I’m a couple of years older than Dan, but 1976 was also definitely The Year of The Awakening for me and my brother as well. Oh sure, I had bought random baseball card wax packs at our tiny town’s general store starting around 1972 and enjoyed looking at the player pics and profiles — and biting down on that brittle pink cardboard gum! — but neither of my parents were particularly athletically minded. No soccer moms here or Little League dads living out his unfulfilled diamond dreams there. My father definitely enjoyed watching sports (and wrestled in high school, but does that even count?), but it wasn’t until the Boston Red Sox made it to the 1975 World Series and played the fearsome Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” Reds on national television every night that I settled down to watch as an earnest 11-year-old. The Red Sox won that series, three games to four as I recall, thanks to Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run hammered off of Fenway Park’s left-field foul pole in the deep dark night of the 12th inning. (Whenever that pivotal moment and highlight reel of Fisk waving and willing the ball fair gets trotted out for the umpteenth time, I remember Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench’s exasperated and sarcastic confirmation of who really won that series during an interview he gave about — what else? — Game Six!
From there it was a headlong free fall into baseball obsession for me that manifested itself, first, with collecting cards, then watching games, poring over player stats, and even later playing in organized youth leagues which made me feel I was part of a team, but which didn’t produce the kind of glittering batting averages and game-saving catches I had hoped for. More impressive and ambitious were my adolescent off-the-field dreams. Within a couple of years I was writing, illustrating, and publishing (in a limited edition of one copy, placed on my family’s breakfast table first thing every Saturday morning) my own baseball magazine I called “Off The Wall.” This weekly endeavor taught me the concepts of discipline and deadlines, and nurtured a lifelong love of writing for, and putting out, hot-off-the-press publications, whether they be newspapers, magazines, online websites, and now, this little blog. I’ve always said that, for a host of reasons, no other sport has fostered and fomented such a soulful, literary connection as baseball. And speaking of writers …
Little did he know it at the time, but Dan’s boyhood of baseball and the Bicentennial would culminate in a fruitful journalistic career writing for the likes of Rolling Stone, SPIN, Esquire, the Los Angeles Times, Guitar World, Revolver, the Jewish Daily Forward, among many other publications. He’s the author of the boisterous Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, and most recently, the equally buzz-worthy (however you choose to interpret ‘buzz’) Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76. I spoke with Dan for RPM: Life In Analog shortly after his summer book tour-slash-honeymoon brought him to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to RPM‘s baseball theme park-shrined HQ. After a lively reading and Q&A discussion with an audience clad in yellow-and-green Rollie Fingers jerseys and clutching “75 Super Sox” radio play-by-play LPs (that would be me), a small group of us took Dan and his lovely new bride out for celebratory libations at a nearby watering hole, where we bonded over baseball, beers, and what it was like to live through America’s 200th birthday bash (and survive its attendant hangover). Hope you enjoy my Up Close and Personal Bicentennial Minute (actually about 60 of ’em) with a guy as genuine as AstroTurf is phony.
RPM: Hey Dan, so congratulations on the book and thanks for getting on the phone with me. You had mentioned playing in a band earlier, and since this is a blog mostly about music, let’s start there.
DAN: I’ve been in a bunch of bands. But there were two where I actually left a recorded legacy. One of those was a band called Lava Sutra. [Epstein was the singer-guitarist — RPM]. We were based in Chicago and part of our problem was, we got started a little too early. If we’d been around a couple of years later, we’d have maybe have gotten to ride the crest of the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill wave. But by then, we’d been around for a few years and were considered old news.
RPM: Man, it should have been you instead of Billy Corgan! I’m betting you were a better singer.
DAN: (Laughs) I would say he’s a better player than I was, but yes, I’d like to think I was a better singer than (Smashing Pumpkins singer-guitarist) Billy Corgan. Who I actually knew because he worked in a used record store not too far from where I lived. He was good friends with a friend of mine, and I actually went bowling with him one night. Our entire trip to the bowling alley he just kept saying, ‘I’m gonna win. I’m gonna beat you guys.” And me and the other guitarist in my band were like, ‘Well, we’re gonna get a pitcher of beer!’ We enjoyed a pitcher of beer – or two, or possibly three – and got lit up and bowled pretty terribly. Billy did indeed beat us badly in bowling.
RPM: He actually bowled sober? Is that even possible? Dude, that is so un- rock & roll.
DAN: (Laughs) So then I moved to LA in ‘93 and joined a band called the Jupiter Affect, which you may not have heard. But you’ve probably heard of The Three O’Clock. It was a few bands down the line for (band founder) Michael (Quercio) after The Three O’Clock broke up. Actually, more than anything else, I’m really proud of the EP and the record (‘Instructions for the two ways of becoming Alice’) we did. Our thing was doing very melodic sixties-influenced pop songs but with really heavy guitars and a Queen influence. I haven’t really played in a band since then. I kind of reached a point where I was not going to make any money playing in a band, and I was barely making money as a writer , and so was really going to have to go all into one or the other. So I went all in on the writing side.
RPM: Sounds like you picked the right path. Plus, you get to write and talk about the magical year when you were ten (in 1976). How many people get to do that?
DAN: Yeah, the year that I started writing Stars and Strikes was like getting to hop in a time machine every day. And I have a kind of a freakishly good memory– or at least as far as my childhood is concerned. After I started smoking pot, things got a little hazy. But what was great was that going back and doing all this research triggered a lot more memories. Remembering sitting in my grandparents’ living room and watching the (1976) All-Star Game. Or remembering, ‘That’s right! I was in San Diego at my other grandparents’ place when (the Pirates’) John Candelaria pitched that no-hitter!’ Going through that year gave a nice chronological time frame to hang all those memories on.
RPM: Where did you grow up?
DAN: I spent most of my childhood in Ann Arbor, which is prime Tigers territory. All my friends who’d gotten into baseball before I did were all Tigers fans, so it was real easy to slot in as a Tiger fan. And on top of that, you had Mark Fidrych. Before the rest of the world caught onto him, all my friends were talking about ‘The Bird’ — this crazy pitcher that the Tigers had. It was a source of intense interest and conversation. I grew up in a fairly liberal college town during the Watergate era. So by the age of 10, all my friends and I were completely cynical and were used to the media lying to us. So we all thought that Fidrych was a phony. We thought he was just doing this for attention. It wasn’t until I saw him on the Monday Night Baseball game of the week and saw him pitch against the Yankees — it was on national TV and that was a big deal – that his whole performance was so charming and charismatic and winning that I had to give it up (and say), ‘This guy’s the real deal.’ At that point, I became a huge fan. But (we) were all a bunch of cynical little bastards. Which is why I related to ‘The Bad News Bears’ (movie) so much.
RPM: Did you play Little League yourself?
DAN: Yeah I did, but I was late to it. Actually, up until 1976, I had never played baseball. I was much more interested in military history and playing with my GI Joes. I was not a particularly athletic or outdoors-oriented kid, unless it was running around with a toy machine gun. But really, the experience of watching The Bad News Bears (made me think), this is pretty cool, I should be involved in this. I was not a good player as a kid. And I think I got by learning the history of baseball and learning the stats, and so was able to place myself in the baseball world of friends. And The Bad News Bears were my guys. My dad bought me one of those Hank Aaron pitchbacks, so I practiced all kinds of wind-ups and deliveries using that. I definitely went through a period of wanting to be a pitcher and a catcher. I actually did start at shortstop for my sixth grade team, but that was a couple of years away. But I used to play a lot with friends, pick up games. You can have a lot of fun imitating batting styles, or switch-hitting. Like I had any business switch-hitting! I had more fun at the park with my friends than I did at actual Little League games. I was too tense to enjoy those.
RPM: In this book and your first one (‘Big Hair and Plastic Grass’) , you deal with one of the most pivotal issues of the ’70s, free agency, and all of the backroom deals and bickering behind the scenes between the players and owners. How hard or easy was that to research?
DAN: Not that difficult because guys like (Oakland A’s owner) Charlie Finley and (New York Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner were owners who were always making statements, and saying things that some owners probably would not say today. And there have been a lot of books written about the dynamic between the ‘Swinging A’s’ and Finley, who very ingenuously built this great team almost singlehandedly, and then proceeded to alienate almost all of his players with his penny-pinching ways and also beyond that, the way he would talk shit about them to the press. There’s a really good book by Bruce Markusen called A Baseball Dynasty, which is about that, and another book of the era called Champagne & Baloney (by author Tom Clark). After Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, one of the things that really rankled the baseball establishment wasn‘t just his descriptions of the use of greenies (amphetamines) by the players, but that he shed light for the first time on what contract negotiations were like, and how teams would just completely dick around everybody who wasn’t the franchise face. Teams would report that they paid (Mickey) Mantle and (Carl) Yastrzemski all this money, so people would think, ‘Oh, those guys are well paid.’ But really, what they were earning was really a very small percentage of what players were making (as a whole). They were making middle class salaries, which wasn’t bad by the standards of the day. But a lot of these guys had to work in the off-season just to make ends meet. And these owners were making a lot of money off their labor, and then poor-mouthing them when it came time for contract negotiations.
RPM: I recall you mentioning (Dodgers relief pitcher) Mike Marshall working as a teaching assistant. I kinda miss, and still remember, those days when you could flip over a baseball card and read that, oh I dunno, something like Dave Kingman operated a forklift in the offseason. And you’d think, really?
DAN: (Laughs) Or that Richie Hebner works as a grave-digger. But it did make them more human, which was pretty nice. Now, if they had those factoids on the back of cards it would read: A-Rod once ordered 25 bottles of Cristal for the entire club! It would not be anything that the average person could relate to.
RPM: Is free agency the single most dominant, defining aspect of 1976 and the decade in general?
DAN: Absolutely. I don’t think you can name anything that happened in 1976 that had a greater influence and repercussions and reverberations on the game. And the removal of the reserve clause. It changed the way teams were constructed, it changed the way teams played, it changed the way fans related to the teams, it changed the course of history of several teams, and several owners. (White Sox owner) Bill Veek and Finley were the first casualties and they had to get out. I know a lot of people pine for the days before free agency, and certainly there was a charm about that, where your favorite player would be on your favorite team for his entire career. And you really related to these guys. It’s all monopoly money at this point, and it makes it hard to side with a player when it comes to contract negotiations. But the players are the reason we go to ballgames. They’re the reason we follow baseball. If baseball is making this much money that they can afford to pay these guys this, then they should. It shouldn’t be just stuffed into the owners’ pockets. With the exception of Bill Veek and a handful of cool and visionary owners, baseball owners throughout history, across the board, are really a bunch of scum bags. And that is as true now as it was in 1976 and as it was in 1950. So I wanna see the players getting theirs way more than I wanna see the owners buying another yacht.
RPM: But does it make the game harder to love?
DAN: I think it’s entirely possible that I don’t love baseball now as much as I did when I was ten. But I still love baseball, and I think the things that actually make it harder for me to love are less the economics and more the things like the endless commercial breaks, the endless pandering — whether it’s coming up with 50 different alternate caps and jerseys so people will buy them, or making the bats different colors for different charities. So much of it is marketed to death in a way that it wasn’t in 1976. I find it charming to look back and see things like Headlock and Wedlock Night [a peculiar promotional special that, oddly, combined weddings and wrestling — RPM], or see things like Bill Veek installing a shower in the bleachers at Comisky Park. Because those were things that were done to reach out to fans and were kind of conceptual and sweet. There wasn’t some kind of marketing department involved. Now, it’s become more corporate. Obviously, in order to pay players this kind of money, a more corporate set-up is necessary. But everything is so drenched in marketing now, that that’s what makes it harder for me. And now, with changing rules like catchers blocking the plate, the new replay system … they’re constantly tweaking something that doesn’t need to be fixed. And that drives me insane.
RPM: Yeah, it’s like now, instead of just showers in the bleachers, we’d have to hear about a shower head sponsored by DuPont.
DAN: Oh yeah, and it wouldn’t be just one shower head. It’d be a bank of extreme shower heads!
RPM: In reading this book, I really do miss the sense of kinship or closeness that we tended to feel with players and their personalities. Maybe that’s just about being nostalgic and remembering what it felt like to be 10 or 12 years old.
DAN: You get a lot more eccentric personalities coming into the game in the ’70s. Part of that is about kids who were coming into the game who had been in college in the late ’60s or early ‘ 70s, when it was hard not to be radicalized on some level, as far as flying your personal freak flag. And you also have the sports reporters of the day who were looking for more colorful stories. When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four came out, the sportswriters were pissed because they had kept all of these clubhouse secrets for so long, and here came this player who spilled all the stuff that they were supposed to be spilling. So I think you have a lot more writers looking to write profiles of players that went beyond a player who had two kids and a wife and a dog. In researching this book, I was reading a very conservative Cincinnati paper and a profile on Reds’ pitcher Rawly Eastwick, who was an artist who collected antiques and rehabbed a Victorian in Cincinnati. And he was also really into astral projection. And he was talking about that to this very conservative paper, and they went ahead and reported it. Players started feeling a little more comfortable expressing themselves. And the media felt more comfortable with letting them do that because Americans were getting a little less straight-laced, and were becoming more interested in things like astral projection and pyramid power. And this is before the players all had their own PR guys. I think you have players these days who are reluctant or willing to stick their necks out and be themselves and be eccentric. And part of that is could be just the culture in the sports world now. You don’t get to be a weirdo unless it’s very marketable.
RPM: How many former players manager or coaches did you talk to for ‘Stars and Strikes’?
DAN: I talked to maybe around six but found out pretty quickly that it wasn’t worth the legwork in trying to get guys to open up to you — if they trust you enough to talk to you in the first place. But I’m not blaming the players. Memories do start to fade and get conflated with other memories. These were games that happened 38 years ago, and when players tried to recall what happened from the vantage point of the present day, it really took you out of 1976. So I pretty much stuck to interviews that players gave at the time. And in looking at player memoirs, I tried to stick with books that came out no later than ten years after 1976.
RPM: To your point, in some respects — and I’m flashing back on a pre- ‘Chronicles’ Dylan here — sometimes the artist, or in this case, the player, isn’t necessarily the most equipped or qualified to critique or assess his own legacy, or illuminate a particular time period … So anyway, did you expect or anticipate an audience for both books or have the feeling before you began that they were out there?
DAN: Exactly! That’s very well put. And as far as an audience was concerned, the demographic was late thirties to early fifties, which is the demographic that still buys books, so I was pretty sure there would be an audience. It seemed that Big Hair and Plastic Grass came out at the perfect time. It really did touch a lot people’s nerves and really did connect with them. But really, for me it came out of wanting there to be a book about ’70s baseball, and wanting to celebrate the crazy shit as opposed to treating it as an embarrassing anomaly. Most books I read before Big Hair and Plastic Grass came out have taken that kind of attitude. All my friends who were baseball fans and about the same age as me were all very excited. But it took a long time for Big Hair to come out. All told, it was probably a ten-year process, from coming up with the idea and writing the book and finding an agent.
RPM: So you knew that all of your friends would buy it. But I’m guessing that you were hoping no one else came out with that kind of book.
DAN: Oh my god, that was the fear! Because it took such a long time and I had a vision for what I wanted it to be. And along with way, a few things came out, but they were not well publicized and frankly they were a lot drier. I really wanted to try to capture the vibe of the era. And they didn’t.
RPM: Yeah, dry doesn’t really work for the ’70s.
DAN: Yeah it doesn’t fit the sepia-toned narrative, the Ken Burns thing — and that’s why I love it!
RPM: I have a hard time imagining a kid who’s watching baseball right now will feel the same way in 30 or 40 years, as we do now. But I could be wrong.
DAN: Well, I think you are wrong. I remember as a kid in the ’80s thinking, Oh Jesus, who was ever going to want to revisit the ’70s? I remember thinking the ’70s clothes sucked and ’70s music by and large wasn’t nearly as cool as the ’60s. But sure enough, every period is a golden age to somebody. (Now) the ’70s are my golden age just like the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late ’40s and New York baseball of that era is the golden age for my dad. As long as baseball is making new fans, I think there’s always going to be the kid who’s going to look back 20 years and say, ‘Yeah I remember those guys and remember going to that ballpark that isn’t there anymore.’ That’s the magic of the game. And the same with music. There’s always going to be music that people respond to from a nostalgic angle because it hit them right between the ears at the time when they were the most sensitive to it and most open to it. Those are always gonna be their jams!
RPM: It’s true. Even crappy songs that I hated back then, I won’t turn when they come on the radio because I look back fondly and say, ‘That’s the song I heard all summer when I had the crappiest job of my life!’ But I’m also surprised at myself, like, why am I not turning ‘Missing You’ by John Waite or ‘Your Love’ by the Outfield?
DAN: I made this huge playlist for 1976 when I was working on the book and I definitely left some songs off because they were just too awful to sit through again. But, like, as a song as ridiculous as ‘Convoy’ is, I like hearing it now and again. It’s hilarious. And certainly I remember being completely stoked on that song at the time. My mom even gave me a CB radio dictionary so I could talk CB talk with my friend on his dad’s CB in their RV.
RPM: I still have that single, as well as one from a couple of years earlier that I loved, Reunion’s ‘Life Is A Rock [But The Radio Rolled Me]‘, sung by one of the greatest bubblegum voices of all time, Joey Levine, who I later found out was the singer behind the Ohio Express and ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’ — which I loved! I torture my wife with that and tell her that he speaks more band names per second than anybody in history. It’s like proto-rap!
DAN: Rap from a guy named Joey Levine. That is serious rap cred!
RPM: What’s your pick for best uniform of the ’70s?
DAN: My personal favorite has to be the ’76 road Tigers road jersey. The Tigers were one of the few teams I feel managed to get through the ’70s with their dignity intact. But I also have a real fondness for the really over the top uniforms, like the ‘79 Cubs uniform that were like pajamas. Those were awful! Same with the Pirates and the 36 different combinations they had. You never knew what they were going to wear on the field that day, which was part of the fun. I love the Astros stripes, and the Padres, even though they were a mustard yellow/fecal brown combo. Hideous on one level, but they had so much character. And now, the uniforms the both teams wear are devoid of character. And even though the A’s still have the green and gold, its much more dialed down than it was back then. The Yankees, Dodgers, and Reds, although more conservative, looked good and it worked for the era.
RPM: Who do you think is the most underrated player of the ’70s? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but I always look at Al Oliver’s stats and say it’s a shame he’s not in the Hall of Fame. He played in secondary markets and didn’t get the TV exposure and publicity some other stars got. But as a guy who hit well over .300 every year (.300 or better in 11 of his 18 seasons to go with 2,743 hits — RPM), I think he was up there with Pete Rose and Rod Carew.
DAN: Definitely. He was not a great glove man but yeah, he could rake. He would be a pretty good candidate for most underrated. I also think Reggie Smith would be up there. Both for in his time in Boston, where he wasn’t happy, and St. Louis, where he was even less happy. But a great switch hitter and had a total gun from the outfield. Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst turned him into a glorified utility man and didn’t know what he had. But I don’t think the Dodgers make it to the World Series in ’77 and ’78 if Reggie Smith is not there.
RPM: Finally, your pick for the best player player of the ’70s?
DAN: Oh wow. (Pause) I gotta go with Reggie Jackson. If not the best, the most quintessential ’70s player. He is such a major figure throughout the entire decade. I’m a huge fan of Dick Allen and Dave Parker, but they had their halves of the decade, whereas Reggie was very present throughout the entire decade. He won five World Series rings in that decade, he was in the post-season every year, I believe, except for ’76 and ’79. He was in the headlines constantly, and love him or hate him, you couldn’t take your eyes of him. He made great copy for sportswriters, and he was one of the first, if not only, players to treat sportswriters as his personal therapist. I think the ’70s would have been a much less interesting decade without Reggie Jackson.
A link to read more about “Stars & Strikes,” sample, buy etc. right here: http://us.macmillan.com/starsandstrikes/DanEpstein
A blog and link to Dan’s previous book on the grand olde game, “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” right here (go get you some!): http://www.bighairplasticgrass.com/
Dan talks on the tube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw-S-0xmDjI
“Headlock and Wedlock Day” you say? Why yes, I’ll have a double bill of that! Dan discusses here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cWb_DQi3-g#t=46
Who’s fluffy ‘fro is bigger than our man Dan’s rock ‘n’ roll hoochie-koo ‘do? Why, Oscar Gamble’s of course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7w7XsP_ggBA
You have to see it to believe it! Detroit Tigers rookie hurler Mark Fidrych becomes a household name with a nationally televised win over the Yankees — and the Yankees fans love it! — right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMSDo3BX5Ds
Nothing says the Spirit of ’76 better than a good old-fashioned baseball brawl between the game’s two biggest rivals. Watch the Red Sox-Yankees May 20, 1976 dust-up at Yankee Stadium here, after Sox rightfielder Dwight Evans guns down Yankee runner Lou Piniella, who then tries to wrest the ball and kick Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. Good luck with that one Lou! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohQaOO_mTzs
Finally, here’s a vintage ’76 video of the ’76 smash, “Convoy,” by C.W. McCall. Grab your CB radio and sing-along! Hey Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck. we just ain’t gonna pay no toll, so we crashed the gate doin’ 98 and said, let them truckers roll! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=le2bPRGvKXE
Dan Epstein: Writer, raconteur, rock star! Watch Dan and his band Lava Sutra ask a tollbooth guy where the petting zoo is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-BY9YyZI4A