Big Hair & Plastic Grass A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America In The Swinging Seventies

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music,   From Issue 716   By: Dan Epstein

09th December, 2010     0

I first heard about Big Hair and Plastic Grass shortly before it was released in June 2010. The buzz was all big hype and irreverence. This is a must read for anyone who appreciates the historical relevance of the seventies and its last gasp attempt to preserve and expand the dreams of the sixties. And like a pebble that causes ripples in the water, that spirit permeated our cultural institutions – forever changing how we view art, politics, music and sports. 

Epstein is peering through the looking glass to give us a view of an alternate universe with an outrageous, almost dream-like quality.  His prose is poetic, elegant and dirty. He provides us a thread of continuity between the 70’s and who we are today – individually, collectively and as a nation. The book covers each year of that fabulous/not-so-fabulous decade in savage detail. It’s a great read that provides statistics - batting averages, slugging percentages, stolen bases – as well as the story behind the stories and the colorful characters that inhabited this oversized day glow fairy tale.

I came of age in the seventies. I graduated from high school and college. I protested the Vietnam War, hitchhiked across the country and had a hand in opening the Valley Restaurant in Corvallis Oregon. I married a beautiful woman in 1978 who is also the kindest person I’ve ever known. We are still married after 32 years - you could say she has incredible patience and a forgiving heart.  For me, this was a time of growth and struggle, and failed attempts to live up to conventional standards manhood and maturity. And it was the last time I had much interest in Major League Baseball (or any other professional sport).

As a kid I loved sports. My father sponsored Saginaw Knothole baseball teams for years and in 1963 he led my team, the White’s Bar Bobcats, to the 11 and Under league championship. Dad named the team after me. I was known as Bob at the time. I didn’t become Bo until the next year when I attended SHS Coach Ken Gray’s summer basketball clinic and let it slip that I idolized Saginaw High’s gifted quarterback Bo Minnich. Well, one thing led to another and I was renamed Bo. It was mostly a joke, a way of poking fun, but it stuck. I’m not sure why it became such a durable moniker but I really liked it and as the years passed it seemed to fit me to a tee.   

Robert/Bob was discarded and Bo became my identity. Bo is the “I am” in my existential quest. In the backdrop of the historical events revisited in Big Hair and Plastic Grass, I approached this review much like someone who finds a photo album and each turn of the page evokes a chain of memories that whisk you away to forgotten moments in time. It was like an archeological excavation that reveals evidence of lost cultures, people and historical events. 

The book is written in chronological order but I’m going to jump around a bit in order to link some of the more interesting tidbits in this fascinating warts-and-all tale so lovingly rendered by its author.

Iggy & the Stooges latest single – 1970 - had a hard rockin’ late sixties edge but the public was more interested with R&B and soul than the white washed sound of Motown and the total drug-addled suck of the Rolling Stones. Instead, we favored Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and others who got funky - and political. This great music provided an ongoing soundtrack to a sport that had become staid, predictable and boring. Baseball’s cultural zeitgeist was changing rapidly amidst the decline of good-old-days nostalgia a marketing tool.

Free Agency is cited as the most important and far-reaching event in MLB history. On January 16th, 1970. Curt Flood opened the gates to what became known as free agency when he filed a $4.1 million civil suit challenging the reserve clause. It would forever change the financial fortunes of the players and create a huge disconnect between the blue collar and middle class fans and the millionaire athletes. It helped create another rung in our class system. Despite Flood’s ongoing efforts to help players fight back against no-trade clauses and unfair labor practices it wasn’t until 1976 when a Federal Court ruled that Cincinnati Reds hurler Andy Messersmith was a free agent. The game was on and by the end of the decade the average annual salary was $113,558, a big jump from the $29,303 average salary at the beginning of the decade.

The February 23rd, 1970 issue of Sports Illustrated spilled the beans on Detroit Tiger ace Denny McClain’s involvement in a bookmaking operation tied to organized crime. Though he only got a slap on the wrist, he proved to be a lousy criminal though he tried again and again to flaunt the law and get away with it. Eventually he did time in prison in the eighties and nineties including the Peet Packing embezzlement conviction.  In 2007 McClain co-authored a book of his troubled life entitled I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect.

But as far as scandals go that was just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Jim Bouton’s (rather tame) insider book Ball Four raised a ruckus with tales of “groupies and greenies.” No longer would baseball players be viewed as virtuous. duh. The sexual revolution wasn’t just for hippies as Yankee Panky reared its head when two New York Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson took wife swapping seriously.

But perhaps the most interesting person in “Big Hair” is Doc Ellis, a true original and counter culture beacon to individuality. He dug getting high and listening to Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. But on June 12th, 1970, Ellis was tripping in an uncharted astral plane, a tab of Purple Haze providing the vehicle. The psychedelicized no hitter was not public knowledge until after Doc retired in the eighties. In an exclusive conversation with poet Donald Hall, Doc recalled that the ball’s size and shape was constantly changing and he couldn’t always see his catcher through the acid haze. He just threw the ball down a multi-colored path. Far out.

One last event that seemed to characterize the behavior of fans throughout the decade occurred on October 1st, 1970 when 32, 000 fans came to witness the very last game played at the Philadelphia Phillies Connie Mack Stadium. After the Phillies won the game, the front office staff tried to promote a “fan appreciation” raffle – a 1970 Mustang was the top prize. Instead the drunken fans ransacked the entire ballpark from the dugouts, the infield tarp and the outfield walls billboards.  Fights broke out everywhere and 25 people needed hospitalization. Unfortunately this type of violence would be repeated throughout the decade.

In 1971 Willie Mayes was the highest paid player in MLB with a $165,000 contract. The average salary was $31,000 and quite a few got the minimum of $12,750. In 1979 Nolan Ryan was the highest paid player with a cool $1,000,000. As a means of comparison – Alex Rodriguez, a central figure in the nouveau rich/millionaire athlete milieu, is the highest paid player in MLB with a mind-boggling $33,000,000. There are a total of 433 millionaires in Major League Baseball today.

It was a decade of experimentation and bigger than life characters - orange balls, polyester suits, Charlie Finley, Morgana - the kissing bandit, the Reggie Bar, the San Diego Chicken, Bill Veeck, the ephus pitch, and ten cent beer nights. We adored these eccentric characters to Mark Fidrych (The Bird) who had conversations with baseballs and Oscar Gamble who had a bigger afro than the Jackson 5 combined to our one of a kind superhero Doc Ellis who in 1974 set a major league record by opening a game with hitting three straight batters – intentionally!

Several records were broken in the seventies. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s almost sacred home run record on April 8th 1975. In 1979, a record 43,550,395 fans filled ballparks across the nation. Baseball had changed and in that brief flicker of excitement, we could bask in baseball’s Technicolor glory and flamboyance until greed and juicing ascended in the eighties and reflected the dark spirit of our country.

When I completed reading Big Hair and Plastic Grass, I placed the book on my nightstand and smiled gently, inwardly. I started to remember how much I loved playing baseball as a child. It was such a pure and joyful experience. We played only to play. Under my father’s guidance White’s Bar went on to win championships in the 13 and 15 & Under Knothole Leagues. It was a dynasty of sorts and my best mates were on these teams. Together we created enduring memories and fellowship that comes with the humility of winning and losing well - like true sportsmen.

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