Book review: Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, by Dan Epstein
The 1970s were famously known as the "Me" decade, but they were also a zany decade in America's pastime.
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. 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 Dan Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass (2012) offered a year-by-year tour of the 1970s, Stars and Strikes devotes a chapter to each month of the year in question. If the approach limits the potential for depth, it also makes for compulsive reading. Baseball fans will already know the Cincinnati Reds cruised to the pennant and dismantled the New York Yankees in the World Series. But Epstein's passion and research make the little details and cultural backdrop come alive like Peter Frampton. (Yes, the English rock musician's breakthrough album was released in 1976.)
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 hitter Oscar Gamble, and pitchers John Montefusco and Mark Fidrych.
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.
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.