Red, white and baseball

Dan Epstein takes an irreverent look at America’s national pastime and its cultural impact.

The Cincinnati Reds play a game at Crosley Field in 1969. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Cincinnati Reds play a game at Crosley Field in 1969.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The 40th anniversary of the American Bicentennial doesn’t arrive until next year, but that’s no reason to ignore the immensely enjoyable book by Dan Epstein, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
Epstein, a pop-culture historian and hard-core baseball fan, takes an irreverent look at the relationship between America’s national pastime – which developed into a mass entertainment vehicle in 1976 – the cultural trends of the mid-1970s and the red-white-and-blue explosion of patriotism that engulfed the country on its yearlong 200th birthday celebration.
On the diamond, a decade of rock & roll and counterculture influence had permeated everything from the players’ hairdos (Oscar Gamble’s Afro, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s curls) to uniforms (White Sox owner Bill Veeck’s colorful outfits).
But the big story was still the game, as the tumultuous George Steinbrenner-owned New York Yankees with their flamboyant cast of characters led by Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, reached the World Series for the first time in a decade to face the Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds and their superstars such as Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.
Epstein adeptly weaves the travails of the teams and players through each month of the major league season with the major events taking place off the field, such as the battle between players and owners over free agency. And he reminds us of some not-so-major events as well – it was the year of CB radios, the mega-blockbusters of the Eagles’ Hotel California and Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive, Rocky and Happy Days, and the juxtaposition of Dorothy Hamill’s wedge cut with Telly Savalas’s Kojak chrome dome. It was the year of presidential primaries and a much-needed post-Nixon-era bland president in Gerald Ford, who became more well known in his bungling Chevy Chase version on the then-revolutionary TV satire series Saturday Night Live.
In other words, it was a star-spangled spectacle, and Epstein’s talent is to be able to step back to comment on the absurdities while enthusiastically embracing it as his own history, growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In the book’s introduction, he writes, “While writing [his previous book] Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, I realized that the 1976 season was so rich with electrifying moments, oddball events and unforgettable characters – all set against the... backdrop of the Bicentennial – it truly deserved a book of its own.”
With a keen researcher’s eye, Epstein delivers the details and anecdotes that made 1976 such a pivotal year in American culture and baseball history. There aren’t any latter-day sources or interviews, but Epstein must have pored over reams of newspaper articles as well as the few dozen books he lists in the bibliography to garner the day-by-day material that makes the narrative so seamless.
What he doesn’t do, though, is provide much of an analysis, insight or commentary on what all these disparate events meant, if anything, to the bigger story of an America in fast-paced transition.
It would have been a nice addition if Epstein had talked to some of the principals to gain their perspectives four decades later. But instead of a potential home run, he has given us a solid double off the wall that readers won’t need a relief pitcher to complete.