Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s by Dan Epstein
St. Martin’s Press, 2010
List Price: $25.99
When the Game Changed: An Oral History of Baseball’s True Golden Age: 1969-1979 by George Castle
Lyons Press, 2010
List Price: $24.95
What makes an era the golden age for a baseball fan? Is it the greatness of the players, the pageantry of the postseason, or the triumph of a favorite team? Every decade has had its share of heroes and drama. What turns them golden often depends on the prism through which the individual sees them. Much like a first love, the era in which the game captures a fan’s heart will never release its grip.
The generation that grew up watching Willie and Mickey patrolling center field will forever believe the 1950s were baseball’s best years. Those who embraced the game while masters like Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, and Gibson dominated opponents from the hill will cast their vote with the ’60s.
Until recently, the 1970s was short on advocates. But those years have finally come of age. The popularity of several nostalgic titles released this year proves there are many among us who look back fondly upon the decade that brought us the designated hitter, free agency, and AstroTurf.
Two new books celebrate this pivotal period. In “When the Game Changed: An Oral History of Baseball’s True Golden Age: 1969-1979” George Castle taps the men who played and managed to tell the era’s story in their own words. Dan Epstein tries to infuse some hipness while summarizing the decade’s happenings in “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s.”
Castle, who has covered baseball in the Chicago area since 1980, grew up attending Cubs games, cutting class in the early ’70s to head for Wrigley Field. “When the Game Changed” has something of a Chicago-centric feel, but as the city is one of the few to offer access to teams in both leagues, the location allowed the author a better-rounded education in the game and its myriad characters.
Numerous big names contributed to the project, with players like Fergie Jenkins, Bob Gibson, Billy Williams, and Joe Morgan sharing their thoughts on rivalries, opposing players, great moments, and the dynasties of the era. One of the best chapters is a short one on the elbow ligament replacement surgery that has kept former Dodger Tommy John’s name relevant to newer generations. John details what he went through in 1974 when Dr. Frank Jobe made him a baseball—and medical—pioneer.
“When the Game Changed” explores each of the topics presented in some depth. Castle introduces each chapter and sets up all the players’ quotes, which range in length from a paragraph to a page or more. From time to time he loses focus, giving us detail on his exploits in the bleachers as a youth that seems out of place in an oral history. But overall it’s a fun book, with first-hand perspectives from dozens of players and others involved in the game throughout the ’70s.
In “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” Epstein works through the decade’s events chronologically, mixing in chapters on ballparks, uniforms, hair and grooming, and memorable promotions. These chapters give him more freedom to riff on the “funky,” which only partially tinges his season summaries. This is where the pop culture historian delves into the garish polyester nightmares worn by the majority of big league teams, the voluminous Afros that sprouted under the caps of Oscar Gamble and Dick Allen, and back-firing drawing cards like 10-cent beer night in Cleveland and Disco Demolition night in Chicago.
Epstein’s season recaps are fairly thorough, tracing individual heroics and pennant races for each league while mixing in the Dock Ellis LSD no-hitters, Mike Kekich-Fritz Peterson wife swaps, and Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin brawls. Many of the anecdotes will be familiar to readers, though there is bound to be something new with the breadth of events covered.
Epstein, for those familiar with his work in publications such as Rolling Stone or as managing editor of the website shockhound.com, is a fun and entertaining guy who gushes wacky pop culture. The ’70s provided fertile ground for him to harvest baseball zaniness. Which makes the somewhat staid format of “Big Hair” puzzling. With a few edits the season overviews could slot into the old Sporting News Baseball Guides.
By devoting so much space to the recaps, there wasn’t much room for Epstein to fully explore the truly funky happenings of the decade. Indeed, many of the stories barely scratched the surface before moving on to the next highlight. The formulaic format of the book didn’t play into the writer’s strengths. The ’70s weren’t meant to fit into 10 neat, little, occasionally repetitive, boxes. If Ellis could spend two days tripping on drugs before hurling his gem, a talented writer like Epstein could devote a little more space to fleshing some of these tales out.
There have been entire books written on some of the events that had to be shoehorned into a page or two of “Big Hair.” Just last year we were treated to Joe Posnanski’s “The Machine” and Mark Frost’s “Game Six.” Their success, along with that of these Castle and Epstein releases, as well as Josh Wilker’s “Cardboard Gods,” has opened the floodgates, much to the delight of fans nostalgic for the days of the Bird and the designated runner.
It really was an amazing decade for baseball. Consider the dozens of Hall of Fame players; the powerhouse A’s, Reds, and Yankees teams; and the legendary World Series moments, like Carlton Fisk’s homer and Reggie’s four consecutive blasts. To borrow a line from Oldsmobile, this is not your father’s golden age. But depending on when you were born, it may very well be yours.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.