Dan Epstein is an award-winning journalist and the author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70’s. His new book Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76 was released in April and takes a deeper look at baseball and culture in the year of America’s 200th birthday. Epstein spent his 1970’s at Burns Park Elementary School in Ann Arbor, where he first became a fan. “I was ten years old at the time,” said Epstein in an interview with Current, “when I got hit with the one-two punch of The Bad News Bears and the antics of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych in his amazing rookie season for the Tigers.” Epstein will read from his new book at Nicola’s on August 16.
Why did you choose to focus on the 1970’s, and why specifically 1976 for this new book?
I don’t think there is any other decade in the history of baseball that has seen more changes to the game and at the same time seen such a wealth of amazing characters. We haven’t seen that kind of personality in players as much in recent decades. One of the reasons is that it was the first decade where the sport collided with pop culture. What was happening in the rest of America, whether it be the Black Power movement or changes in male grooming styles, affected the game in one way or another. It’s also a decade that is given short shrift by baseball historians because it was so weird, because it doesn’t fit with the heartwarming, sepia tone narratives of baseball we usually get.
How did these changes coincide with the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976?
The bicentennial itself was such a fascinating time. As a kid it was exciting because I was really into history […] I didn’t realize at the time the greater context, that this was kind of an excuse for Americans to feel good about themselves and about their country after a really divisive period, starting with Kennedy’s assassination on through the Vietnam War, the campus unrest, and the race riots. 1976 is the first full year that we are out of Vietnam, we are just about free of the Nixon administration and its various corruptions, and Gerald R. Ford is running to hang on to the White House. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time for a nationwide party. On one hand it was forced patriotism, but on the other hand I can’t think of a time when Americans came together like that in a situation that wasn’t motivated by war or terrorism or disaster.
What were some of the outstanding moments for baseball in 1976?
The 1976 season tends to be overlooked because, with the exception of the American League West, there weren’t any great pennant races happening and the World Series was a real one-sided affair. But you have all kinds of fascinating things going on during the season. It’s Mark Fidrych’s rookie year. Ron Leflore of the Tigers is three years out of serving time for armed robbery at Jackson State Penitentiary and he’s got a thirty game hitting streak and is playing on the American League All Star Team. Mike Schmidt hits four home runs in a single game at Wrigley and goes on to lead the Phillies in their first post-season appearance since 1950. […] Free Agency is the big specter that hangs over the entire season. This is the first year that the reserve clause has been struck down and all these players are free to walk at the end of the season. So at the end of the season all these teams start throwing gobs of money at players and the whole hyper-inflated economics of baseball today begins in 1976.
The chapters of this book are all titled after hit songs from 1976. What do you see as the relationship between music and baseball in the ‘70’s?
1976 was an incredibly transitional year for both baseball and music. Punk rock emerges in the form of the Ramones’ first album, disco is starting to break through, Hip-Hop is happening in the Bronx, and at the same time the album-oriented rock like Frampton and Boston is dominating the airwaves. As a baseball fan in 1976, I spent a lot of time listening to AM Radio. Casey Kasem’s Sunday countdowns were as important as the box scores I was reading in the papers. […] I wanted Stars and Strikes to be a time capsule for what it was like to be a baseball fan in 1976.
August 16, 4pm, Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson Ave. 734-662-0600. nicolasbooks.com