October 25, 2014

Reliving the Seventies: “Big Hair and Plastic Grass”

September 26, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Pet rocks, mood rings, streakers, hot pants, Pacers, go-go boots, and Wham-O-Super Balls.   Don’t you miss the  good old days?   Spaceship stadiums, exploding scoreboards, ethnic nights, polyester uniforms, Yanky Panky, wide-collared jerseys, gigantic hair, fake grass, ‘staches, high-fashion hues of ketchup and mustard, and garbage thrown onto the field.

Are you feeling nostalgic for the ’70s?    Or maybe you missed that wacky decade altogether, as I did (the baseball part, anyway).   Just consider those uniforms.  No wonder I stopped following the game.

I owned a pair of go-go boots in high school.  You couldn’t not have go-go boots.  Shin- or knee-high with a gold zipper up the back, I wore them to school almost every day.  “Hey, Jude,” classmates  addressed me repeatedly by nickname and they’d sing it to me in the cafeteria or during change of classes, even though the “real” Jude wasn’t even a girl.  Hey Jude, I dig your boots.   I wore through three pairs of go-go boots and had a bunch of mood rings too.

When my dad taught me how to drive a car, I was sitting at the wheel of a Ford Pinto, stick shift and shiny Mets-blue exterior.  I watched “Mod Squad” once a week without fail.  We girls dreamed of being Peggy Lipton, and everything was mod.  Many in my high school yearbook looked like Peggy Lipton, or at least we tried to achieve her look, while Clarence Williams III with his amazing hair, gravitas, and seductive gap-toothed smile gave new meaning to the concept of masculinity.

Bucky Dent, Reggie Jackson, Ken Holtzman, Bill Veeck, Charlie O, Bowie Kuhn, Billy Martin, Mike Kekich, Joe Pepitone, Yaz, Kong, and Spaceman.   I missed a lot of important baseball in the 1970s.   And I’ve often wondered what exactly I was missing.

Did you overlook an entire era of sports as I did?   Probably not.  Maybe you’re too young even to have known the ’70s.   Maybe you were fully present and paying close attention during that decade, or perhaps you were living in a drug-induced haze, and either way you’ve reached a point at which you’re inclined to miss those days.   If so, guess what?   You can have them back.   Those years are still there – the game summaries, replays, those big personalities, the antics on and off the field, the Hall of Famers and the losers – they’re all there for the taking in Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein (St. Martin’s Press, May 2010).  The vibrant cover alone – featuring Oscar Gamble, Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, Jim Rice, and Luis Tiant -  is worth the price of the book.

It was an era of astonishingly good pitching and significant change:  free agency, the designated hitter, World Series night games, the first all-black lineup (Danny Murtagh and the ’71 Pirates), recorded saves, and the original Mendoza line.

Initially, I wasn’t so sure about Epstein’s design for his book – the narrative structure, that is, and his conception of baseball as one long chronology of events.  It’s a sensible approach, given that baseball is a  linear game after all, its history so obviously chronological.   But baseball is story too, and chronology per se doesn’t guarantee story.   Baseball is nothing if it’s not a good story.

I’m not the best reader of linear narratives full of stats and numbers, because numbers don’t stay in my head very well, especially if I’ve not connected with the game and its players in a visual or purposeful way.   Gamble, Kekich, Cedeno, et al:  I didn’t own their cards.   Once upon a time I stopped going to the ballpark, and thus I can experience an entire decade of baseball only as history, not as dreamy nostalgia or vivid memory.    An author’s voice and design are critical when you depend on him to bring it all back and make it real.

1970.  1971.  1972.  1973.  1974.  1975 . . . . Epstein’s chapters are organized year by year, team after team, one player to the next, stat to stat, beginning of season to end.  There’s a sameness to his paragraphs and sentences (you can only do so much with subject, verb, direct object), as multitudes of names and numbers pass before my eyes – ERA, AVG, RBI, HRs, many worthy careers hurried over out of necessity, as a talented writer covers an amazing amount of ground, and before I know it,  I’ve read whole paragraphs and reached the bottom of another page only to realize I haven’t absorbed a single fact.  Did I actually just read an entire page and not process anything?  Maybe you know the feeling.

Linear narrative isn’t particularly engaging unless its content is hugely impressive and sometimes wildly funny, as is the case with Big Hair. Epstein took an artistic risk with chronology and knew what to do with it.   Happily, he’s blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, a capacious understanding of ’70s culture, together with a witty  prose style and an irreverent, satirical take on human behavior.

Every few chapters, the author inserts thematic interludes that change things up, artfully interrupting the otherwise methodical flow of his narrative.   He pauses to commemorate  the wacky imagery of a decade that has no equal:  artificial turf and ash tray stadiums; epic events in men’s hairstyling; an eclectic mix of Veeckian gimmicks; polyester uniforms in all their technicolor glory and ill-fitting splendor.   None of this material is superficial or superfluous; it’s essential in establishing the peculiar ethos of a world in which many of baseball’s historic events and personalities dramatically took shape.

Big Hair and Plastic Grass brings you numerous opportunities to laugh out loud.   Comedy is fundamental to the book’s spirit and its upbeat celebration of a dysfunctional world:  Tommy Lasorda giving Dodger blue new meaning by proclaiming himself and his players “one big happy family” while parading self-righteously  onto his sunny California diamond with a Catholic priest; Charlie O. sharing his owner’s box with an unlikely pair – Rock Hudson and Anita Bryant (“What the three of them talked about is anyone’s guess”); Ted Turner donning full Braves uniform to manage the squad (a foolish notion that lasted only one game); Thurman Munson replaying Neil Diamond cassettes ad nauseum on a cross-country flight, knowing how much Billy Martin hated that stuff.

Dan Epstein occasionally acknowledges important world events beyond the microcosm of baseball, but it seems to me that he tends to minimize and oversimplify   matters of history, ideology, politics, and belief. It’s understandable, though, that such subjects become secondary  in a book that is otherwise  comprehensive and encylopedic, even majestic in its sweep.

Epstein’s prose isn’t the most elegant or lyrical you’ll ever read, but he’s adept at crafting sentences with vigorous syntax and witty cadences that suit the period he seeks to recreate:   Billy Martin “pursued victory with the sociopathic intensity of Al Pacino in settling ‘family matters'” (59).  “With two outs in the ninth, Ellis caught Padres pinch hitter Ed Spiezio looking on a 3-2 pitch, and baseball’s only LSD-assisted no-hitter was in the bag, man”  (19).   People in my high school actually spoke like this.

Big Hair brings new vigor and immediacy to familiar, beloved stories that have achieved epic stature through every telling and every wondrous replay:  Carlton Fisk waving his home run fair;  Mr. October’s four homers on four consecutive pitches against four different Dodger pitchers; the Bucky Dent stunner.

Consider for just a moment the following opinion posed by another writer:  “Now one thing we do know is that about baseball there is nothing – nothing – that has not been said.  There is no possibility of an original thought.”   I came upon those words in the Wall Street Journal about ten years ago, just a few days after 9/11, and took them as a challenge.

Daniel Heninger’s assertion may be true.  Baseball is a formidable subject eloquently celebrated by many of our nation’s most distinguished writers.   There are numerous ways of telling every story, however, and in the end life offers very few themes.   I’m inclined to think that as serious baseball fans, we’re not unlike children who like to hear our favorite stories told over and over again.

1977.   Epstein’s descriptions of Reggie Jackson’s powerful post-season display are downright exhilarating to experience, especially if you weren’t there the first time around to witness them live.   There’s an energy in these vignettes – and in his intelligent, sympathetic portrait of Jackson – that increases the momentum of his narrative, injecting it with vigor and charging his prose with vitality and immediacy, as if the game were still happening in the present.  You feel as if you’re doing more than just sitting in a chair reading a book.

1978.    Boston 99-63.  New York 99-63.   Many have told this story.  Longtime Red Sox fan Jonathan Schwartz remembers the historic divisional playoff game in a lyrical and  deeply moving elegy, A Day of Light and Shadows, an exquisite book that reads like music. This very same game becomes  a lively replay and human comedy in Epstein’s hands, as he reconstructs an oft-told story and its  triumphant/tragic climax in just a few paragraphs of exciting, well-paced narration.

I never experienced the shock of Bucky bleeping Dent’s home run as it happened live.  Many years later, I’d witness the moment in another way when visiting a youth baseball field in Delray, Florida, where a large replica of Fenway’s beautiful scoreboard has been erected by a former Yankee player who’s preserving baseball history for all to see:  the score is frozen in time at 3-2 in the middle of the seventh in a gigantic monument to self, rooted beside the swaying coconut palms.

Where were you during that harrowing playoff game of ’78?  And during Reggie’s glorious October?   And when Fisk threw both arms toward the sky as many New England dreams came true?  What in the world was I doing when all those grand events took place, and what was I ever thinking?

Ironically, I’d just begun writing my dissertation on Paradise Lost.

Waitressing my way through college and grad school in an Italian restaurant just off the Mass Pike where I carried huge trays of veal parm, spumoni, and homemade gnocchis (yes, the chef pronounced it with an -s), I sometimes heard voices above the clatter of the kitchen in that crazy, noisy place – voices that sounded like baseball on a scratchy radio, but I hustled on toward the dining room with my steel tray while the boss shouted orders from under a Red Sox cap that pressed down on his orange Afro, an impressive head of Irish-Italian hair.

Maybe I allowed myself a baseball thought or two a couple years later, while walking home from the burger joint where I worked every Friday and Saturday night, my own polyester snap-up uniform jingling with bills and change at two o’clock in the morning as I headed back to a one-room studio and a hot plate, claw foot tub, NPR, and no tv.   Occasionally, I’d hear baseball names, like echoes from some distant world I once loved.   Seldom if ever did I think about the game when stuck in claustrophobic spaces like the basement seminar room where a bearded, tenured professor lectured on Victorian poetry, smoked impossibly large cigars while reciting Tennyson, and punctuated the poet’s sincere but dreary tetrameter lines with acrid smoke that drifted over our weighty copies of In Memoriam.

Something was definitely missing.

But I forged on and found my heroes elsewhere. I didn’t give up on baseball in any conscious way during the seventies, and I wasn’t living in a drug-induced haze.   I just chose to  inhabit  a different century, as other things took up a big space in my imagination.

While pennant races were heating up back at home, I enjoyed the company of princes and kings and the Royal Shakespeare Company.   Prince Hal, the future King of England -  arguably Shakespeare’s most athletic and charismatic hero – moved dynamically about the stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.   Alan Howard, son of Sir Leslie, endowed blank verse and rhymed couplets with a brand of physicality I’d never known, and he was impressive enough to fill the shoes of Pete Rose and Joe Pepitone.   The legwear he sported so far from Shea Stadium and Fenway Park wasn’t the effeminate garb of Elizabethan tights and slippers; the animated actor delivered his compelling lines – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – in blue jeans, Adidas sneakers, and not a trace of polyester.

You’re probably not anything like me, but if you’re a die-hard romantic as I am, and if you tend to idealize the game of baseball, Big Hair and Plastic Grass will serve as  an educative reality check.  That said, it’s really not very fun to hear darker stories about players whom you revered in childhood.   You  might question whether it’s necessary to know (all over again) what goes on in clubhouses and bars, in people’s homes and pickup trucks.   Big Hair might drag you down in this regard, just as many of the events and images of the late ’60s and early ’70s killed something inside me.  No wonder I retreated to another world and chose a different mode of being.

While I was busy teaching college students how to analyze metaphysical poetry and free verse, and while inhabiting the worlds of  “Lycidas,”  Emma, and Four Quartets, baseball fandom took an eerie turn for the worse.   The misbehavior of fans eclipsed the antics of players, the crowd noise reaching a point at which commotion was no longer fun.  Enthusiasm and joy crossed over to something darker.

Epstein takes us back to Ten-Cent Beer Night at Cleveland Stadium and Veeck’s ill-advised Disco Demolition Night, when wild activity in the stands escalated into something  horrific that had nothing to do with baseball.  His descriptions are very effective, and if you happen to believe, as I do, that a ballpark is one of the loveliest places you’ll ever see (especially fields with real turf), you may feel numb when considering the damage once inflicted on ballplayers and their fields in the form of random garbage – including smoke bombs, firecrackers, golf balls, whiskey bottles, batteries, and airborne metal chairs.  I’ve always loved baseball because it’s a relatively quiet event.

Maybe I chose a good time to take a sabbatical from the game.   But I’ll never know Mark Fidrych, Sparky Lyle, Ron Guidry, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Luis Tiant, and Bill Lee – I’ll never know their careers as other fans do.   On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a misfortune to have missed Charley O, the reign of Bowie Kuhn, and Billy Martin in his various incarnations.

Two striking incidents from Pete Rose’s career provide an appropriate start and finish for  Big Hair and Plastic Grass.   Early in the book, the big hitter is heard screaming from the bench, all fired up over  Jim Bouton’s recently published, tell-a-lot Ball Four:   “When Bouton took the mound against the Reds, Pete Rose berated him from the top step of the Cincinnati dugout, screaming, ‘Fuck you, Shakespeare!'”  (17).

Near the end of Big Hair, Rose is mouthing off again, this time about his ex-wife:    “As with the paternity suit, Rose didn’t contest the divorce; he just shrugged it off and kept on hitting.  According to Rose, getting rid of a wife was as simple as swinging at a 2-0 fastball:  ‘Hey, just give her a million dollars and tell her to hit the road,’ he laughed”  (297).    Rose’s outbursts frame Epstein’s broader story aptly, almost like bookends.

And that is what I missed.

I also missed great moments like  Danny Ozark’s post-game interview in September 1976, in which the  Phillies manager gave a curious answer to one reporter’s question.   Q:  Do you think the team’s morale might be a problem?  A:  This team’s morality is not a factor. (196)

Epstein succeeds in persuading us that the seventies were a significant chapter in baseball history on so many levels, an era when morale was often high (and some players too), and morality sometimes screwed up.   I’m not really sure what I missed, or how my life might have been different had I paid closer attention.   But it’s good to know that a book can take all those names and numbers once unknown and unimportant to me, those bits and pieces and colors that up until now were just a fractured thing and a “what might have been,” and put them all back together successfully to form a coherent and engaging whole.

Baseball is a story worth telling and knowing, no matter what the era.   Once upon a time, I gave it all up.  To my surprise, it looks as if you can actually get it back.

Thanks, Dan.  I really dug your book.

Judy Johnson has taught English literature at both the high school and college levels. She has three grown children, a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from Brown University, and an agented nonfiction manuscript called “Watching the Game: A Memoir of Family, Baseball and Friendship.”  You can find more of her work at her website, Watching the Game.

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Check it out:

Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass (St. Martin’s Press, 2010)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V

Comments

One Response to “Reliving the Seventies: “Big Hair and Plastic Grass””
  1. Mike Lynch says:

    I love this article! It was during the 1970’s that I became a Seamhead and it was and still is my favorite decade. My first memories of baseball were the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A’s and Nolan Ryan. From there it grew to Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Pete Rose and so on and so forth. The ’77 season is my all-time favorite; my Red Sox belted over 200 homers, the Dodgers had four 30-homer guys, becoming the first team ever with that many, and George Foster blasted 52 taters. For a 10-year-old kid who wanted to grow up to be a power hitter, 1977 was definitely formative. Great memories! Thanks Judy!

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