Stars & Strikes:
Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76 by Dan Epstein. (Thomas
Dunne, 400 pg., $28.99). HB, 2014.
It’s just plain disturbing
when your childhood memories start to appear in history books.
But it’s also very interesting to compare what you remember to what
actually occurred, to be shown the often surprisingly huge difference between
your individual perception and true reality after it’s been filtered through the
prism of historical reference. And,
assuming the subject is worthy, that journey back in time will only be worth
the time, money, and shelf space invested if that prism – i.e., the author
– is an entertaining combination of a
great tour guide and your favorite professor in college: knowledgeable,
well-versed, an expert on the subject, and a good storyteller to boot.
One look at the jacket photo
of frizzy-haired, mutton-chopped Dan Epstein, author of Stars & Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of
’76, conjures images of your friendly neighborhood head shop/vinyl record
store owner, or maybe that guy who teaches Beat Poetry classes at the local
community college, a relic who still gives the peace sign and finishes
sentences by saying, “Right on, man.” So it’s perhaps not at all surprising
that this child of the sixties would become the foremost chronicler of baseball
in the 70’s with the publication of this book, written on the heels of his fine 2010 effort
titled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A
Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70’s.
Stars and Strikes is a wonderfully eclectic mix of pop culture,
especially music and visual media, presidential politics, the mega-hyped
Bicentennial, and America’s serious social issues with baseball both on the
field and in the boardroom. Chapters correspond to months of the year, and it
took me until March before I realized that each chapter title was a pop hit
song from the year, which automatically flooded my brain with the sounds of
Electric Light Orchestra, Orleans, and The Steve Miller Band, and with
Pavlovian directness whetted my anticipation for the next chapter. Now, to be
certain, for this type of scene-setting methodology to work in historical reviews,
the transitions are the key. Too jarring, and the non-baseball sections become
superfluous, yet it’s easy to get overly cute or reaching with the connections.
Epstein is a master of the transition, beautifully tying in the song titles and
the cultural references to the progress of the baseball season from January’s
free agency litigation and strike/lockout battles between players and owners to
November’s first ever free agent draft.
However, there’s also plenty
of on-field action summarized as well, a potentially deadly pitfall of
monotonous boredom that far too many lesser authors fall prey to in their
misguided efforts to include every granular speck of information that those
many months of gazing bleary-eyed at blurry microfilm had unearthed. Yet
Epstein is somehow able to summarize the progress of every team’s season with
just the right amount of attention, just a touch here on the woeful, soporific
Expos, and plenty on the woeful, incredibly interesting Atlanta Braves and
their wild new owner, Ted Turner. Of
course, the pennant winning Yankees, Phillies, Reds, and Royals and divisional
title contending Orioles, Pirates, Dodgers, and A’s deservedly receive the
lion’s share of the coverage, but plenty is also given to award-winning players
like San Diego’s Randy Jones and the meteoric Mark “the Bird” Fidrych.
Epstein’s humor, while
firmly rooted in the Cheech and Chong realm of drug counter-culture, is
sprinkled (laced?) liberally throughout the narrative, which just adds to the
fun of learning (Martin Scorsese’s violent cinematic masterpiece “Taxi Driver” only avoided an X-rating by
washing out the red color in the climactic gun battle scene, interleague play
was favored by controversial commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and Reds reliever Rawly
Eastwick was a believer in astral projection) or rediscovering all those
individual tidbits (Bill Veeck’s White Sox unveiled their ridiculous shorts and
Jim Bouton’s TV show “Ball Four”
aired for five episodes) from an underappreciated yet groundbreaking time.
Indeed, it was a truly
remarkable era in America and in the national pastime, and Dan Epstein’s Stars & Strikes pays proper homage
to the seismic changes that were occurring both within and outside baseball and
the country with a breezy, accessible style and encyclopedic view of the forces
pushing and pulling American society and its favorite
I’m just not ready to call
stuff that happened when I was a freshly-turned teenager HISTORY.
Reviewed By: Mark Schraf (July 19,2014)