.

Dan Epstein
DE: By the time I got to high school in 1980, my enthusiasm for baseball definitely began to wane; partly because I discovered that I found greater solace and meaning in music than I did in baseball, and partly because I became worse at actually playing the game as I grew older—I'd started at shortstop on my 6th grade little league team; but by the time I was 14, I'd become a completely uncoordinated adolescent who couldn't hit a pitch to save his life. I also became a fan of the Chicago Cubs around this time, having moved to Chicago in 1980; and when they blew the '84 NLCS to the Padres, I kind of took it as a sign that it was probably time to focus on other things. I still went to games on occasion, but I pretty much stopped paying close attention to baseball until around 1998. I was having some pretty big problems in the relationship I was in at the time, and I was struggling as a freelance writer. Music—which had been my refuge for almost 20 years—wasn't helping; every song I heard just made me feel worse. Baseball became a welcome distraction again, and I found myself getting seriously sucked back into the game; sure, the McGwire/Sosa home run chase was happening, but reading books about baseball history was what really offered me a temporary escape from my problems. It was at this point that I started looking for books on 70s baseball, just because I wanted to get in touch with that part of my past, and hopefully gain a greater understanding about that period of the game. I couldn't find the book I wanted to read, so I decided to try and write it.

Josh, Montaigne said, variously translated, that “every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Do you agree with that? When you were writing were you thinking about reaching the casual reader who's not manically interested in baseball? Was your essaying of baseball cards a door to universal experience — for want of a better expression — or was it limiting at all?

I don't know about the human condition, but I think everybody's got a story. I wanted to tell mine—have been wanting to tell mine for a long time—and the baseball cards definitely helped. I'm really glad to hear from other people who loved baseball cards that they can relate to my story, and I'm just as glad to hear from people who relate to the story despite not being interested in baseball. Shit, I'm just happy if anyone cracks open the book, I guess. I wasn't thinking a whole lot about who I might be able to reach but more that I wanted to write a book that was true for me and my story like the books I've loved the most were true for the writers of those books.

In my opinion, Dan, an unfortunate tendency of much baseball writing is to surrender to the Field of Dreams “glow” of the game’s beauty. Thankfully there's very little sentimentality or mawkishness in your book, perhaps originating in your distaste for the limiting aspects of nostalgia. Were you conscious of limiting sentimentality?

I can't say I was conscious of limiting any sentimentality while writing Big Hair & Plastic Grass, but I think most writers are conscious of trying to write in their own voice—and my voice is not a particularly sentimental one, haha. There are some pretty moving stories from the era, specifically the untimely deaths of Roberto Clemente, Lyman Bostock and Thurman Munson, but I felt like my job was to simply tell those stories, not to wring them out for maximum emotional effect. As for Field of Dreams, I found that book to be the most fucking depressing example of middle-aged male wish-fulfillment I've ever read; if you think that the tone and content of Big Hair & Plastic Grass are diametrically opposed to that of Field of Dreams, I take it as a high compliment indeed!

Guys, who or what has influenced your writing? Who are among your favorite writers? Josh, there's obviously a literary (narrative, autobiography, memoir) component to your book; did you experience challenges in shaping your narrative? Dan, do you draw inspiration from music writers as well as baseball writers (if you draw influence from either of those camps!)?

JW: When I was a little kid I followed in the footsteps of my big brother, literally and figuratively, everywhere, and since then my writing practice has had, more than most writers, I think, that same element of following in it, me trying to place my steps in the footprints of other writers like I used to do when following behind my brother on a hike. I would stumble off on my own in my notebooks and in letters and in early drafts of stories, but when it came time to try to "polish" that more ragged voice I'd always end up unconsciously forcing it toward some facsimile of a literary hero's work, which would more or less kill whatever lived in the writing. Writing about my cards—and maybe some advances in my slow growth as a writer—helped keep that bad habit at bay. But all the writers I've loved and studied definitely influenced the writing, and two books in particular stood out, when combined in my mind, as a kind of nightlight showing the way as I was groping around at work on the book: Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (a "fictional memoir" that uses Exley's love of the New York Giants as a framework for a painful, seemingly formless flail of a life) and Brendan Boyd's and Fred Harris's The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book (a brilliant collection of hilarious and bittersweet profiles of the authors' childhood baseball cards).

By the time I sat down to write the book, I'd experimented with a lot of material on my blog, and the stuff that had the most life in it suggested the basic form, i.e., the "career lowlights" I wanted to cover. I also knew I wanted to use the idea of "packs" to break the book into sections. One of the most difficult parts of working on the book was whittling down the cards to the amount of cards that would have come to me as a kid in four packs. I feel especially bad about not being able to find a place for the unmatchably weird 1978 Greg Minton card, and so I was really glad that the publisher of the hardcover, Seven Footer, included Greg Minton in the scattering of cards inside the front and back covers.

DE: For me, it all comes down to two major influences: Roger Angell and CREEM magazine. Angell's Five Seasons is my all-time favorite baseball book, and not just because it covers the game in the first half of the 1970s (which I was too young to fully appreciate at the time). Angell is an incredibly knowledgeable writer with a wonderfully conversational style; but he's never been afraid to inject humor or opinion into his writing, and he's ultimately more interested in the people who played the game than the numbers they put up. And during its most vital period (1970s to early 80s), CREEM magazine took the same approach to music that Angell did to baseball — their writers came from a place of deep love and knowledge, but they weren't afraid to call bullshit when appropriate, or have a few laughs at the expense of some pompous rock star. They took their subject seriously, but not too seriously, and they didn't take themselves seriously at all. Whether I'm writing about music, baseball or anything else, that's the template I always aspire to.

Alright fellas, bottom of the ninth, you're each MLB Commissioner-For-A-Day, go for it.

JW: I might be tempted to use my day to hire Dan Epstein as acting commissioner-for-a-day and let him make the calls. I can't think of anybody better equipped to put a charge into the game than the guy who plunged deep into the world of 10-cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night and came back to brilliantly tell the tale. But if it really were up to me to make some decisions, I'd probably just ban the designated hitter and call it a day. I'm an AL guy because of my team, the Red Sox, but the DH just doesn't seem right to me, in part because I like seeing guys up at bat periodically who look like I might look if I had to try to hit major league pitching.

DE: If I were to accept Mr. Wilker's appointment as Commissioner of Baseball, I would push through the following 10-point plan:

1) Eliminate the DH. Like Astroturf, it's an experiment whose time has come and gone. Yes, it extends a few careers and adds some offense (at least in theory), but it ruins the game from a strategic standpoint. Getting rid of the DH would also put the two leagues on more equal footing in interleague games and the World Series.

2) Actually, while we're at it—let's get rid of interleague play, as well. The territorial rivalries are fun, but the novelty has definitely worn off by now; and when you get such scintillating matchups as Pirates-Royals, you can't help wondering what's the point.

3) Eliminate corporate naming rights for ballparks. If baseball stadiums are truly the cathedrals of the game, then they should be named after an important player or figure in the team's history—say, Bill Veeck Field instead of US Cellular Field—and not some faceless corporate entity that doesn't give a shit about the game or its fans. Corporations that really want to make their presence known at the ballpark can buy season tickets for a particular section, donate them all to local schools, summer camps and youth groups, and hang a sign with their logo above the section.

4) Make all "body armor" illegal, and eliminate the warnings that umpires give to both benches whenever a pitcher dusts off a batter. The players should "police" the game, not the umps; if this means the occasional escalation into a full-scale bean-ball war, so be it.

5) Remove "God Bless America" from the 7th Inning stretch. The song is a total buzz-kill that can instantly evaporate the energy of even the most rabid crowd. If "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" isn't intrinsically patriotic enough, why don't we at least pick a flag-waving anthem that rocks—like Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band"? And speaking of flag-waving...

6) No more egregious displays of military might before ballgames, like those Stealth bomber fly-overs. Not only does that kind of jingoistic dick-waving have nothing at all to do with baseball, but it costs taxpayers shitloads of money. If a color guard and the National Anthem aren't enough to get your crowd pumped up, try letting some chimps drive the bullpen cars around the field right before the game, and watch the fans come alive.

7) Return to the previous "home field advantage" system for the World Series, wherein the NL champ plays four home games during even-numbered years, and the AL champ plays four home games in even-numbered years. Contrary to Bud Selig's retarded ruling, the All-Star Game should not determine which league has home-field advantage in the World Series. If you want the players and managers to play the Mid-Summer Classic like it matters, give 'em a financial incentive—the winning squad splits a healthy percentage of the gate receipts and advertising revenues, and the losers get nothing.

8) Force the McCourts to sell the Dodgers. They are a complete fucking disgrace—not just to one of the most storied major-market franchises in the history of the game, but to baseball in general.

9) Exploding scoreboards for every ballpark. As the aforementioned US Cellular Field has proven, even the most generic and soulless ballpark can be considerably enlivened by the presence of a scoreboard that goes absolutely apeshit whenever the home team hits a round-tripper.

10) Any rain delay over 30 minutes automatically means one thing: Wet t-shirt contest.

Baseball map via The United Countries of Baseball.


lisa gray said...

dear dan epstein,

your list looks fine except for #10 - don't guess you go to the ballpark real too much but most of the guys who go to ballparks are not exactly teh HOTTTTT and in a wet t-shirt would teh disGUSting

CScott said...

I'm with with you Dan on #s & have my vote

LoCoDe said...

Totally disagree on #1. The DH is a good thing. Do you really want to keep watching lousy hitting pitchers bunt?
The DH doesn't remove strategy, it changes it. What it does remove are people who can't freaking hit.
Not a fan of 3 or 4 either. Naming rights are an unfortunate reality that won't go away, and beanball wars are a really freaking bad idea.

dong said...