Baseball Books Reviewed: Stars and Strikes

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huge difference between your individual perception and true reality after it’s been filtered through the prism of historical reference.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 game.

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)