I work in a library, so maybe it’s no surprise I’m not much of an athlete. In fact, I’ve never truly understood games at all, including video games, board games, and all the sports balls.
What I do understand is romance, and my for my money, baseball is the ripped bodice, sparkling vampire, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Fabio hardcover of all the sports. It’s a beautiful game filled with contradictions—excitement and boredom, blistering speed and glacial pacing—and in that way it’s useful as a metaphor for relationships, our country, and even our world.
Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass is a history of baseball in the 1970s. This was a transitional time in America, with the country still coming to grips with the massive social changes begun in the previous decade. Baseball was late to the game when it game to social change, so the clashes of the 1960s played out again in microcosm in clubhouses and on the field all across Major League Baseball.
Epstein chronicles each season like a wonderfully constructed short story. There are heroes, like the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente, who died in a helicopter crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims; and there are villains, like the Oakland A’s notoriously cheap owner Charlie Finley, a man who wouldn’t spring for real jewels on his team’s World Series rings. Throughout the book, Epstein sorts through the rise of bland stadiums, Astroturf, the designated hitter, and a rainbow of uniforms with a clarity and humor that will make you want to run to the nearest ballpark or, failing that, go to the backyard to have a catch.
Baseball stretches deep into American history, as least as far as sports go, but its patriotic associations aren’t jingoistic or Lee Greenwood-level rhetoric. It feels good being from a place that, at one time, loved this game more than any other. If only it were that way again. Put it this way--it’s no accident that what some see as America’s decline coincided with the rise of football.