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Dan Epstein – The Hairs and the Squares! Baseball in the 1970s

Big Hair and Fake Grass - A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s.

Big Hair and Fake Grass – A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s.

Dan Epstein – The Hairs and the Squares! Baseball in the 1970s

by Ronald Sklar

It wasn’t a dream. It really happened. People looked that way, dressed that way and played that way. Yes, the uniforms were that tight… and, oy, those colors. Dan Epstein tells us so in his awesome book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s.

A ride indeed, in an AMC Gremlin over a road of potholes. Hang onto your seats. It’s going to be a bumpy decade. Here, we talk with Dan about what it was like stayin’ alive in the big leagues, gettin’ our turn at bat.

Major League Baseball pretty much stayed the same during most of the twentieth century, but in the 1970s, something happened.

It’s always been a conservative game, really. Even now, to some degree, there is an element of conservatism to it. The ‘60s is when you really see how far apart baseball and pop culture were. In the ‘70s, the bubble around the sport is pierced and you start seeing players expressing themselves on the field.

Let’s start with the obvious: those horrid new stadiums and the Astroturf.

The “concrete donuts” of the ‘70s were built to be multipurpose stadiums. On one hand, it was an improvement over the old stadiums, in a sense that there were no steel girders blocking fans’ views, and the seats were wider and more comfortable. But because of the way they were shaped, everybody was farther away from the action. There wasn’t that sense of intimacy that you had at Tiger Stadium or Fenway or Wrigley Field. Part of the multipurpose function was the artificial turf [Astroturf]. It was easier than pulling up the diamond and putting down the gridiron. It really changed the way the game was played. The ball took much bigger and faster hops. The teams that won on artificial turf did so by taking advantage of that fact. If a line drive bounces correctly, it can be an in-the-park home run.

Jim Bouton’s 1970 blockbuster book, Ball Four, was an expose of baseball players, both on and off the field. Fans ate it up, but it did not make a lot of players happy. 

Ball Four was pretty raunchy for a sports book at the time. It was a baseball book about players chasing groupies, and the way players talked to each other in an unvarnished way. It presented these guys as guys, not these white-knight American idols. Just your average, horny, foul-mouthed athletes. The Astros actually burned a copy of it in their dugout. Pete Rose yelled at [author Jim Bouton], “Fuck you, Shakespeare.” It’s like Bouton breached the clubhouse code. Up to that point, what went on among ballplayers on the road was pretty much unknown to the public.

These were not the days of millionaire ballplayers, like today.

In the days before free agency, most of the ballplayers were living a pretty much middle-class existence at best. A lot of them were working odd jobs in the off-season to make ends meet.

The counter-culture revolution in baseball seems to have first sparked with the Oakland A’s.

The whole explosion of long hair and mustaches started with the 1972 Oakland A’s. This all happened because Reggie Jackson came into spring training with a full beard. The team actually had rules about grooming, but Reggie being Reggie, said, “Fuck that. I’m going to wear this beard.” [The management] offered to pay the rest of the team to grow mustaches and beards to steal Reggie’s thunder. But the players found that they were playing better with the mustaches on. Baseball players are a very superstitious breed. The A’s were playing better together with the facial hair. It was also a bonding thing. In 1972, their opponents in The World Series were the Cincinnati Reds, who had really stringent player grooming parameters. The media played it up: The Hairs vs. The Squares World Series. The message: you can look like a hippie and still play world champion baseball. After that, a lot of teams started relaxing their restrictions.

Relaxed indeed. We’re talking about Afros, muttonchops, and porn ‘staches.

You can’t talk about ‘70s baseball hair without talking about Oscar Gamble. He’s on the cover of the book for good reason. He had the largest Afro ever seen on a major-league player. There were plans for him to do an Afro Sheen commercial. There were a lot of white guys wearing essentially perms: Mike Schmidt, John Montefusco, Randy Jones, Mark Fidrych of the Tigers. That was no perm – that was actually his hair. Dock Ellis was spotted in the Pirates’ bullpen wearing pink curlers in his hair. Joe Pepitone was a special case. That was a wig. In the ‘60s, he was the first ball player to bring his own hair dryer into the locker room. He bought these special toupees, for on the field and off the field.

The uniforms of the ‘70s had a special, uh, uniqueness.

That was such a colorful period for uniforms. The Houston Astros had Tequila Sunrise stripes. You could make an argument that that was the ugliest uniform ever worn. On the other hand, you can make the argument that that was the most awesome uniform ever worn. I have a soft spot for the Chicago Cubs pajamas. They were baby blue with white pinstripes. It was a combination that no one ever used before or after. They were really hideous, especially with the elastic waistband. For three days in 1976, the White Sox went out on the field wearing shorts. It never happened in the majors before or since. It’s so badly scarred in White Sox fans’ minds that to this day a lot of them believe that they wore shorts all season.

Stadium promotions of the ‘70s had a special air of desperation about them.

Promotions in baseball stadiums [prior to the ‘70s] were limited to Ladies’ Day or Family Day. [White Sox owner] Bill Veeck was the first to try to pull in people with giveaways and lotteries, anything that would get some press and get people into the ballpark. It was really frowned upon by most of the other owners. The ‘70s had some of the most successful seasons in terms of attendance. But the NFL was becoming much more popular. The NBA hadn’t yet elevated itself to the point that it would be in the ‘80s. Baseball was no longer the big sport in America. They were being challenged by other sports. You had to give people some kind of reason to show up.

Even if it meant witnessing a streaker running naked across the field.

Well, you can’t talk about the ‘70s without talking about streaking. It hit critical mass around 1974. That was the famous Chicago White Sox opening day where it was 38 degrees but you have all these streakers running across the field at Comiskey Park between pitches and that got the crowd riled up. At any sporting event in the mid-‘70s, chances are you were going to see a streaker at some point. It went along with the whole ‘70s “do your own thing” and the body beautiful and the throwing off of the conservative shackles. And it was always good for a laugh.

The Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron, an African American, beat Babe Ruth’s home-run record in the ‘70s, but many people were not enlightened enough to accept it.

It looked like he was going to break the record in 1973, and that’s when he got the bulk of the hate mail. The notion that a black man would be breaking Babe Ruth’s record, which stood for about 40 years at that point, really didn’t sit too well. By 1974, it was obvious that he was going to do it and there was a lot of anticipation.

Click here to read more of the interview!

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