Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76
Judging by his hairstyle, Dan Epstein would definitely not have been a member of the New York Yankees or Cincinnati Reds, the two teams that met, albeit briefly, in the 1976 World Series (the Reds took all four games, much to the consternation of owner George Steinbrenner). They represented the conservative side of baseball at a crossroads between the generations.
Before Epstein gets to that fall classic, however, he offers what the late Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy would have called a “happy recap” of the watershed season that corresponded with America’s 200th anniversary celebration.
"Baseball baby boomers will appreciate the nostalgia Epstein dishes out with some small helpings of contemporary pop culture; each chapter bears the title of a popular song. Never too serious and always fun, STARS AND STRIKES is what baseball --- and all sports --- should be about."
The year featured the decline of old school ownership philosophy and the progress of free agency, still in its “breaking in” period; the return of maverick owner Bill Veeck and the debut of “Captain Outrageous,” Ted Turner; new stars making names for themselves; ever-present racial issues even in the post-Civil Rights era; and, of course, pillbox caps and “softball shorts” (thank you for those, Mr. Veeck). Epstein covers all this and more in his follow-up to BIG HAIR AND PLASTIC GRASS: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s.
Basic information about the games on the field can certainly be found elsewhere; that’s not why you’ll read STARS AND STRIKES. You’ll read it for his analysis, commentaries, and the behind-the-scenes stories, such as the contentious ending for the American League batting title between Kansas City Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae with its possible racial overtones. Then there was the insinuation/interference of commissioner Bowie Kuhn, particularly with deals Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley wanted to make as well as Kuhn’s ill-conceived decision to change the second game of the World Series --- a Sunday affair --- into a night game. Pundits have been arguing for decades that such late contests are anathema for building a younger fan base and partly responsible for the loss of baseball’s stature as “America’s Game.”
Epstein was only 10 years old in 1976, so one wonders how much of this is coming from his sense of a personal “golden age.” Is that why he writes about the pre-Photoshop preposterousness of poor brush-art when it came to trying to make baseball cards as up-to-date as possible? Or when he recounts the misguided attempt to turn the baseball classic BALL FOUR into a TV series, which lasted just four episodes despite having the author, Jim Bouton, basically playing himself? Even the highest salaries of the day --- Don Gullett signed a $2 million deal for six years; that’s not even the average contract for a single season these days --- seem youthfully innocent.
Baseball baby boomers will appreciate the nostalgia Epstein dishes out with some small helpings of contemporary pop culture; each chapter bears the title of a popular song. Never too serious and always fun, STARS AND STRIKES is what baseball --- and all sports --- should be about.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on May 2, 2014