Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," by Dan Epstein (2010)

The cover of "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," featuring Oscar Gamble and his amazing Afro.

J.R. Richard throwing some heat for the Astros in the late 1970's.

Steve Garvey and his massive forearms.

Willie "Pops" Stargell, wearing maybe the funkiest uniform ever.

My favorite baseball player, Steve Carlton, on his 1975 Topps card, surely the funkiest cards of the decade.
I received Dan Epstein’s book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70’s” for Christmas and I just finished reading it. It’s a great read, and I would highly recommend it to any fan of 1970’s baseball. I would also highly recommend following Dan’s very witty Facebook page for the book, on which he wishes “funky birthday greetings” to every player who made the 1970’s the great baseball decade they were. 

“Big Hair and Plastic Grass” takes the reader through the 1970’s, season by season, from 1970 and Curt Flood’s challenge of baseball’s reserve clause, to 1979, when free agency was nudging player salaries towards $1 million a year. There are several entertaining diversions along the way, with chapters devoted to the “concrete doughnut” stadiums that proliferated during the era, to the outlandish and amazing uniforms that teams like the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates sported. 

Even though I was born in 1981, the baseball world of the 1970’s doesn’t seem at all like the distant past to me. One reason is that a lot of the big stars of the 1970’s were still playing well into the mid-1980’s, when I started following the sport and collecting baseball cards. Star players who first blossomed in the 1970’s like George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, Carlton Fisk, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles, Don Baylor, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Winfield were all a big part of my early baseball card experiences. I was always interested in older baseball cards too, and I spent many hours at Shinder’s, the local baseball card store, combing through piles of common cards from the 1960’s and 70’s, which greatly increased my knowledge of random 1970’s players like John “The Hammer” Milner, Kurt Bevacqua, and Mike Lum. Also, a lot of the books I read about baseball were full of stories and anecdotes from the 1970’s. I bought books like Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” Sparky Lyle’s “The Bronx Zoo,” and Bill Lee’s “The Wrong Stuff,” even though they were well beyond my 10-year-old comprehension. 

Epstein makes the argument that the 1970’s saw more changes in baseball in that one decade than in all the other decades before it. I agree with this theory, as the game saw changes in artificial turf, polyester uniforms, free agency, players growing facial hair and long hair, the adoption of the designated hitter and night World Series games. Epstein does a great job of recapping these changes, as well as the decade’s many memorable teams and players like the “Big Red Machine,” Charlie O. Finley’s “Mustache Gang,” and the New York Yankees “Bronx Zoo” teams of the late 1970’s. Because the book is only 320 pages, Epstein doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about each season, but he does a nice job of recapping the highlights and lowlights. One of my favorite chapters is the one on the uniforms of the 1970’s, which were much more colorful than at any other time in baseball’s history. I wish more teams now would take chances on more brightly colored uniforms, instead of the staid classicism that has reigned since the 1990’s. Epstein describes the Houston Astros’ memorable “orange rainbow” uniforms of the late 1970’s thus: “Standing in against an Astros fireballer like J.R. Richard must have been nerve-racking enough without being additionally distracted by something out of Jasper Johns’s mescaline nightmare.” Well put, Sir. 

The 1970’s were a time for free spirits to roam free in baseball, as players became more outspoken. The decade featured many colorful characters like Ron LeFlore, who came to the Tigers from prison, where he had been doing time for armed robbery, Reggie Jackson, perhaps the decade’s biggest star, whose outsized ego was only matched by his tape-measure home runs, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who angered Commissioner Bowie Kuhn by saying he sprinkled marijuana on his organic pancakes, Sparky Lyle, whose trademark in the clubhouse was sitting naked on birthday cakes, Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD, Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, a pitcher who famously talked to the baseball and who was an overnight sensation in his 1976 rookie year, but due to injuries never regained his form, and clubhouse prankster Jay Johnstone, backup outfielder and expert at hotfoots, and other assorted mayhem. Even a seemingly square player like Steve Garvey, who was nicknamed “Senator” and “Mr. Clean,” and had a junior high school named after him-while he was an active player-proved to be more of a free spirit than everyone thought, as in the late 1980’s it came out that Garvey was dating several women at the same time, and had out-of-wedlock children. All of these players, and many others, made baseball in the 1970’s a highly entertaining sport to watch. 

Probably the biggest change in baseball in the 1970’s, and the one that continues to have the largest impact on the game, was the beginning of free agency. From that point on, players were free to sell their services to the highest bidder, which caused salaries to skyrocket. The average major league baseball player made just $29,303 in 1970, and by 1979 that was up to $113,558. For the 2012 season, the average player made $3,440,000. Oh, how times have changed.

I could go on and on about baseball in the 1970’s, but suffice it to say that Dan Epstein does a wonderful job of making a vibrant, yet somewhat overlooked decade in baseball’s history come alive. If you’re a fan of baseball, go out and read “Big Hair and Plastic Grass.”

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