For many of us, baseball has always been there. We went to games with our dads, we watched it on TV, we played it in the street. Our introduction to the game, our discovery of its wonders, is not something we can nail down to a specific moment.
Dan Epstein can.
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It was in April 1976, at a friend's birthday celebration that included a trip to the movies to see "The Bad News Bears" and packs of baseball cards as party gifts.
"By the time my birthday came around, I'd completely caught the baseball bug," says Epstein, 47. "Everything I got for my birthday was baseball-related."
So that year of his introduction to baseball, 1976, always has been special. And now he revisits it in "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76."
Epstein's previous book was "Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s." But his spin through the decade was brief.
"When I was writing 'Big Hair,' all the chapters had to be about 20 pages," says Epstein, a Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs fan as well as a music aficionado and popular culture historian. "There was so much I had to leave out or barely touch upon for 1976 because of room."
Serving as a backdrop for the season was America's 200th birthday and all the attendant bluster and silliness. Nowhere was that more evident than in the opening day festivities in Philadelphia — an "absolutely insane ceremony" to Epstein, who has written a series of books on pop culture trends.
In a perfect storm of baseball, patriotism and promotion run amok, the festivities included a Paul Revere impersonator on horseback who galloped into the stadium and handed a baseball to a man wearing a spacesuit and rocket belt. He, in turn, took off 150 feet into the air, circled the field and landed on the pitcher's mound, where he was met by Phillies' Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who had just emerged from a baseball-shaped float. Roberts then threw out the ceremonial first pitch. That's hoopla, fans.
"Everybody's kind of on, I don't know, like, kinda, everybody's on this stimulated high," Epstein says, laughing. "And the context, as I tried to spell it out in the book: This is the first full year in 10 years that Vietnam is not on our radar. We're literally not at war anywhere in the world. So all the upheaval, Watergate, the Weathermen and everything kind of chilled out for 1976. Everyone draws a deep breath and wants to get up and boogie."
If there's one thing Epstein likes as much as baseball — or nearly as much — it's music. There's a generous helping of music in the book. The Who, Little Feat, Johnnie Taylor and even Rick "Disco Duck" Dees all show up.
But at the heart of the book are the stars and events that made 1976 a year to remember.
If there was a personality who captured the spirit of it all, it was Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych (shown above). An unassuming, curly-haired — and unknown — 22-year-old, he was the best story of the season. It wasn't just that he dominated the opposition, it was the sideshow he brought to the game. He talked to the baseball, telling it where he wanted it to go; he jumped around the infield with kidlike enthusiasm; he got on his knees and manicured the dirt on the pitcher's mound.
The game that made him a national phenomenon came on June 28 against the Yankees on a Monday night TV broadcast.
"He shut them down, barely broke a sweat, and he was having so much fun doing it," Epstein says. "I still get tears in my eyes watching it, to see that kind of passion from Fidrych. And when he's called out for a curtain call at the end, it blows his mind. It's so wonderful. That sums up what is joyous and wonderful about baseball."
There were other moments in 1976, from significant to goofy. Spring training was delayed by a lockout by team owners. A new labor agreement between players and owners finally killed the reserve clause, which for decades had tied players to one team in perpetuity. Oakland A's owner Charles Finley tried to dismantle his team, trading stars and selling off others. White Sox owner Bill Veeck had his team wear shorts. There was "Headlock and Wedlock Night" in Atlanta, a promotion that included both weddings and professional wrestling. All that was missing was the guy with the rocket belt.
"It was like you opened the paper every day and there was something new," Epstein says. "Then you had the Bicentennial on top of all this. It's just an endlessly fascinating year for me."
Wait. We almost forgot Oscar Gamble.
Gamble sported baseball's most glorious afro. It was the Babe Ruth of afros. But before the season, he was traded to the New York Yankees, where long hair was forbidden. Ever the good soldier, Gamble marched into a hotel barbershop, where his 'fro was dispatched.
Epstein writes: "With his wife, Juanita, and Yankee coach Elston Howard along for moral support, Gamble spent an hour in the barber's chair, his cap size shrinking from 8 to 71/2 in the process."
It's easy to see why 1976 captivates Epstein.
"The season was so much fun, full of all these characters. You look back and say, Wow, did that really happen?"
William Hageman is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.
"Stars and Strikes"
By Dan Epstein, Thomas Dunne, 400 pages, $27.99