Capturing the Spirit of Baseball in the summer of 1976
The year 1976 was a big one for the United States of America, and Major League Baseball celebrated the Bicentennial along with everyone else. But '76 would have been a great baseball season anyway, and created at least one lifelong fan in Dan Epstein, author of a great new book.
'Wait, there's a pitcher named Rollie Fingers?!?' Yep, he's on the far left.
Getty Images/FOX Sports
By Rob Neyer
If you’re reading this, you’re probably crazy about baseball. And if you’re crazy about baseball, there’s a pretty good chance that something wonderful happened to your favorite baseball team when you were around 10 years old.
The most important year in a boy’s baseball life is indeed age 8. If a team wins a World Series when a boy is 8, it increases the probability that he will support the team as an adult by about 8 percent. Remember, this is independent of how good the team was every other year of this guy’s life. Things start falling off pretty fast after the age of about 14. A championship when a man is 20 is only one-eighth as likely to create an adult fan as a championship when a boy is 8. Just winning games also matters, with a similar age pattern. But the data shows that there seems to be something really special about winning championships.
It’s not just 8: the “odds of being captured as a perma-fan peak with those aged 8 to 12 at the time of the championship.”
I was 10. But more about that in a moment. As Davidowitz points out, perma-fans are worth a great deal of money, because they’ll just keep on spending and spending and spending for decades upon decades. Running some numbers, he argues that (for example) the Giants will reap an extra $33 million, from here on out, from their 2012 World Championship. Above and beyond the extra monies they collected last season. Which essentially doubles their revenue from winning in 2012. Davidowitz calculates that winning in 2012 was worth $66 million to the Giants: $18 million during the pennant race, $15 million “from more excited fans the following year,” and that $33 million from the perma-fans over the coming decades.
Granted, all these numbers do seem … imprecise. But there seems little doubt that winning now creates young fans who will stick around for a long time. It’s funny, actually ... way back in the late 1990s, when there was a lot of loose talk about faith and hope, I was actually on Bud Selig’s side. It seemed to me, based purely on my personal experience, that the best thing for Major League Baseball’s long-term health was some reasonable level of parity. Because if you have teams just buried in the standings year after year after year, you can lose a whole generation of fans.
That was my reasoning, anyway. It’s nice to see that Facebook’s on my side.
When I was 10, my team didn’t win a championship. But there are other ways to measure success and excitement. When I was 10, my team won a division title, and that was plenty enough to get me hooked. If Chris Chambliss had not hit that furshlugginer home run, and my team had eventually beat the Reds in the World Series, would I have become an even biggerRoyals fan? Anything’s possible, I guess. But it’s hard for me to imagine being a bigger Royals fan than me. I was obsessed with the Royals from 1976 until ... oh, I don’t know — nearly 30 years, I guess. Even now, I’ll check their score before any other team’s. I’m not obsessed, though. I’ve actually gone to sleep many dozens of times in recent years without knowing if they won that night’s game, which was unthinkable for so long.
Anyway, in 1976 I was 10, and I still remember who played every position, can name probably 22 of the 25 most important players (I’m a little hazy on some of the relief pitchers). They hooked me in 1976, and it took a succession of incompetent general managers and failed pitching prospects to get me off the line. Fortunately, I wasn’t crazy about just the Royals, but about the game. We didn’t have Extra Innings or even cable television, but we had box scores in the newspaper, we had Sports Illustrated, and we had a couple of games televised nationally every week. So I kept up with things, especially in the American League. I might have had just a hazy idea of Steve Garvey, but I liked having his signature burned into my first baseman's mitt.
That was a long time ago, though. And I had other kid stuff going on. So it was particularly refreshing to read Dan Epstein’s tremendous new book: "Stars & Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76." Earlier this week, I spent some time with Dan. Turns out we both turned 10 during the ’76 season; him in May, me in June. This happy coincidence led to the following email exchange!
Rob: Okay, so the Royals made me the man I am today. Even though they didn’t win the World Series. What about you, though? Your Tigers lost 102 games in 1975, and finished well below .500 (74-87) in ’76. What happened that season to make you the man you are?
Dan: The short answer is five words long: My friend Tim's birthday party.
In April 1976, a bunch of my friends and I went to see "The Bad News Bears" for Tim's birthday. It was a major revelation. To see kids on the silver screen who were as cynical, combative, foul-mouthed and in dire need of a bath as my fourth grade friends and I were was a big, big deal; I had never felt such a complete sense of connection or identification with kids from a movie or TV show before. But on top of that, the film made playing baseball — something I'd never actually done before, at least on an organized level — look really cool. Before, when I went to my local park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was to play "war" with my friends; now, I wanted to play baseball.
I knew almost nothing about baseball at the time — I knew who Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron were, and I had vague memories of watching the 1969 World Series with my Mets fan dad — but that changed almost literally overnight. After we watched the movie, my friends and I went back to our pal Tim's house for birthday cake, and his parents gave us all packs of Topps baseball cards as party favors. These were my first-ever baseball cards, and I was immediately fascinated by the colorful uniforms, the voluminous afros and moustaches, and even the names that I saw on the cards. ("Wait, there's a pitcher named Rollie Fingers?!?") I showed the cards to my dad when I got home; he explained to me what the numbers and abbreviations on the back meant, and I was pretty much off and running from there.
I'd been obsessed with American military history almost from the time I'd learned to read — at the age of six or seven, I was able to rattle off the names of all the important battles of the American Revolution and the Civil War — but once I discovered baseball (and more importantly, the concept of baseball history via those Topps cards), I immediately rechanneled that same obsessiveness into learning everything I could about baseball. My dad lent me his copy of Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," I found a book on the history of the Detroit Tigers by Joe Falls at a nearby bookstore, and I just took off running from there.
Frankly, 1976 could have been a total dud of a season, and I still would have fallen in love with the game at that point — my birthday is in early May, and I asked for a lot of baseball related things for my birthday that year, including my first glove. But it was anything but a dud. Mark Fidrych made his first career start in mid-May; and as a newly-minted Tigers fan living 45 miles outside of Detroit, I was practically at ground zero for the advent of "Birdmania." My dad took me to my first MLB game a few weeks later — May 30, Yankees vs. Tigers at Tiger Stadium — and that experience cranked my baseball fever up another couple of notches; The Bird didn't pitch, but I got to see Billy Martin tossed by the umpires during the exchange of lineup cards, and I got to see Thurman Munson hit a home run. And Tiger Stadium was just as awe-inspiring to me in its ancient glory as any of the Revolutionary War fortresses or Civil War battlefields I'd visited when I was younger…
I spent that July with my grandparents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I could watch Braves baseball every night on WTCG, and where my grandfather hipped me to the existence of The Sporting News, a publication which only deepened my obsession with the game; I probably re-read every single box score in that summer's All Star Game issue at least ten times. He also had a sports encyclopedia that was filled with baseball records, which I devoured like Rick Reuschel at a post-game spread. In August, while visiting my mom in Los Angeles, I went to my first National League game — Reds vs. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. I'd decided that Ron Cey was my favorite player, both because of his nickname ("The Penguin") and because he was built so oddly; seeing him in person for the first time, playing against the superstars of the Big Red Machine, was an incredible thrill for me. The fact that I went to that game in a white VW microbus whose interior was papered with images of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba (our driver, a friend of my mom's, was a Baba follower) had no particular bearing on anything at the time, but in retrospect seems hilariously appropriate to the era…
And that was that, really. By the time school started again in the fall, my friends were calling me "the baseball egghead," because I could not only rattle off Mark Fidrych's pitching stats, but I could also talk at length about the brilliance of Dusty Rhodes as a pinch-hitter, or the way Carl Furillo played hops off the wall at Ebbets Field. It would be another year or two before I could actually play ball well enough to start on our little league team, but at that point I was just happy to be the "Ogilvie" of my local gang of would-be Bad News Bears.
Rob: Man, your summer was a hell of a lot more interesting than mine. But the timing was eerily similar. We moved to Kansas City in the spring of '76, must have been March or April, and not long afterward I went to my first professional baseball game, at Royals Stadium. Unlike you, I'd been interested in baseball before. I'd played since someone would let me, and (embarrassing admission) stolen hundreds of '75 Topps cards from a grocery store in Michigan. But it wasn't until the spring of '76, with Royals fever an epidemic in my new home, that I started listening to games and reading the box scores in the newspaper every morning. You were definitely a better fan than I, as I probably didn't look at any box scores that didn't include the Royals or one of their close competitors. It wasn't until a few years later, when we had cable TV and I could watch the Cubs or Braves when the Royals weren't on, that I got to know the National League much at all.
Oh, and "The Bad News Bears" ... I believe I saw the Bears that spring, too. Here's a question, maybe for another day ... Are we really better off today, because "The Bad News Bears" would be rated R and we wouldn't willingly let our 10-year-old darlings within a mile of the cineplex? And then there's "All in the Family." But I digress! I think most of your/our readers, even those who weren't around, are at least passingly familiar with Mark Fidrych's story (although it's more fantastic than most realize). What are some of your favorite stories from that season that have been largely forgotten? For example, I enjoyed being reminded that Reggie Jackson was an Oriole for a few months, and I really enjoyed learning that Amos Otis would have been traded by the Royals except Cookie Rojas (?) exercised his no-trade rights.
Dan: Yeah, one of the advantages of having divorced parents who lived in different parts of the country was that I got to enjoy a wide variety of baseball experiences before I even made it to high school; my dad moved to NYC in 1979, and I moved to Chicago with my mom shortly thereafter, so Shea Stadium, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field quickly became as familiar to me as Tiger Stadium, Dodger Stadium and (yecch) Anaheim Stadium …
But to answer your question, there are so many wonderful and compelling stories running through the 1976 season — some of which I was aware of at the time, some of which didn't become apparent to me until years later — that it's hard to pick a favorite. It was indeed Cookie Rojas who scotched the deal that would have sent him and Amos Otis to Pittsburgh for Al Oliver, invoking his ten-and-five status to negate the A.O.-for-A.O. swap; had the deal gone through, things might have turned out quite differently for the '76 Royals and Pirates. (The mere thought of Amos Otis and Dave Parker occupying the same outfield and lineup registers mighty high on the funk-o-meter.)
Of course there's the "big picture" stuff, like the repeal of the Reserve Clause, the spring training lockout and the way the specter of full-scale free agency hung over the season, as well as the American League being forced to expand by the Seattle lawsuit, San Francisco nearly losing the Giants to Toronto, and Bowie Kuhn's continual overreaching of his duties as commissioner. And then there's the Yankees coming home to the Bronx and experiencing a renaissance right when the rest of America is ready to write New York City off as a worthless hellhole; "Phillies fever" gripping a city that was already going nuts with the Bicentennial; Bill Veeck bringing Comiskey Park back to life with an endless parade of ridiculous promotions and gimmicks, including the infamous White Sox shorts; Ted Turner buying the Braves and engaging in similarly outrageous shenanigans, including putting "Channel 17" on the back of Andy Messersmith's jersey; the A's nearly winning their sixth straight AL West flag despite the best efforts of Charlie Finley; and the Big Red Machine's final blaze of awe-inspiring glory. There's Rick Monday's rescue of the American flag at Dodger Stadium, Dave Kingman hitting what may have been the longest home run in Wrigley Field history, and Mike Schmidt crushing four straight off the Cubs at Wrigley just a few days later, and the savage Red Sox-Yankees brawl at Yankee Stadium where Bill Lee almost had his pitching arm pulled off ...
But that's the stuff that most people seem to remember. What I really love about the 1976 season (and which I tried to make ample room for in "Stars and Strikes") are the colorful, largely forgotten tidbits like Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner ordering Oscar Gamble to shave the greatest afro ever seen on a major league diamond (thus costing the Yankees' new outfielder a potentially lucrative endorsement for Afro-Sheen), the bizarre swarm of bees that delayed a Reds-Giants game at Riverfront Stadium, the only "rain-in" in Houston Astrodome history, Ron Cey and members of the Phillies making hilariously awful forays into the recording studio, or Thurman Munson goading a hopped-up Dock Ellis into beaning Reggie Jackson during a Yankees-Orioles game — and Dock later finding his locker anonymously stuffed with twenty dollar bills from his appreciative teammates, who would of course be Reggie's teammate the following season. And there's the great "what if?" moment when Reggie nearly inks a free agent deal with the Expos, but leaves Montreal with a bad taste in his mouth from an incident in which Canadian officials discover a small amount of weed in his luggage.
After spending so much of my childhood reading everything I could get my hands on about ghosts, UFOs and ESP, I naturally also have a real fondness for the metaphysical aspects of the season — whether it's a Boston radio station hiring a Salem witch to remove a curse from the Red Sox, Charlie Finley hiring an astrologer to help Chuck Tanner make out the A's lineup cards, Johnny Bench experimenting with "pyramid power" in an attempt to break out of his hitting slump, Rawly Eastwick telling a Cincinnati paper about his interest in astral projection, or Bill Lee witnessing an apparent suicide by a seagull at Fenway and theorizing that the bird was the reincarnation of recently deceased Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, whose karma had forced him to come back and experience man's destruction of the environment from an animal's point of view. All that stuff is gold to me.
But I think my favorite story from the 1976 season — and one that I was completely unaware of before I began researching the book — is the saga of Tommy Davis, which appeals to me both as a baseball fan and a music geek. I knew that Davis was a two-time NL batting champ in the early 60s whose potential Hall of Fame career was derailed by injuries, and who (like several other immobile, thirty-something guys who could still swing the bat) experienced a career resurgence in 1973 thanks to the AL's adoption of the Designated Hitter. But what I didn't know was that, after being released by the Orioles in February and failing to catch on with the Yankees in spring training, Davis retired from baseball and found work as a promotions guy (and softball team coach) for Casablanca Records. Casablanca was the quintessential flashy, cocaine-encrusted L.A. record label of the 1970s, and it was really beginning to hit its stride in 1976, thanks to big records from KISS, Parliament and Donna Summer. But after just a few months at that gig, the California Angels — who were desperate for an infusion of offense — lure him away from Casablanca to become their full-time DH. Much to Angels skipper Dick Williams' chagrin, Davis brings his laid-back record company work ethic with him; Williams even claimed he caught Davis using Williams' credit card to make long-distance calls from the manager's office DURING games. After hitting .265 with 3 homers and 26 RBIs in 72 games (which makes him a slugger by the Angels' anemic '76 standards), Davis is sold to the Royals in late September; the Royals want his bat for the final stretch, but he winds up doing his best hitting during a massive brawl with the A's and their fans at the Oakland Coliseum, when he goes into the stands to pummel several A's supporters who'd been pelting the Royals bullpen with beer. The Royals release him in January '77, but he goes back to Casablanca and lends crucial promotion to the debut album from up-and-coming funk band Cameo. It really doesn't get much more "70s" than that, does it?
Rob: No, it really doesn't. Which reminds me of something else I'd completely forgotten (if I ever knew) ... Tommy Davis was a Royal. I did follow the Royals obsessively that season, but I also missed a bunch. And it's sorta odd, now that I think about it, that I've never gone back and actually studied those great Royals teams. Which has become even easier in recent years, with Willie Wilson and Willie Aikens and Frank White (and maybe a few others) publishing memoirs. I suppose I've been waiting until I write the Royals book that I'm never going to write, or maybe it's just painful to immerse myself in a team that's forsaken me in the years since (and yes, vice versa).
Anyway, I don't know why I've never made even the smallest effort to reconnect with those teams I loved so much. It was great fun getting just the occasional snippets of Royals that show up in your book every so often. Even greater fun: Getting in touch with all those things in '76 that I was too young to really appreciate. You know. The funky stuff. People were boogeying!
Which brings me to my last question ... One thing I don't recall reading about in your book: Were baseball players living the disco lifestyle? They must have been, right? Seems like if that happened now, we would know.
Dan: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by "living the disco lifestyle." Were ballplayers going to discos in 1976? Of course! While it wouldn't achieve cultural dominance for another couple of years, disco — both the music and the related nightclub scene — was already pretty big by 1976, so it makes sense that at least some major league players would have wanted to "disco down and check out the show," in the immortal words of Wild Cherry.
"Disco" Dan Ford (who hit the first-ever home run at Yankee Stadium after the renovated ballpark re-opened in 1976) was so nicknamed because of his fondness for dance clubs; and while Don Baylor's nickname of "Groove" supposedly derived from a quote he gave reporters about needing to "get in the groove" at the plate, he was quite the disco denizen, as well. Lenny Randle and Thad Bosley went on to form a disco group called Ballplayers that put out a single or two in the early 80s. Oscar Gamble even opened up a disco of his own — Oscar Gamble's Players Club — in Montgomery, Alabama in late 1976. (I'm not a hardcore memorabilia collector, but — along with similar items from Joe Pepitone's short-lived Chicago bar, Joe Pepitone's Thing — a matchbook or ashtray from Oscar Gamble's Players Club would be among my Holy Grails of baseball memorabilia.)
I'm sure there were plenty of other ballplayers who went to discos in 1976, as well, if only to "scout the local talent" while they were on the road. There were also certainly some who didn't dig it at all; in Bill Lee's "The Wrong Stuff," he recounts a hilarious story of him and Red Sox drinking buddy Dennis Eckersley going to Studio 54, just to see what all the fuss was about, and quickly realizing that — despite their own considerable reputation for weirdness — the revelers there were playing on a whole other level of freakiness.
But if, by "living the disco lifestyle," you mean "indulging in cocaine," there were certainly some ballplayers who were into that in 1976, too. Dock Ellis recalled fans tossing him all kinds of drugs from the bleachers at Yankee Stadium during his brief tenure with the Yankees, because he'd brought his considerable reputation as "a get-high" with him to the Bronx; he also strongly implied that some of his teammates enjoyed more than just beer and liquor while they were out partying together. Bernie Carbo admitted not too long ago that he was high on coke (among other things) when he hit his dramatic game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. So the stuff was out there. As with the rest of America, cocaine wouldn't hit the majors really hard until later in the 1970s, but it's pretty unlikely that, say, the players who were rounded up as part of the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985 all did their first lines in 1979.
But yeah, between drug testing, the paparazzi and social media, things are much different today. These days, if a ballplayer goes to a nightclub, it's all over the internet before the night's even over. I've talked to Cubs players from the ‘70s and ‘80s about how they used to hang out at the bars outside of Wrigley Field after games and actually party with the fans; they didn't have to worry about people taking pictures of them, especially if they were doing something somewhat illicit — and since none of them were multi-millionaires, they didn't have to worry about security. Given the choice, I know that many of those guys wouldn't have traded the freedom and (relative) anonymity they enjoyed in those days for the "gilded cage" lifestyle of today's players, even with the significant bump in salary.