The 1970s were famously known as the Me Decade, but they also were a spinoff decade. Happy Days begat Laverne & Shirley. The Mary Tyler Moore Show gave way to Lou Grant. So it only makes sense that Dan Epstein, the pop-culture-savvy author of the '70s baseball book Big Hair and Plastic Grass, decided to pen a spinoff of his own.
Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76 spotlights arguably the craziest year in a decade of Major League looniness.
Maverick owners Bill Veeck and Ted Turner upset the old guard with a torrent of promotions to distract from their lousy teams. (My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner's Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain).
Free agency was about to change the league's economics forever, shifting the balance of power from owners to players. Hair was long. Punk was rocking. Disco was thumping.
There was a sense that the rules were being made up on the fly.
Where Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass offered a year-by-year tour of the '70s, Stars and Strikes devotes a chapter to each month of 1976. If the approach limits the potential for depth, it also makes for compulsive reading, especially for those of us accustomed to poring over pennant races and devouring in-season minidramas. Such readers already will know that the Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds cruised to the pennant and dismantled the Yankees in the World Series.
But Epstein's passion and research make the little details and cultural backdrop come alive like Peter Frampton. (Yes, that album was released in '76.)
This isn't a book to assign a cultural studies class. It's a book to gulp down at bedtime as your head spins with nostalgic images of Oscar Gamble, John "The Count" Montefusco and Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.
Epstein, an admitted Tigers fan, has great fun with Fidrych, Detroit's eccentric, underdog pitcher who captured the country's imagination by talking to the ball, racking up wins and gushing with boyish enthusiasm at every turn.
Enthusiasm of any kind was in short supply then, despite the festive official face that went along with all the bicentennial party plans. The country was still shaking off its Vietnam War/Watergate hangover, and it hadn't yet taken the rightward turn of the Reagan years.
The New York described by Epstein belongs more to Taxi Driver, a member of that year's esteemed movie class, than to the scrubbed-up Yankee Stadium of today. When New York fans swarmed the field after Chris Chambliss's dramatic home run gave the Yankees their first pennant in 12 years, a mood of angry panic wafted over the spirit of celebration.
Epstein knows his pop music and his politics, and he deftly weaves them in and out of the baseball doings. The analysis feels a bit hit-and-run; Epstein seems more comfortable as a surveyor than a cultural critic.
No shame in that. Stars and Strikes is as hard to put down as its funky predecessor. I'll be there when he moves on to the '80s.