Dan Epstein: Big Hair And Plastic Grass

Dan Epstein: Big Hair And Plastic Grass

Baseball in the 1970s intertwined more intensely with pop culture and the counterculture than it had before or since. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while tripping on LSD in 1970. Nine years later, Comiskey Park hosted the infamous “Disco Demolition Derby,” a promotion by Chicago rock-radio DJ Steve Dahl that went badly awry. Nearly double the ballpark’s capacity arrived that day, brandishing Bee Gees and Village People LPs to be destroyed in the middle of a double-header. Then the largely drunk and stoned attendees rioted, destroying the field and forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game to the Detroit Tigers. 

As Dan Epstein’s enormously entertaining Big Hair And Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball And America In The Swinging ’70s demonstrates, the decade was colorful in many ways. The game was populated by outsized weirdoes such as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Tigers pitcher who talked to his baseballs before throwing them (“I want to get it back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls there. Maybe it’ll learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time”) and became an overnight star in 1976, thanks to night-game TV coverage. Then there was the Pirates’ Dave Parker, the 1978 National League MVP who wasn’t Jewish, but wore a Star of David pendant, as he put it, “Because I’m David, and I’m a star.”

Epstein offers a season-by-season overview, concentrating on the ways baseball adapted to the times, often in ways that would permanently alter the game—the American League’s adoption of designated hitters, the expansion of both leagues, the effects of Astroturf on ball fields—and in other cases were memorably era-specific, such as the ballplayers’ newfound hirsuteness. Sometimes both at once, as when Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant purchased an Afro toupee from Astroturf manufacturer Monsanto: “Perhaps the crafty pitcher was merely seeking a competitive edge; if any batter had lined a screamer back through the box, Tiant’s ‘turf-toupee’ probably could have deflected it to the nearest infielder.”

Epstein’s book reaches its manic peak in the chapter titled “The Polyester Proliferation,” about the outrageously colorful uniforms the decade brought forth. In particular, he writes, “The Padres were cursed from the start with a mustard-and-fecal-brown color combination, held over from the team’s days in the Pacific Coast League, and their raglan-style jerseys and two-tone caps gave off what can only be described as a total fast-food employee vibe—which was perhaps appropriate, given that the team was purchased in 1974 by McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc.” Houston Astros fans had it even worse, thanks to the “pupil-gouging horror” of the team’s late-’70s outfits: “Something about them also smacked of chain motel bedspread or 747 jumbo-jet upholstery.” Baseball, like America and pop culture, reverted to a more corporate stance in the ’80s, but Epstein’s book waves its freak flag high.

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