Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baseball, The Bicentennial, and 70s America: A Conversation with Dan Epstein

In Dan Epstein's entertaining new book Stars & Strikes: Baseball & America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, two simultaneous stories unfold: the 1976 season, a tumultuous campaign that ended in a World Series sweep (Reds over Yankees); and the nation's 200th Birthday, an equally noisy, flashy affair. With deep affection for the game and the era, Epstein takes a wide-lens approach, observing the many unlikely instances when the nation's pastime and pop culture crossed paths. Stars & Strikes is meticulously researched, bouncing between recaps of both essential and oddball games of the 1976 season and touchstones of American culture, notably the nationwide Bicentennial celebrations but also the CB craze, Billboard album and single chart sightings, burgeoning music scenes, Hollywood movies, violent urban unrest, the Olympics, and the Presidential Election. The result is a wild, illuminating and very funny book.

Baseball—like any sport, like anything—does not exist in a vacuum, and Epstein, whose previous book Big Hair and Plastic Grass explored baseball against the decade of the 1970s, is especially hip to this. (I interviewed Epstein, along with fellow baseball writer Josh Wilker, here in 2011.) Some of the connections he traces are innocuous—Bill Buckner looks like porn star Harry Reems who happened to be on trial in 1976—and some purely metaphoric, but throughout, Epstein happily enjoys detailing the boisterous, ricocheting figures, events, and trends of sport and culture in the funky mid-70s. If there is a central figure in Stars & Strikes it's Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the gangly, mop-haired, 22-year-old phenom starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers whose curious, talking-to-the-ball and mound-tending style of play captured the attention and affections of the Motor City and then the nation. (I vividly remember Fidrych pitching on Monday Night Baseball, the Bird's "coming out party" that Epstein writes about so memorably, and throughout the rest of the '76 season; as a kid I loved his joyful, weird, appealing personality.) As Epstein shows, Fidrych's starlight shined bright, and well beyond the game: he was invited backstage at an Elton John concert (and walked away with a pair of John's boxers, autographed), appeared on television variety shows, was considered for a part in the film version of Grease, and was generally mobbed wherever he went. Fidrych serves as a kind of locus in the book for the meeting of a difficult, slow-paced, occasionally-exciting strategic game with celebrity-obsessed, trend-watching, People magazine-consuming culture. In many ways, the Fidrych phenomena embodied the ethos of 1976, on the field and off.

Epstein has his most fun observing wacky moments: the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates "rained-in" at the Astrodome when a torrential storm prevented fans from driving to the stadium; California Angels luring designated hitter Tommy Davis away from Casablanca Records (KISS, Donna Summer, et al) where he'd recently been hired thinking that his days playing ball were over; owners Bill Veeck's and Ted Turner's over-the-top ways of promoting their teams to dwindling crowds. Epstein unearths 70s pop trends (mystic pyramid power, TM, etc.), and cites Top 40 pop and R&B hits as a kind of musical score to the long season (each chapter in the book is named after a hit song of the year). But Epstein doesn't shy away from more complex issues: he acknowledges the vexed race relations polluting both MLB clubhouses and city streets, describes Los Angeles Dodger Rick Monday's famous snatching of the American flag from the hands of protesters who tried to ignite it in the Dodgers Stadium outfield, and reminds us that the mind-boggling salaries players enjoy today are the result of hard-fought battles between players and owners that resulted in the revoking of the infamous Reserve Clause, the contractual item that allowed owners to keep players forever, pay them little, and trade them away with impunity. The freedom granted the players via the Basic Agreement in 1976 played out, of course, against the country's long and prideful celebration of its own freedom earned two centuries earlier.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Epstein to discuss Stars & Strikes, baseball, writing, and 1976.


Dan Epstein
In the preface you explain how being taken to see The Bad News Bears in 1976 turned you on to baseball. Beyond your personal attachments to and sentiment for the era, why 1976 as a subject for a book?

I would find 1976 endlessly fascinating, even if it hadn’t been my first year as a hardcore baseball fan, or even if I hadn’t been there to enjoy it in the first place. Whether you are talking about what was happening in baseball or in American culture, 1976 was radically different than the years that immediately preceded and followed it, and I don’t think you can say the same thing about any other year of the decade. It’s a year of such huge transition: It’s the last season before full-scale free agency kicks in, where Charlie Finley dismantles his A’s dynasty, where George Steinbrenner really begins to lay the foundation of his legendary/infamous tenure in the Bronx, and the Phillies and Royals emerge as legitimate contenders. Bill Veeck returns to the South Side of Chicago, while Ted Turner buys the Braves; they both took similarly Barnum-esque approaches to luring fans to the ballpark despite fielding terrible teams, though of course the Turner/Braves story would turn out very differently than the Veeck/White Sox one. It’s Reggie Jackson’s lone season for the Baltimore Orioles, which many people forget even happened. It’s the last great season for the “Big Red Machine,” and the only full season that Mark Fidrych ever pitched—though no one could have guessed either of those things at the time…

Musically, the year is dominated by arena rock and AM pop cheese (“Convoy” and “Afternoon Delight,” anyone?), but disco, punk and hip-hop (all of which will significantly impact popular culture in the coming years and decades) are all beginning to make a move. In the cinema, the year effectively begins with Taxi Driver and ends with Rocky, two films that are steeped in mid-70s urban grit but convey very different messages—and it’s highly unlikely that the latter’s “feel good” underdog tale would have resonated the same way with audiences even a year earlier. On cultural level, we’re more worried about the Swine flu, Legionnaire’s Disease and killer bees than we are about the “Red Menace”. Politically, the US is finally out of Vietnam, we’re not at war anywhere in the world, and we’re about to kick Gerald Ford (and thus the remnants of the Nixon administration) to the curb with Jimmy Carter’s election in November. And all of this is set against the backdrop of the nationwide Bicentennial celebration, an outpouring of American unity and pride that’s both genuinely heartfelt and hilariously crass—but which, even at its most superficial, would have been as impossible to imagine a year earlier as it would be impossible to imagine now. And that’s really just the tip of the red, white and blue iceberg, folks!

What are the most compelling ways that the cultural and political background of 1976 was reflected in the game of baseball?

There was no getting away from the Bicentennial in 1976; you saw star-spangled “76” and Bicentennial ribbon logos everywhere, including on most of the teams’ yearbooks and scorecards. Bill Veeck put his peg leg to good use while marching in a “Spirit of ‘76” recreation before the White Sox home opener, while the Phillies—whose hometown was the unofficial epicenter of the nationwide Bicentennial celebration—piled the red-white-and-blue imagery extra high during their Opening Day ceremonies and in the festivities preceding the All-Star Game at The Vet. And, in general, the whole “Hey America, let’s party!” vibe of the Bicentennial was pretty evident at the ballpark, reflected most obviously in the goofy promotions staged by Bill Veeck and Ted Turner. You also had the Yankees returning to the national spotlight at a time when New York City had basically been written off as a lost cause by the rest of the country, and the riot that occurred at Yankee Stadium after Chris Chambliss hit his pennant-winning home run was really as much about waving a middle finger at the rest of America as it was about celebrating the Yankees’ first American League pennant since 1964.

Politically, there wasn’t as much of an overlap; Gerald Ford threw out the first pitches at the Texas Rangers home opener and at the All-Star Game, and Bowie Kuhn spent much of the season worried that congress was about to strip baseball of its anti-trust exemption, which is why he kept angling (however unsuccessfully) to put a new franchise in Washington, DC. There was also some national fallout from the sale of the San Francisco Giants to Toronto (which was eventually squashed), since it looked pretty bad for the country to be losing one of its major league baseball teams to Canada on the eve of the Bicentennial. But for the most part, the game seemed blissfully distant from the politics of the time.

Did you encounter any cognitive dissonance between what you remembered of 1976 as a kid and what you learned subsequently while researching and writing as an adult? Did Grown Up Dan have any sobering news for Kid Dan?

I was absolutely convinced for 35 years that I’d watched Davey Lopes steal second, third and home off of Johnny Bench in the first inning of a Reds-Dodgers game on August 6, 1976, which was the first game I ever saw at Dodger Stadium. (And the first NL game I ever saw in person, period.) I dug up the game’s box score while researching the book, only to find that while Lopes had indeed stolen second, he’d reached third on an error by Dave Concepcion and beaten the throw home on a fielder’s choice. So, his speed had still made a difference, but not in the mind-blowing way I’d recalled.

As far as any conversations between my grown-up and kid selves, I would have definitely encouraged my younger self to appreciate and savor every moment of Mark Fidrych’s brilliant rookie season. If I am to be brutally honest about it, many of my Ann Arbor, Michigan fourth-grader friends and I spent the first month of The Bird’s brief flight telling each other that he was a “fake” whose unique mannerisms and eccentricities were simply ruses “to get publicity,” because we were cynical little products of the Nixon era who thought we already knew everything. I didn’t really come around to being a Bird fan until I watched him take down the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball, at which point even a know-it-all 10 year-old like myself had to admit that Fidrych was the real deal.

I notice that you avoid using current advanced statistical measurements in describing players' achievements in 1976, preferring old-school stats like pitcher's wins and batting average. Was this a conscious decision on your part? We do have those stats available for players of that era, after all.

Yes, it was a conscious decision on my part to not use advanced stats in Stars And Strikes—not because I’m an advanced stats-hating curmudgeon, but because I didn’t think they were relevant to this narrative. I’m trying to paint a picture here, one that will take you back to a specific moment in time; and at this particular moment in time, hitters were primarily judged by their Triple Crown stats, and pitchers were primarily judged by their Won-Loss records and their ERAs. No one knew about WAR or OPS or WHIPS or BABIPs in 1976, and thus those terms had no bearing upon the way lineups or rotations were constructed, or how players were rated or perceived.

If I were to write a book on the 2012 season, then I would certainly talk about advanced metrics, because they constitute a major part of the baseball dialogue here in the second decade of the 21st century, and because they were at the center of the controversy over the AL MVP vote that year. But when Larry Bowa batted second for the Phillies throughout the 1976 season, no one was tearing their hair and lamenting the folly of putting a guy with a .283 OBP in the two-hole, because that’s exactly where most managers of the day put their speedy spray hitters who could bunt well. If we’re going by WAR alone, Mark Fidrych should have not only won the AL Rookie of the Year award for 1976, but he also should have snagged the AL Cy Young and AL MVP. But WAR simply wasn’t part of the conversation at the time, and I felt it would distract from the narrative to impose it onto it now. I hate when I’ll be reading a biography of a player from, say, the pre-WWII years, and suddenly the writer will start prattling on about the player’s WAR. It’s like a needle being abruptly dragged across a record; it completely breaks the spell and takes me right out of the story. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t write an interesting paper or book applying advanced statistical analysis to the 1976 season, but that’s not the kind of book Stars And Strikes is, or was ever intended to be.

The Bird was The Word in '76
Do you think that a player today can capture the nation’s imagination and become a gate attraction and pop celebrity at the level that Mark Fidrych did in ’76? I’m thinking maybe Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980's, but he was more of a local phenomenon.

I actually think Valenzuela would have been a national phenomenon on the level of Fidrych if a) the players’ strike hadn’t chopped two months out of the middle of the 1981 season, and b) Fernando had been able to speak English at the time. I don’t think Middle America (or the mainstream media) circa ’81 was ready to fully embrace a Latino athlete who didn’t speak English, despite Fernando’s considerable charisma and charm. But in the case of both Fidrych and Fernando, it took some time for their legends to spread outside of their home cities, which I think made them all the more intriguing to fans and journalists elsewhere—it was almost a total word of mouth thing during Fidrych’s first month on the mound, like, “Hey, have you heard about this guy?” That kind of slow-build could never happen today, what with the Internet and 24-hour sports channels, and any ensuing backlash would be significantly swifter today, as well. Think about Yasiel Puig last season; by the end of his first week in the big leagues, he was already being alternately hailed as the most exciting player five-tool player since Roberto Clemente, and vilified as a selfish showboat whose unwillingness to “play the game right” threatened the very fabric of our society.

Personally, I dig the Flamin' Groovies reference you drop in on page 164. Are there any songs, or pop culture touchstones, that you thought you'd get in the book when you started but for some reason didn't?

Oh, man—there are so many, and rarely does a day go by where I’m not reminded of another pop cultural tidbit I would have loved to somehow shoehorn into Stars And Strikes. For instance, there was a series of day-long rock concerts at Comiskey Park that summer dubbed “The World Series of Rock,” but which were moved elsewhere after some stoner accidentally started a fire in the stands during the Aerosmith/Jeff Beck/Derringer bill on July 10; I completely forgot about it until after the final manuscript revisions were finished. But so it goes. I like to think of Stars And Strikes as kind of a 1976 mix tape in book form—it isn’t possible to include every game, every news event, or every hit song/film/TV show, but you can bring the best and most colorful bits together to create an immersive and evocative time capsule. And ultimately, that’s what I hope I managed to accomplish.

Given its far-reaching financial consequences and effects on the player salaries, the Basic Agreement, which banished the Reserve Clause, was certainly good for the players. Do you think that it's been ultimately good for the baseball?

There’s no question that the repeal of the Reserve Clause and the advent of full-scale free agency have had greater long-term effects on the game than anything else that happened in 1976, or that the repercussions haven’t exactly been pretty. That said, I have absolutely no doubt that banishing the Reserve Clause was, morally, the right thing to do; the players make the game what it is, and thus they deserve to be paid whatever the market will bear, and they deserve to have some degree of self-determination regarding who they play for. And while there will always be a segment of the fan population that likes to rail against “player greed,” I would argue that greedy owners have had much more of a negative effect on the game throughout baseball’s history, most glaringly so in the free agent era. Think of the collusion scandals, or the owners that refuse to spend their portion of the revenue sharing on actually improving their teams or facilities, or the oily scumbags like Jeffery Loria who cry poor and get their corrupt asses bailed out by Major League Baseball, or the owners who extort publicly-funded new stadiums out of their communities. Those things piss me off way more than the idea of Albert Pujols being able to wipe his ass with hundred dollar bills.

Bowie Kuhn
What do you think will be Bowie Kuhn’s legacy as a Commissioner of Baseball?

Well, Kuhn’s in the Hall of Fame, of course, but I think Charlie Finley’s “village idiot” assessment of him actually wasn’t far off the mark. Emma Span and Rob Neyer have both written humorous columns in the last few months about how Kuhn was largely incompetent and came down on the wrong end of just about every major issue he presided over during his tenure as commissioner. But neither of them mentioned one of his most egregious lapses in judgment, which was initially siding with the owners when they voted to lock the players out of spring training in 1976. Most of the owners were prepared to let the lockout extend into the regular season if the players didn’t voluntarily give up the rights they’d just won in the Messersmith decision, and Kuhn went right along with them—at least until he belatedly realized that it would be a major faux-pas to shut down America’s national pastime right as the country’s 200th birthday celebration was heating up. As we used to say on the playground: No shit, Sherlock! 

Is there another year in baseball and American culture that you could imagine writing a book about?

Oh, yeah—a couple, actually. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep them under my ’76 Tigers road cap for now.

If you could go back in time as an adult fan and attend one baseball game and one concert in 1976, what would they be?

No question at all on the ballgame: It definitely would be the Yankees-Tigers game of June 28, during which Mark Fidrych efficiently beat the Yankees 5-1 on a Monday Night Baseball broadcast. I watched that game on TV from my grandparents’ house in Tuscaloosa, AL, where I was spending the summer, and it’s still just as exciting and goosebump-raising for me to watch now as it was that night. But man, I would love to actually be there for it, to witness The Bird’s national coming-out party in person, to feel that insane energy reverberating around old Tiger Stadium, and to smell the billowing clouds of Michigan dirt weed smoke. That would be absolute heaven to me.

Picking just one 1976 concert is way more difficult. Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies at the Roundhouse? Queen on the US leg of their Night At the Opera tour? KISS on their Destroyer tour? Thin Lizzy on their UK Jailbreak tour, with Graham Parker and the Rumour opening? The Last Waltz? Ultimately, though, I’d have to set my time machine for a rendezvous with the P-Funk Mothership at the Houston Summit on Halloween 1976. George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars on Halloween 1989 was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen in my life, so to be in the presence of Parliament-Funkadelic in their mid-70s prime would have been a funky privilege indeed.


Stars & Strikes is out on April 29. For fun here's The Baseball Project singing about the 1976 season. Play Ball!

Photo of Epstein by Katie Howerton.

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