The baseball fan’s memory overlooks .500. Sure, if you’re 80-81 on the last day of the season, beating up on a September call-up will give the season the benefit of a nice, round number that squares away successes and failures. But most seasons, that means no big pennant push, no World Series dreams, and no lasting memories. Great teams provide memories by the bushel, and bad teams manage to store their stink in the deep recesses of your mind (plus, there’s probably some good seats available come September). Authors write books about the great teams, the second fiddles, and even the catastrophes clad in stirrups. (The best title in the latter genre? Probably this one, which I want to read mostly for the David Clyde debacle). But .500 and just a team filling space in the standings between first and last? There is no inherent story worth writing or reading in that.
Hovering around .500 also has a snowball effect, which means that future generations will skip right over a pre-birth time period if there’s not much to learn about a favorite team. I was born in 1980, which means I have more than enough literature to teach me about the 1960s St. Louis Cardinals and the valedictory prose from the stellar 1980s squads. To the victors go the book deals. But the 1970s? Besides pictures of Joe Torre’s mutton chops in his (first) autobiography, the Cardinals didn’t offer much reason to venture back to that decade (for the decade, the team went 800-813, which is a figure worth aspiring toward only for current-day Pirates fans).
That gave short shrift to a whole decade when it came to my general sports knowledge. Reading Cardboard Gods provided a great incentive to learn more about the decade, and I can think of few better primers than Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass. I came into the book thinking the decade was just overlapping dynasties like the Big Red Machine, the Swingin’ A’s, the Bronx Zoo Yankees and the Earl Weaver-fied Baltimore Orioles battling it out year after year. But Epstein’s year-by-year account of each baseball season creates annual narratives that reveal little gems throughout the decade. Here are a couple that made me leap for baseball-reference.com:
- Few players on World Series winners can claim the title “overlooked,” but I’d never heard of Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Bob Robertson. While Willie Stargell clearly put up a monster season (.295/.398/.628 for that era is just ridiculous), in 1971 Robertson’s 26 home runs made him the third-best hitter besides Stargell and Roberto Clemente. But Robertson’s lack of recognition grows stranger when you consider that he hit three home runs in Game 2 of the NLCS that year.
- Any Cardinals fan has at least cursory knowledge of Steve Blass given that he is the namesake for the mental/physical block that ended Rick Ankiel’s pitching career. And while modern fans won’t soon forget Ankiel’s pedigree as a pitching prospect, I think we forget how good Steve Blass was before his fall from grace. From 1968 through 1972, he put together four great seasons on a winning ballclub. His strikeout rate was just above teeball level, but he took advantage of a good pitching era to keep his ERA in the 2′s most seasons. He was 31 when he completely lost it, and the Pirates floundered somewhat in the middle part of the decade before they could find solid starting pitching to make another World Series run.
- The Toronto Blue Jays first came into the Major Leagues in 1977, and an Ontario ordinance banned the sale of beer at professional sporting events. This continued for five years. Inconceivable!
- When Sammy Sosa was caught corking his bat, you might remember stories of guys like Graig Nettles stuffing his bat with Wham-O Super Balls until a fateful swing opened up the barrel for all to see. What you might not know (and I sure didn’t) is that Nettles wasn’t disciplined for the transgression. When Skip Bayless invents a time machine, his first stop might be 1974 to go apoplectic on local UHF stations over this scene.
Each chapter in Epstein’s book ties the season loosely to the current events of the day. I cringe when people attempt to tie America’s pastime with American culture too strongly (reading George Will can batter anyone’s sensibilities), but Epstein does it in a way that gives the season context and allows the rich drama found in everyone from the commissioner to the owners down to the players to play out in an entertaining fashion. Early on, Epstein gives a nod to the statistical mindset that emerged in the 1980s and continues to this day. But the book isn’t a re-examination of the statistical records; the author still uses the triple crown stats to point out standout seasons. In a way, that gives the book a sense of conventional wisdom from the time period, but with hindsight’s sense that the economics and culture of the game would change.
The book also takes time to tackle the oddball themes that emerged during this time period, and what results reads like the primer a producer of I Love the 70s Part 7 might look at when tackling the subject of rainbow-hued uniforms or Disco Demolition Night. These chapters stay consistent with the rest of the book by not breaking new ground or offering up new reporting/reminiscing on the subject, but as a clear-eyed encyclopedia entry much more fun to read than anything World Book could cook up on the subject.
By the end, Big Hair and Plastic Grass provides numerous opportunities to jump off into further examination. Now I’m ready to read Joe Posnanski’s book on the Big Red Machine, and I would read any book that provides more details on the cheapness of Charlie Finley (luckily, it looks like a new biography just came out on the man in question). I suppose it goes to show two things. One, that baseball is always more than just what your team has accomplished. And two, that any history prominently involving Oscar Gamble’s afro is one worth knowing.