Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Batter Chatter Book Review: BIG HAIR AND PLASTIC GRASS

I recently finished reading Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Dan Epstein's fun account of our national pastime (uh, baseball, that is) during the 1970s. Hair, in fact, plays a large role in the book, from Oscar Gamble's prodigious afro to Mark "The Bird" Fidrych's flowing blond mane; both are featured on the cover.

Joe Pepitone's hairpiece, meanwhile, qualifies both as big hair and plastic grass.

Epstein is an accomplished music writer--his author bio mentions his work appearing in Rolling Stone and Revolver, among other music publications--and he frequently works the music of the times into his writing of a certain period. He notes the clash between disco and classic rock (then known simply as "rock") in the mid '70s, and has an interesting bit on Bill Veeck's ill-conceived Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, which attracted a reported 92,000 to the ballpark for a bonfire fueled by disco records to be held in between games of a double header.

A riot occurred on the field, resulting in 39 arrests and the cancellation of the second game of the 'header, which was declared a 9-0 forfeit win for visiting Detroit.

The book, published by Thomas Dunne books, is full of moments where you realize something that occurred in the '70s would simply never happen now, such as Ted Turner's wet t-shirt promotions at Braves games, the 10-cent beer night at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium (65,000 cups of Stroh's were sold), a pair of Yankee pitchers trading wives, and Billy Martin's bottomless bad behavior.

But fans of the game will probably have heard of most of the old stories that Epstein trots out. He offers an endless list of baseball books that informed his reporting in Big Hair, but one might wish that Epstein had spent more time talking with the great characters from the '70s, such as Dock Ellis and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, to dig up great stories, instead of retelling the old ones.

Each year in the '70s gets its own chapter, and each chapter ends with a workmanlike account of how the National and American League playoffs played out, a play by play of the World Series, and an accounting of whose individual performance stood out that year. You may find yourself breezing through those parts, in search of more fun stories.

And there are lots of fun stories, such as the genesis of the '73 Mets' "Ya Gotta Believe" rallying cry (it came from Tug McGraw making fun of Mets chairman Donald Grant's cliche-filled team pep talk, and a teen named Stanley Burrell who used to dance in the A's parking lot for change, but ended up being the team's bat boy and later, "executive vice president" and unofficial clubhouse spy for owner Charley Finley. The players called the boy "Hammer", as he looked like Henry Aaron. Years later, the world would know Stanley Burrell as "MC Hammer."

Epstein, whose author photo shows some big hair too, also has some fun with '70s uniforms, such as the garish all-red get-ups in Cleveland, the "pupil-gouging horror" of the Astros' "tequila sunrise" jerseys, and of course the White Sox' short lived short-pants uni's.

Fun anecdotes, well told. Big Hair and Plastic Grass will help shorten the time between now and when pitchers and catchers first turn up for spring training.

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