Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein (2014)

Stars and Strikes, by Dan Epstein, 2014.

Mark "the Bird" Fidrych, 1976's biggest rookie sensation.

The 1976 World Champion Cincinnati Reds. How did anyone pitch to that lineup?

Steve Carlton throwing his slider for the Phillies in 1976. Carlton went 20-7 that year to lead the NL in winning percentage.

Reggie Jackson as an Oriole? Yup, only in 1976.
One of the best baseball books I’ve read recently was Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein, which tells the story of baseball during the tumultuous decade of the 1970’s. I reviewed Big Hair and Plastic Grass here, and I was very pleased when I learned that Epstein was following up that book with this year’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76. Like Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Stars and Strikes is a highly entertaining read. As the title tells us, Stars and Strikes focuses on baseball in the Bicentennial year of 1976. 

Why was 1976 such a pivotal year for baseball? Well, one reason was that in 1976 the reserve clause was finally struck down. The reserve clause had kept players tied to one team for as long as the team wanted that player. Once the reserve clause ended, players could become free agents and sell their services to the highest bidder. This led to a dramatic explosion in player salaries, which has continued unabated to this day. To give just one example of how baseball salaries changed with free agency, reliever Bill Campbell went from making $22,000 in 1976 with the Twins to making $250,000 in 1977 with the Red Sox. Unsurprisingly, baseball owners were less than thrilled by the prospect of having to shell out more money to their players, so, for the second time in five years, they locked the players out of spring training. The owners had also locked out the players in 1972, which lead to the season being slightly shortened. The owners were hoping that the players would agree to a new basic labor agreement that forfeited the right to free agency that they had just won. That didn’t happen, so the owners were forced to go along with the new rules of free agency.

The 1976 baseball season saw the emergence of several unlikely stars. Randy “The Junkman” Jones, a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres known for his off-speed pitches, got off to an extremely good start in 1976. Jones had fashioned a 16-3 record in the first half of the season, giving him an outside chance at winning 30 games. But Jones slowed down in the second half of the season, going just 6-11. However, that still gave him a league-leading 22 wins, and the National League Cy Young Award. 

The 1976 American League counterpart to Jones was the Detroit Tigers’ Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who became a nationwide sensation thanks to his excellent pitching and amusing antics while toeing the rubber. Fidrych was brought up from the minor leagues in late April and made his first start on May 15th, pitching a complete game and holding the Cleveland Indians to just two hits. Fidrych got a lot of press for his unorthodox behavior on the mound, as he talked to baseballs, shook his teammates’ hands when they made a good defensive play, and smoothed the mound with his hands. For the record, Fidrych always said that he was never talking to the baseball-he was talking to himself, which helped him stay focused. None of Fidrych’s behavior was an act, and he brought a genuine child-like enthusiasm to baseball. Fidrych’s engaging spirit touched a nerve in 1976 America, which quickly embraced him as a kind of folk hero. In interviews promoting the book, Dan Epstein has made the point that the media has changed so much in the nearly forty years since Fidrych became a sensation that it’s tough to imagine the same thing happening again. I definitely agree, as now we know so much about every player from the moment they play in their first game. Now, you can watch every single at-bat of Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu. Back in 1976, unless you lived in Detroit, your only opportunity to see Fidrych was to catch him on NBC’s Game of the Week. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record, and a league-leading 2.34 ERA. His 24 complete games also lead the league, and Fidrych was the runaway choice for American League Rookie of the Year. Sadly, Fidrych suffered through an array of injuries beginning in 1977, and won just 10 more games over the next four years in the big leagues. 

1976 saw the resurgence of the New York Yankees, as they finally awoke from a decade-long slumber and returned to the World Series for the first time since 1964. The Kansas City Royals ended the Oakland A’s AL West dynasty, snapping the A’s streak of AL West championships at 5 in a row. The Royals started a dynasty of their own, making 7 playoff appearances from 1976 until 1985, when they won the World Series. Unfortunately for Royals fans, the team hasn’t made it back to the playoffs since 1985. 

In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies won 101 games to make the playoffs for the first time since 1950. The Phillies were a well-rounded team, featuring power hitters like Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, smooth fielders like Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox, great starting pitching from Steve Carlton, Jim Kaat, and Jim Lonborg, and excellent relief pitching from Ron Reed, Gene Garber, and Tug McGraw. The Phillies would make 6 playoff appearances from 1976 until 1983, winning the World Series in 1980. The Cincinnati Reds would stake a serious claim to the title of “Greatest Baseball Team Ever” in 1976, as they won 102 games and then swept the Phillies in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series. The Reds’ lineup was stacked from top to bottom, as their usual starting lineup in 1976 was Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey. Wow. 

Throughout Stars and Strikes Epstein does an excellent job of weaving what was happening in the larger world in 1976 into the baseball season. He knows his stuff, and it shows. Epstein also does a good job of making some of the larger than life personalities like Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and Bill Veeck come alive. If you’re a fan of 1970’s baseball, or of Big Hair and Plastic Grass, you definitely need to read Stars and Strikes.

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