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?
|Thomas Dunne (2010)|
|Josh Wilker and pal|
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!)?
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:
Baseball map via The United Countries of Baseball.