Big Hair and Plastic Grass
After a year marked by the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Stonewall riots, the Tate-LaBianca murders, the music festival yin/yang of Woodstock and Altamont, and the intensified U.S. bombing of Vietnam, the odds of 1970 being placid and turbulence-free were practically nonexistent. 1969 had witnessed multiple seismic shifts in American culture and consciousness--so many indications that daily reality was growing ever more distant from the idealized Norman Rockwell/Leave It to Beaver picture of life in these United States--and sizable aftershocks were all but guaranteed. "I feel alright," growled Iggy Pop on the Stooges' new single, "1970," but hardly anyone else did--which is partially why record buyers rejected the Stooges' apocalyptic celebration in favor of reassuringly palliative 45s from Simon & Garfunkel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), the Beatles ("Let It Be"), and Ray Stevens ("Everything Is Beautiful").Sports had long been a refuge for Americans yearning for the nostalgic, comforting glow of simpler times, but now tremors were occurring in that world, too. "Broadway Joe" Namath, a playboy and raconteur who also happened to play quarterback for the New York Jets, had recently shocked the nation by correctly predicting a Super Bowl victory by his upstart AFL squad over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts of the NFL. Ninemonths after Namath's career-defining Nostradamus moment, the even less-respected New York Mets--a team that had only been in existence since 1962, and had never finished better than ninth in a 10-team league--capped a miraculous 100-win season with a five-game World Series takedown of the mighty Baltimore Orioles. It didn't take an apoplectic Baltimore sports fan or a busted Vegas oddsmaker to sense that change was in the air.Anyone paying attention to baseball during 1969 should have recognized that a new era in the sport was rapidly emerging. Four teams joined the majors that year--the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American League, and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the National League. Not only was major league baseball being played for the first time outside the confines of the 50 states, but both leagues were also now split into Eastern and Western divisions, with a new best-of-five playoff to determine which division winners would represent their league in the World Series.There were changes happening on the field, as well. Concerned that the low-scoring games which characterized the 1968 season--a.k.a. "the Year of the Pitcher," when only six batters in the major leagues hit .300 or better--were alienating the average baseball fan, commissioner Bowie Kuhn mandated that the regulation height of major league pitcher's mounds should be reduced to 10 inches (down from 15-plus), and that umpires should tighten their strike zones. The adjustments resulted in instant offense: Overall scoring for both leagues increased by an average of nearly a run and a half per game. But these changes, though significant, were nothing compared to what 1970 would bring ... .
For Kuhn, the first sign that the coming year would be a challenging one arrived on Christmas Eve 1969, in the form of a letter from St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood. Two months earlier, Flood--a Gold Glove, three-time All-Star center fielder who had been a mainstay of three pennant-winning Cards teams--received word that he'd been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a seven-man deal that also sent Cardscatcher Tim McCarver to Philadelphia, and brought controversial Phils slugger Dick Allen to St. Louis. And now, in a direct challenge to baseball's reserve clause, Flood was refusing to go to the Phillies.A relic of the late 19th century, the reserve clause had been invented to keep players from jumping to a new team whenever someone offered more money. Under the reserve clause, a player who signed with a particular ballclub was essentially the property of said ballclub in perpetuity, and could be traded or released at the whim of management. Come contract time, a player could conceivably "hold out" for more money; but if the club refused to meet his salary demands, the player's only options were to sign for whatever pittance the team deemed appropriate, or retire from baseball. Besides a painful lack of leverage in salary negotiations, players under the reserve clause had no say regarding where or when a team might trade them; the "no-trade" and "limited-trade" clauses of today's contracts didn't exist.An intelligent and dignified man, Flood felt the reserve clause was simply a tool for baseball ownership to keep salaries down and control their players--allowing them, in his tart words, "to play God over other people's lives." After twelve seasons and three World Series with the Cardinals, Flood believed he had the right to be treated better than well-fed livestock, and his letter asked Kuhn to declare him a free agent.The Major League Baseball Players Association had already attempted several times to get the owners to modify the reserve clause, without any success--so no one was particularly surprised when Kuhn denied Flood's initial request. But on January 16, 1970, Flood shocked the baseball world by filing a $4.1 million civil lawsuit against the commissioner and Major League Baseball; the suit challenged the reserve clause, contending that the rule violated federal antitrust laws.Though Flood was black, and he certainly caused a stir by likening the reserve clause to slavery, he maintained that Flood v. Kuhn had less to do with the Black Power movement of the day than with trying to get rid of an antiquated and inequitable aspect of the game. "I'd be lying if I told you that as a black man in baseball I hadn't gone through worse times than my teammates," he told the Players Association. "I'll also say, yes, I think thechange in black consciousness in recent years has made me more sensitive to injustice in every area of my life. But I want you to know that what I'm doing here I'm doing as a ballplayer, a major league ballplayer."Still, many in the media painted Flood as a militant agitator, a baseball counterpart of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. In the early '70s, any pairing of the words "black" and "militant" was virtually guaranteed to raise the hackles of white America; unsurprisingly, much of the hate mail that Flood received during the case was racial in nature. Some writers painted a picture of Flood as a greedy, self-centered ballplayer (the fact that Flood was already making $90,000 a year won him little sympathy from fans), or as the unwitting dupe of union negotiator and Players Association executive director Marvin Miller.In reality, Miller had painstakingly prepared Flood for the disastrous effect that the lawsuit could have upon his career. In order to show that he was serious about the cause, Flood would have to sit out the 1970 season while the case went to court; even if he won the case, Miller told him, it was extremely likely that he would be blackballed from the game for having the temerity to challenge the lords of baseball. Though the Players Association was helping to bankroll Flood's lawsuit, the players themselves were queasy about publicly (or even privately) expressing their support for Flood, because of the damage it might cause their own careers. Once the trial opened in May in New York District Court, Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg (as well as former Indians/ Browns/White Sox owner Bill Veeck) testified on Flood's behalf, but the witness stand would be noticeably devoid of Flood's former teammates or current players.
Compounding Kuhn's Flood lawsuit headache, the February 23 issue of Sports Illustrated broke a story entitled "Baseball's Big Scandal--Denny McLain and the Mob," which revealed that the Detroit Tigers ace (who'd just won the AL Cy Young Award two seasons running) was deeply enmeshed with a Flint, Michigan, bookmaking operation with ties to organized crime. Most damning was the article's allegation that the mysteriousfoot injury McLain suffered late in the 1967 season--which caused him to miss six starts, and probably cost the Tigers a pennant--had actually been mob payback for welshing on a bet.Baseball's public image had been relatively spotless since the 1919 "Black Sox" incident--indeed, since the formation of the baseball commissioner's office itself--and a gambling scandal was about the last thing Kuhn wanted, much less on only the second year of his watch. After grilling McLain, the commissioner announced that he was suspending the pitcher indefinitely while launching a full-scale investigation into the matter.For all his pitching heroics (most notably a 31-win, 280-K, 1.96-ERA performance in 1968), McLain was anything but a sympathetic figure. A self-proclaimed racist and male chauvinist, McLain was prone to shooting his mouth off at the slightest provocation--a quality that made him a favorite of Detroit sports reporters, but which continually aggravated Tigers management and his teammates. He also seemed willing to do just about anything for money (during the off-season, he had a regular gig at the Riviera Hotel in Vegas, playing a Hammond X-77 organ and telling corny jokes), but had a hard time hanging on to any of it; a month after his suspension began, the IRS raided his home in Detroit and took all his furniture to pay off an outstanding tax debt. The idea that McLain might be involved in an illegal gambling operation hardly seemed far-fetched--and, as investigators eventually concluded, it wasn't.Following the investigation, McLain received a three-month suspension from the commissioner's office, effective April 1. Kuhn took pains to stress that McLain had not wagered on baseball or tampered with any games, but that his suspension was specifically for "his involvement in bookmaking activities in 1967 and his associations at that time." "Half a season?" snorted Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. "That's like saying he almost did something wrong."
Along with the McLain investigation, Kuhn spent much of the 1970 spring training period monitoring the "X-5" experiment. In his continuing quest to beef up the game's offensive stats, Kuhn asked teams to playsome of their spring training contests with a test ball known as the X-5, which was supposedly 5 percent livelier than the regulation orb. After only 22 games, pitchers, umpires, and even American League president Joe Cronin begged Kuhn to put an end to the experiment; the final straws, apparently, were a 19-13 Tigers-White Sox contest that saw four different pitchers get hit by line drives, and a 19-14 victory by the Seattle Pilots over the Cleveland Indians.For the Pilots, the experiment known as "major league baseball in Seattle" was rapidly coming to an end. After only one season--during which they compiled a dismal 64-98 record while playing at the dilapidated, poorly attended, and picturesquely named Sick's Stadium--the expansion team was already out of cash, and plans to build a new ballpark by the Space Needle had been stalled by an army of petition-waving Seattleites.Though he would become baseball's commissioner two decades later, in 1970 Bud Selig was merely a Wisconsin car dealer consumed with the idea of bringing major league baseball back to Milwaukee. Once a minority shareholder in the Milwaukee Braves, Selig remained convinced that--despite the defection of the Braves to Atlanta--Milwaukee was still a viable baseball market. Aware of the Seattle franchise's mounting difficulties, he began holding secret off-season talks with Pilots owner Dewey Soriano about buying the team and moving it to the twelfth largest city in the U.S.But when Selig finally made an official overture, pressure from a variety of sources (including the Washington State attorney general) forced the Pilots ownership to decline his offer and cast about instead for a local buyer. Unfortunately, subsequent offers either fell through or were considered unsatisfactory; and by the time spring training rolled around in 1970, the Pilots players and coaching staff had no idea where they would actually be playing come Opening Day.On March 31, the Pilots were officially declared bankrupt by a federal bankruptcy referee, and the team was finally allowed to accept Selig's offer of $10.8 million and make the move to Milwaukee. Seven days later, the Milwaukee Brewers played their first Opening Day at CountyStadium, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 36,107. If the team's uniforms looked suspiciously like those of the Seattle Pilots--several tailors had worked around the clock to remove "Pilots" from the jerseys and replace the lettering with "Brewers"--nobody seemed to mind. As Selig later said, "Andy Messersmith [of the California Angels] beat us, 12-0. It's the only game I didn't give a damn if we won or lost. That first day I looked up at the scoreboard, and it was the greatest thrill of my life."On April 6, in what would be the last home opener ever played at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, the Reds beat the Expos 5-1, giving new manager George "Sparky" Anderson his first major league win; he would go on to record 862 more victories with the Reds, including a total of 102 in 1970 alone. On April 13 in Oakland, the A's played their opener on a Coliseum diamond that was studded with gold bases--an eye-catching innovation cooked up by A's owner Charlie O. Finley that would shortly be banned by baseball's Rules Committee.In Chicago, the Cubs' home opener on April 14 turned ugly as a number of drunk and stoned teenagers and college students--many of them out-of-towners who had come to the Windy City for a protest against the Vietnam War--picked fights in the Wrigley Field bleachers and upper deck with Cubs fans, Wrigley ushers, and one another. When the final out of the Cubs' 5-4 victory over the Phillies was recorded, hundreds of fans hurdled the right field wall and invaded the field; Cubs second baseman Glenn Beckert was knocked over in the melee, and one teenage usher had his teeth kicked in.Though it would become a yuppie haven in the 1980s, Wrigleyville circa 1970 was actually a fairly dicey North Side neighborhood; in May, a group of local Native Americans would stage a monthlong campout across the street from Wrigley Field, erecting tepees and other makeshift shelters in protest of the area's rat-infested housing conditions. (Cubs greats Ernie Banks and Billy Williams supposedly stopped by their campfire one night to express support.) Over 50 police officers had been stationed outside Wrigley on Opening Day, but as the Chicago Police Department was still smarting over bad PR from the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, theassembled officers were leery about entering the privately owned ballpark without an official invitation; they eventually took the field, but only after the worst of the damage had already been done.The incident instigated a number of security improvements at Wrigley Field, including a ban on beer vendors in the bleachers, the presence of Chicago cops inside the park on weekends and holidays, and--most important--the installation of wire screens that angled out from the top of the outfield walls, which made it far more difficult for crazed Cubs fans to throw things (including themselves) onto the field. From 1970 on, "into-the-basket" homers became as much a part of the Wrigley lexicon as "lost in the ivy" ground-rule doubles.
It didn't take long for the 1970 season to kick into high gear. The Cubs, trying to erase the painful memories of their late-season 1969 collapse, rattled off an 11-game April winning streak, while both the Orioles and Reds took control of their divisions that month and never looked back. (The Reds, in fact, were out of first place for only one game all year, setting an NL record of 178 league-leading days.)On April 22, just four days after his teammate Nolan Ryan fanned 15 Phillies, Mets ace Tom Seaver tied Steve Carlton's record by striking out 19 Padres, setting another record by striking out 10 in a row to end the game. On April 30, Cubs left fielder Billy Williams ran his NL-record consecutive game streak to 1,000 (it would reach 1,117 before he finally took a day off on September 3); less than two weeks later, indefatigable Atlanta Braves knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm became the first pitcher to appear in 1,000 games. On May 12, Williams's teammate Ernie Banks became only the eighth member of the 500-homer club; sadly, Mr. Cub's career was already in decline, thanks to an arthritic left knee, and he would hit only 12 more round-trippers before his retirement at the end of the 1971 season.On May 17, Hank Aaron--who, unlike Banks, still seemed to have plenty left in the tank--became only the ninth player to cross the 3,000-hit threshold, and also jacked his 570th home run during the game, a15-inning loss to the Reds. Though Aaron was clearly on pace to pass Babe Ruth's career home run record, he still trailed Willie Mays among active players; many actually expected Mays, who had passed the 600 mark in late 1969, to break the Babe's mark first. On July 18, Mays collected his 3,000th hit, making him and Aaron the only players in history to reach both the 3,000-hit and 500-homer plateaus.
May brought additional migraines for Bowie Kuhn, via an advance excerpt of Jim Bouton's Ball Four that appeared in Look magazine. A diary of Bouton's 1969 season with the Pilots and Houston Astros, sprinkled with reminiscences from his days with the New York Yankees, Ball Four is--at least by today's standards--a highly entertaining if relatively tame read. But back in 1970, Bouton might as well have gone to Cooperstown and smeared the plaques with his own feces.Though Jim Brosnan, a pitcher for the Cubs and Reds, had published two such memoirs a decade earlier--1960's The Long Season and 1962's Pennant Race--neither packed the controversial punch of Bouton's book. With its hilarious tales of skirt chasing, drunken benders, and widespread use of amphetamines (or "greenies," as they were known in the dugout), Ball Four broke the clubhouse omerta, portraying major league baseball players as real human beings, as opposed to idealized paragons of virtue. "Fans are fed a constant stream of bull about these clean-cut, All-America guys," Bouton told Time shortly after the book was published. "Let kids start thinking about some real heroes instead of phony heroes."But for those who still clung to the belief that baseball and its players were an integral part of all that was good and noble and true about America, Ball Four's revelations of a brutally hungover Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford sneakily doctoring baseballs, and players cheating on their wives (or even French-kissing each other on the team bus in a game called "Pansy") were positively traumatic. Not only was Kuhn--who had spent several idyllic high school summers working as a Washington Senators "scoreboard boy" at Griffith Stadium in the 1940s--profoundly incensed that Bouton would choose to write such a book, but he alsosimply refused to believe that much of the book's contents were factual. "It struck me as not very credible stuff," Kuhn would later insist in his own autobiography.On June 1, Kuhn summoned Bouton to his office, where he told the pitcher that he'd done the game "a grave disservice," and tried to pressure him into signing a prepared statement renouncing Ball Four and placing the blame for all the book's "falsehoods" on Bouton's editor. When Bouton refused, Kuhn forbade the pitcher (who was still on the Astros' roster) from writing another word about baseball as long as he was playing--and also made Bouton promise to keep their meeting a secret. Instead, Bouton's publisher began promoting Ball Four as "the book the commissioner tried to ban"; within weeks, it was on the best-seller list, on its way to becoming the best-selling sports memoir of all time.In retrospect, Bouton believed that Kuhn's negative reaction to Ball Four had more to do with the book's behind-the-scenes look at contract negotiations than with its stories of off-the-field antics. With Flood v. Kuhn in the courts, the last thing the commissioner wanted the public to read was detailed accounts of how the owners and their general managers consistently used the reserve clause to their advantage in salary talks; equally damaging was Bouton's assertion that most players had as much difficulty making ends meet as the average American working stiff."The owners preached that the reserve clause was necessary [for them] to stay in business," Bouton wrote in a subsequent preface to his book, "and that players were well paid and fairly treated. (Mickey Mantle's $100,000 salary was always announced with great fanfare while all the $9,000 and $12,000 salaries were kept secret.) The owners had always insisted that dealings between players and teams be kept strictly confidential. They knew that if the public ever learned the truth, it would make it more difficult to defend the reserve clause against future challenges."But most players were too worried about the effect that Bouton's accounts of "beaver shooting" might have upon their own marriages to consider the book's possible long-term labor ramifications. Overnight, Bouton became a pariah, snubbed by teammates past and present, and subjected to all sorts of abuse from other teams. Before a game in SanDiego, the Padres burned a copy of Ball Four and left its charred remnants in the visitors' clubhouse for Bouton to discover. When Bouton took the mound against the Reds, Pete Rose berated him from the top step of the Cincinnati dugout, screaming, "Fuck you, Shakespeare!" "Why didn't he write that he is the horniest guy in baseball?" complained Bouton's Astros teammate Joe Pepitone.Sportswriters were equally peeved about Ball Four. Having tacitly agreed for decades to keep the "dirt" on players' personal lives out of their coverage, they realized to their horror that they'd been scooped by one of the very players they'd been protecting. Ball Four received many raves from nonsports publications, however; no less a writer than Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam compared Bouton's book--and the sporting press's reaction against it--to Sy Hersh's controversial expose of the My Lai massacre.With its candor, humor, and insightful "regular-guy" attitude, Ball Four did indeed move the fences for all subsequent sports autobiographies; over the next decade, the generic, whitewashed, ghostwritten baseball memoir would soon be replaced by such warts-and-all chronicles as Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo and Bill Lee's The Wrong Stuff. Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would both eventually publish tell-alls that went into far greater detail about their personal foibles than Bouton ever did, while Joe Pepitone's sex-drenched Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud--published only five years after Ball Four--would make it exceedingly clear that "the horniest guy in baseball" was actually Pepitone himself.
Bowie Kuhn may have been appalled by Ball Four's tales of groupies and greenies, but the commissioner would have suffered a total cardiac if he'd realized what Dock Ellis was up to. With the counterculture still on the rise in the wake of Woodstock, it was only a matter of time before it infiltrated the world between the foul lines--and as befit a man whose name could be written out on a scorecard as "Ellis, D," the 25-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher loved nothing better than to spend his off-days tripping on acid in his psychedelically decorated basement while crankingJimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Iron Butterfly. But on the afternoon of June 12, 1970, just as his latest tab of Purple Haze was beginning to kick in, Ellis realized that he was actually supposed to be pitching in a few hours, in a ballpark 120 miles away.The strange saga of Dock Ellis's LSD no-hitter actually began two days earlier, on Wednesday, June 10. The Pirates had just finished a series with the Giants in San Francisco and flown down to San Diego, where their four-game series against the Padres was scheduled to commence that Friday. A native of Los Angeles, Ellis decided to take advantage of his day off by dropping acid, renting a car, and driving up to L.A. (apparently in that order) to see some pals. They spent Wednesday night smoking weed and drinking screwdrivers until the sun came up, whereupon Ellis finally crashed. Upon awakening, Ellis dropped another tab of acid; after all, he reasoned, he wasn't slated to pitch again until Friday. Unfortunately, as one of his friends soon informed him, it was Friday--Ellis had completely slept through Thursday.Somehow, Ellis's friend--who also happened to be tripping--managed to get the pitcher to LAX, where he caught a shuttle flight to San Diego. Arriving at the park about 90 minutes before first pitch, he popped several Benzedrine "white crosses" to try to even things out, and went to warm up in the bullpen. Speaking to poet Donald Hall for his book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, Ellis recalled that the ball felt like a "very heavy volleyball," and that he figured he'd be lucky to last an inning.Things got even weirder once he took the mound. The ball's size and weight kept changing, and at times Ellis couldn't make out his catcher, Jerry May, through the psychedelic fog--but as long as Ellis could still see the reflective tape on May's fingers, he knew more or less where May's mitt would be. For much of the game, Ellis had no idea what the score was, how many outs had been recorded, or how many runners were on base. He was wild, walking eight batters and hitting one, and the Padres--who noticed that Ellis seemed oddly uninterested in holding runners at first--stole three bases off him. All Ellis cared about was throwing the ball "down the multi-colored path" to May.Baseball superstition dictates that whenever a pitcher is in the processof throwing a no-hitter, his teammates must refrain from speaking to him in the dugout, lest they jinx his effort. Ellis, completely unaware that he was racking up consecutive hitless innings, mistook his teammates' respectful distance for silent disapproval of his acid-fried state. To combat his encroaching paranoia, he concentrated on painstakingly removing the mud from his cleats with a tongue depressor, and avoided any eye contact with the Pirates' players or coaches.Some sources claim that Pirates rookie Dave Cash committed a major faux pas by blithely informing Ellis halfway through the game that he was working on a no-hitter; others have said Ellis turned to Cash in the seventh and tempted fate with a shout of, "Hey look, I've got a no-no going!" What's certain is that Ellis's concentration grew more laserlike as the game went on; after Willie Stargell put him up 2-0 in the seventh with his second solo shot off Padres pitcher Dave Roberts, Ellis allowed only one more base runner over the three final innings. With two outs in the ninth, Ellis caught Padres pinch hitter Ed Spiezio looking on a 3-2 pitch, and baseball's only LSD-assisted no-hitter was in the bag, man.
If mind-expanding drugs were beyond the comprehension of major league baseball at the time, the sport had equally little clue of how to deal with depression or other mental-health issues. Twelve days after Ellis's no-hitter, in the ninth inning of a 7-2 Indians victory over the Yankees in the Bronx, Cleveland first baseman Tony Horton stepped to the plate and dared New York reliever Steve Hamilton to throw his famous "folly floater," a slow-moving, high-arcing "eephus pitch" that looked easy to hit but mystified most batters. When the 6-foot-7 lefty obliged, Horton fouled it off, then dared the pitcher to throw another. This time, Horton popped the floater back toward the screen, where rookie catcher Thurman Munson made a fine running catch for the out. Horton made a big show of throwing away his helmet and bat, and raising his arms to the crowd in a gesture of helplessness; then, to the amusement of the assembled players and fans, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled into the dugout.Horton's "crawl of shame" was done strictly for laughs, but what wasactually going on inside his head during 1970 was far less amusing. In 1969, Horton hit 27 homers and drove in 93 runs as one of the few legitimate stars of a terrible Indians squad. When the season ended, Horton asked for a $100,000 contract--nearly three times what he'd been making--but manager Alvin Dark allegedly told him that if he didn't sign for the Indians' offer of $46,000, he'd bench him and play fan favorite Ken "the Hawk" Harrelson at first instead. Horton finally accepted the team's lowball offer in the spring of 1970, then immediately kicked himself for doing so when Harrelson went down with a season-ending injury.From then on, 1970 was sheer torture for Horton. The Cleveland press portrayed him as a greedy prima donna, and Indians fans booed him mercilessly when he failed to consistently produce as he'd done the year before. He hit three home runs in a May 24 game against the Yankees, then went 21 straight games without hitting another. Already a high-strung, intense individual, Horton was starting to fall apart under the pressure. He was having difficulty eating and sleeping, and the additional batting practice he imposed upon himself only wore him down further."You could see it building with him that year," recalled Indians third baseman Graig Nettles. "I think he felt he was letting his folks down, and that pressured him a lot. Then one day he walked into the clubhouse and looked like a zombie with his eyes set back in his head ... . He was gone."Finally, during the second half of an August 28 doubleheader against the California Angels, Horton seemed so out of it that several of his teammates prevailed upon Dark to take him out in the fifth inning. "He was deeply troubled, asking me what was wrong with him," Indians hurler Sam McDowell remembered. "He was wandering around the clubhouse in his T-shirt, shorts, and shower slippers, kind of dazed." The next morning, at around 5 a.m., Horton was discovered in his car outside the Blue Grass Motel in Cleveland, where he'd been living at the time; his wrists were slit and bleeding profusely, but motel security was able to call an ambulance before it was too late.The Indians somehow managed to cover up Horton's suicide attempt, simply announcing that they were putting him on the disabled list foremotional distress. In January 1971, the team finally revealed that their first baseman had been hospitalized since September for a nervous breakdown, and that he would miss spring training and probably the whole 1971 season. "The doctor is talking about Tony playing again next year, and he could even change his opinion about Tony playing this year," Horton's father told the Sporting News. (The full extent of Horton's breakdown, including his suicide attempt, wouldn't be known to the public until 1997, when New York Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden uncovered the details.)In reality, Horton's doctors had recommended that he divorce himself completely from the sport, worrying that even watching the game on television could trigger another breakdown. Though Horton would eventually recover from his breakdown, he would never return to baseball.
By the All-Star break, all four of the teams that would make the 1970 postseason--the Pirates, Reds, Orioles, and Twins--were already sitting atop their respective divisions. Of these four, the Reds' success in the first half of the season was by far the most surprising; the Orioles' and Twins' squads were essentially identical to the ones that had met in the first-ever AL Championship Series the year before, while the Pirates were a solid team that still contained a few important links (Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski) to their 1960 world championship roster.The Reds, however, were piloted by a manager with no prior major league experience, and had several key players (starters Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, and Bernie Carbo, and pitchers Gary Nolan, Wayne Simpson, and Pedro Borbon) who were 22 or younger when the season began. And yet, they were beating the tar out of nearly everyone they played.1970 marked the emergence of the "the Big Red Machine," one of the decade's most dominant and iconic teams. In nine seasons with Sparky Anderson at the helm, they would win the NL West five times, finishing lower than second place only once. Though the Reds were already 10games ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West by the All-Star break, the All-Star Game itself officially served notice to the rest of the world that the new-model Reds team was a far different animal from the Cincy squads of the previous decade.Held at the team's brand-new Riverfront Stadium, the Midsummer Classic featured two Reds in the NL starting lineup--Bench at catcher and Tony Perez at third base--and three others (outfielder Pete Rose and pitchers Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson) on the bench. 1970 was the first time in over a decade when fans elected the All-Star starters; ironically, the tradition had been suspended following a 1957 ballot-stuffi ng plot by Cincinnati fans that resulted in seven Reds players making the starting lineup. This time, however, every Red on the squad deserved to be there--and one would even win the game with his trademark hustle.The National League had taken eight straight and 11 of the last 13 All-Star Games, but in 1970 the American League squad put up a good fight, taking a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, whereupon the NL tied it up on a Dick Dietz solo shot off of Catfish Hunter, a run-scoring Willie McCovey single off of Fritz Peterson, and a Roberto Clemente sacrifice fly off of Mel Stottlemyre. With the game still tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 12th, Rose stepped to the plate with two outs and no one on, and smacked a Clyde Wright pitch to center for a single. He then took second on a Billy Grabarkewitz single and when Jim Hickman followed with a single of his own, Rose was determined to score. Amos Otis's powerful throw from center looked like it might beat Rose to the plate, but it came in offline; when Indians catcher Ray Fosse moved up the third-base line to flag it down, Rose--who typically slid headfirst--laid the catcher out with a full-body football block, separating Fosse's shoulder in the process. Fosse dropped the ball, Rose was safe, and the National League was again victorious.Opinion was split on the Rose-Fosse collision; Angels shortstop Jim Fregosi, who was on the AL roster as a reserve, told reporters, "I didn't particularly like the play. All Rose has to do is slide, and nobody gets hurt." But Orioles/AL manager Earl Weaver admitted that he saw nothingwrong with it, saying, "That's the way the game should be played." The hit only enhanced Rose's image as "Charlie Hustle," a guy who would run through a brick wall if the game was on the line--and even if it wasn't. Fosse, a promising young backstop who had been hitting .312 with 16 homers at the time of the All-Star break, was never the same after the collision; altering his swing to compensate for his injured wing, he would hit hit only two homers over the second half of the season.
In addition to Seaver's 19-K game and Ellis's no-hitter, the pitching highlights of the 1970 season included a July 20 no-hitter by Dodger pitcher Bill Singer, who'd recently checked out of the hospital following a three-week stay for hepatitis, and Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning's August 11 victory over the Astros, which made him the first pitcher since Cy Young to win 100 games in both leagues. And on September 21, after taking a no-hitter against the Royals into the eighth inning just ten days earlier, Oakland A's rookie Vida Blue threw a 6-0 no-no against the Twins, walking only one batter in the process.Blue's mound opponent that night was no less a hurler than Twins ace Jim Perry, whose 24-12, 3.04 record would earn him the 1970 AL Cy Young. Jim's brother, Giants ace Gaylord Perry, would come in second in the NL Cy Young voting behind the Cardinals' Bob Gibson with a 23-13, 3.20 season. It would be the closest two brothers ever came to winning a Cy Young in the same year, and their 47 combined wins for the season were only two fewer than the fraternal record of 49, held since 1934 by Dizzy and Paul Dean.Blue's dominant performance was both a preview of the greatness he'd achieve the following season, and a harbinger of the A's dynasty to come. In 1970, the team finished second in the AL West to the Twins for the second year in a row, causing owner Charlie O. Finley to fire manager John McNamara and replace him with former Red Sox skipper Dick Williams; from 1971 to 1975, they'd own the division.If Blue and the A's were on the way up, Denny McLain was on theexpress elevator down, and he very nearly took the Tigers with him. Already seven games behind the Orioles when their star pitcher returned from his three-month suspension on July 1, the team held out hope that he could help them get back in the race. But while capacity crowds showed up to see him wherever he pitched, McLain proved a pale imitation of his former self. Except, of course, when it came to getting into trouble--in that regard, he was still very much on top of his game.On August 28, McLain dumped buckets of water on two Detroit sportswriters in the Tigers' locker room; though he claimed it was a practical joke, Tigers GM Jim Campbell suspended McLain for a week. The day before he was scheduled to return to the team, McLain was suspended again by Kuhn, who'd gotten word that the pitcher--in total violation of the probationary period following his April 1 suspension--had been packing heat on a road trip to Chicago, where he'd shown off his handgun to several of his teammates during dinner at a Chitown restaurant."I'll confess I didn't have a permit to carry a concealed weapon," McLain would later admit, "but thousands of people in Detroit carry guns. After all, Detroit is Murder City and getting bloodier every year." Such logic failed to sway the commissioner, who suspended him for the remainder of the season.Curt Flood might have had a stronger case than McLain, but he fared no better before the New York District Court than the two-time Cy Young winner had done with the commissioner's office. On August 12, Judge Irving Ben Cooper, who'd displayed a noticeably condescending attitude toward Flood throughout the trial--"This isn't as easy as playing center field, is it?" he asked during one cross-examination--ruled in baseball's favor, forcing Flood, Marvin Miller, and the Players Association to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
With all four division races already decided by late September--the Orioles, Reds, and Twins won their respective titles with ease; the Cubs and Mets both had a legitimate shot to catch the Pirates in the NL East, butsimply ran out of steam--the final day of the season was significant chiefly for Angels outfielder Alex Johnson's edging out Boston's Carl Yastrzemski for the AL batting title, with a .3290 average to Yaz's .3286. (Atlanta's Rico Carty won the NL crown with ease; his .366 average was 41 points higher than those of his nearest challengers--the Cardinals' Joe Torre and the Pirates' Manny Sanguillen--as well the highest major league average recorded since Ted Williams hit .388 in 1957.) The evening of October 1 also witnessed the last game ever played at Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, which Phillies fans observed by staging the season's biggest on-field riot since Opening Day at Wrigley.With the city's long-delayed, multipurpose Veterans Stadium finally due to open in time for the 1971 season, nearly 32,000 Philadelphians--by far the largest crowd of the year--showed up to bid farewell to the oldest ballpark in the big leagues, which had stood since 1909. Sensing that there might be trouble, the Phillies' management gave away souvenir seat slats to everyone who entered the ballpark, in hopes of discouraging fans from hacking up the stadium's old wooden seats. Which was, of course, exactly what the fans immediately set about doing--only now they had souvenir slats that they could use as hammers. As the Sporting News reported, "All through the game, which the Phillies won in 10 innings from the Expos to escape an East Division cellar finish, the sounds of hammering could be heard."Drunken Phillies fans continually ran onto the field throughout the game, causing the action to be stopped several times. In the top of the ninth, one fan somehow managed to grab Phillies left fielder Ron Stone just as an Expos player hit a soft liner to left, causing Stone to get a late jump on the ball. (For some reason, the hit was allowed to stand.) When the Phillies finally won the game in the bottom of the 10th, team management tried to begin its "fan appreciation" raffle--which included a 1970 Ford Mustang--but despite the presence of 200 of Philadelphia's finest, the fans showed their own appreciation by ransacking the dugouts, the infield tarp, and the outfield-wall billboards for souvenirs; one fan was even spotted carrying off a toilet. Fights broke out over the spoils,and 25 bloodied individuals had to be carted off to local hospitals. When it was all over, the old park looked like a tornado had ripped through it.
In the AL Championship Series, the Baltimore Orioles did a tornado imitation of their own as they blew through the Minnesota Twins in three straight games. The Twins had a strong team led by Jim Perry, third baseman Harmon "the Fat Kid" Killebrew (.271, 41 HRs, 113 RBIs), and outfielder Tony Oliva (.325, 23 HRs, 107 RBIs), but they were no match for an Orioles team anchored by AL MVP Boog Powell (.297, 35 HRs, 114 RBIs), third sacker Brooks Robinson (.276, 18 HRs, 94 RBIs), and right fielder Frank Robinson (.306, 25 HRs, 78 RBIs), and a pitching staff that featured three 20-game winners: Mike Cuellar (24-8, 3.48 ERA, 190 Ks), Dave McNally (24-9, 3.22 ERA, 185 Ks), and Jim Palmer (20-10, 2.71 ERA, 199 Ks). It was essentially all over after the fourth inning of Game 1, when Cuellar smacked a grand slam off of Perry on the way to a 10-6 victory. Sadly for the Twins, the series would also be their last postseason hurrah of the decade; they would finish no higher than third place in the AL West until 1984.The Reds faced off against the Pirates in the first postseason series ever played on artificial turf, with Pittsburgh's new Three Rivers Stadium--which opened in July, just two and a half weeks after Riverfront--hosting Games 1 and 2, and the series moving to Riverfront for Game 3. The Reds won all three contests, though it turned out to be a far more even matchup between the two teams than their respective won-loss records--102-60 versus 89-73--might have indicated. The Pirates were powered by left fielder Willie Stargell (31 HRs, 85 RBIs) and first baseman Bob Robertson (27 HRs, 82 RBIs), while catcher Manny Sanguillen (.325) had tied for second in the NL batting department, and Roberto Clemente (.352, 14 HRs, 60 RBIs) would have qualified for second in the batting race if injuries hadn't limited him to only 412 at bats.The Reds' offense was even more intimidating. Johnny Bench's production (.293, 45 HRs, 148 RBIs) won him his first NL MVP award, but Tony Perez (.317, 40 HRs, 129 RBIs), first baseman Lee May (34 HRs, 94RBIs), and rookie outfielder Bernie Carbo (.310, 21 HRs) brought plenty of pop as well, while outfielders Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan had each hit .316 for the year.And yet, the 1970 NLCS was all about pitching. In Game 1, Dock Ellis (13-10, 3.21 ERA) and Gary Nolan (18-7, 3.27) battled it out for nine scoreless innings before the Reds finally broke through for three runs in the top of the 10th. In Game 2, Tolan single-handedly provided the margin of the Reds' 3-1 victory; in the third, he stole second, went to third on a Sanguillen throwing error, and came home on a wild pitch by Luke Walker (15-6, 3.04); he then hit a solo shot off Walker in the fifth. In Game 3, Bench and Perez hit solo homers off of Bob Moose (11-10, 3.99), but Tolan once again provided the game-winning heroics with an eighth-inning single that drove in Ty Cline to seal the 3-2 victory.The Orioles, however, proved a much more formidable opponent. Having been embarrassed in the World Series the year before, this Baltimore team would not be denied a championship. Though the Reds were outraged in Game 1 when umpire Ken Burkhart--despite having his back to the play--called Carbo out on a play at the plate, blown calls were the least of their problems. The Cincinnati hitters and pitchers were simply outmatched by the Orioles, and any home-field advantage that the Reds might have enjoyed in Games 1 and 2--the first World Series games ever played on artificial turf--was completely nullified by the stellar Orioles defense. Series MVP Brooks Robinson almost single-handedly dismantled the Reds with his timely hitting (.429 with two homers) and one acrobatic "human vacuum cleaner" fielding play after another. When the Orioles secured the World Championship with a 9-3 blowout in Game 5, Johnny Bench told Sports Illustrated, "I hope we can come back and play the Orioles next year. I also hope Brooks Robinson has retired by then."
On October 9, the day before the World Series commenced, Bowie Kuhn called a special press conference to announce that the Tigers had traded Denny McLain to the Washington Senators as part of an eight-player deal. The commissioner didn't usually hold press conferences for trades,but since McLain was still under suspension, he felt he had to put his imprimatur on the transaction. Kuhn also announced that as one of the terms of the deal, McLain had taken (and passed) a psychiatric examination. "I have a piece of paper saying I'm sane," McLain later bragged to reporters. "Do you have the same?" Shortly after the press conference, Tigers GM Jim Campbell was spotted tossing a small package of Tums antacid tablets into the gutter. "I won't be needing these anymore," he said.His guts still gurgling from the team's fourth-place, 79-83 performance, Campbell also fired manager Mayo Smith at the end of the season, replacing him with Billy Martin--who had managed the Twins to the AL West title the previous year, only to be fired after beating up Twins pitcher Dave Boswell in a bar fight. The Tigers' front office felt that Smith (despite having won the World Series only two years earlier) had "lost" the team with his friendly, low-key style; therefore, it was time to bring in a hard-ass like Martin. The Tigers would show dramatic improvement under their new manager--but as with all of Martin's teams, they would find that the success came at a price.Copyright © 2010 by Dan Epstein. DAN EPSTEIN has written for Rolling Stone, MOJO, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time Out, produced shows for VH-1, and is the author of 20th Century Pop Culture. He lives in Southern California and is the Managing Editor of shockhound.com, the music website affiliated with the Hot Topic retail chain.
A Q&A with Dan Epstein courtesy of Scratchbomb.com, May 2010 As a kid, I was fascinated by 1970s baseball. The huge afros, the amazing facial hair, the retina-burning uniform designs--it seemed like such an insane, colorful era, particularly when compared to the heavily moussed 80s, where I spent most of my kid-dom. (Of course, there were some colorful characters then, too, but that's a tale for another time.)
Whenever I had some disposable income (which was not often), I would spend it at a baseball card convention or store, usually on a large plastic box filled with completely worthless cards from 1977 or 1975, just so I could savor such sartorial majesties as Willie McCovey's sideburns. My elementary school library had these slim books on each major league team, all published in the mid-'70s, which I borrowed repeatedly. And whenever my grampa took me to Cooperstown, I'd seek out the unbelievable mini-exhibit on the technicolor uniforms from those years (sadly, no longer there).
While there are some chronicles of players and teams from the 1970s (The Machine and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning are great, recent examples), there haven't been many (if any) retrospectives about the decade in total. When people speak of a Golden Age of Baseball, they usually save such mythologizing for the 1950s and its stainless, sepia-tone heroes.
But now there is finally an evangelist for game as played in the Me Decade. Journalist Dan Epstein has penned a love letter to 1970s baseball entitled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s. ESPN's Rob Neyer has said of this tome, "What the 1960s were to America, the 1970s were to baseball, and Dan Epstein has finally given us the swinging book the '70s deserve." The book drops May 25 from Thomas Dunne Books, and there will be a big ol' release party at the Bell House in Brooklyn on May 26 (I for one am excited to try the Oscar Gamble hot dog that will be served there).
Dan was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer some questions via email about Astroturf, day-glo erseys, the best Topps card designs, and the worst promotions of all time. Read all about it after the jump.
What compelled you to write this book?
About ten years ago, I went in search of a good book on '70s baseball; I was born in 1966, so this was the era when I first fell in love with the sport, and I wanted to relive some of those memories, and maybe gain a greater understanding of the period. At the time, the only thing out there that came even close to what I was looking for was Phil Pepe's Talkin' Baseball: An Oral History of Baseball in the 1970s; but while that's a highly enjoyable read (and one I would recommend to anyone interested in the era) I didn't feel like it showed as much appreciation for the funkiness and uniqueness of the era as much as I would have liked--nor have any other of the decade-spanning '70s baseball books that have been published since then. I don't come from a sportswriting background--music and pop culture has been my beat for the past two decades--but I felt that, as a baseball fan, a student of pop culture, and a child of the '70s, I could write a love letter to '70s baseball that also truly celebrated the weirdness of the period.
I have a theory that some of the excesses of 1970s baseball--huge afros, crazy facial hair, drugs, wacky uniform designs, etc.--were the product of the sport desperately trying to catch up after being so resolutely square for so long. Your thoughts?
I would have to vehemently disagree--who exactly in the baseball establishment was desperately trying to be hip? Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was as square as they came, and would have been happiest if baseball had resembled a perpetual Norman Rockwell painting; most of the team owners and executives (with the notable exceptions of Bill Veeck and Ted Turner) weren't much hipper. I think the "excesses" you mention were more the result of the freak flag-flying spirit of the late '60s finally worming its way into all elements of mainstream America, baseball included. Think of the JC Penney fashion catalogs from the '70s with all the wacky leisure suits and patterned shirts with giant collars--white, middle-class Americans actually wore that shit without batting an eye, but they wouldn't have even dared to do so ten years earlier. You also had players coming up to the majors who had been college students in the late '60s and early '70s, and thus felt more comfortable engaging the sort of self-expression (ranging from facial hair to outspoken sharing of political beliefs) and drug use that would have been unthinkable in the majors just a decade earlier. And while I do think many of the baseball uniforms of the era were reflective of the more flamboyant trends in '70s male fashion, they were chiefly designed to look impressive on color TV--a device which most American households didn't own until the 1970s.
Arguably, the two greatest teams of the 1970s were a study in contrasts: the '72-'74 Oakland A's--a hirsute, hard living, pugnacious bunch--and The Big Red Machine--a mostly strait-laced group that was forbidden to grow long hair or beards. If you had to pick one (not necessarily for purely baseball reasons), which team do you prefer and why?
Just from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I'm always gonna side with a team of hairy, ornery dudes in gold jerseys and white shoes. But while the Big Red Machine was obviously a force to be reckoned with, the '72-'74 A's were the most well-rounded team of the era. Like the Reds, they had speed and power, but they also had much stronger pitching (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Kenny Holtzman, Rollie Fingers, et al.). And not only did the A's win three straight World Series, but they also won five straight AL West crowns ('71 through '75) and came very close to winning a sixth in '76. Sorry, Joe Morgan--the A's were the one true dynasty of the '70s.
Let's say I'm a younger baseball fan unfamiliar with the game in the 1970s. What is the one event/team/player who would clue me in to the awesomeness of this era?
God, there are so many to choose from, and for so many different reasons. But I guess Bill Lee or Dock Ellis would be the most obvious choices. Both men were way more outspoken, irreverent, hip and intelligent than your stereotypical major leaguers, both had great taste in music, and they both engaged in some pretty epic battles with the conservative baseball establishment. And, of course, Lee advocated pot use and Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD--but they were also incredible competitors who loved the game, and never let their teammates down on the field. If we're going to pick a single event, I'd have to go with the Atlanta Braves' Wet T-Shirt Night in 1977; they just don't do baseball promotions like that anymore!
Looking back on it now, which player most exemplifies the 1970s?
Who were your favorite team and player as a kid? Least favorite?
In the '70s, I split a lot of time between Los Angeles and Ann Arbor, Michigan, so my two favorite teams were the Dodgers and the Tigers. My favorite Dodger was Ron Cey. I loved that he was known as "The Penguin," and that this oddly-proportioned guy with the funny walk could actually be an All-Star third baseman. I wore #10 on my Little League jersey in his honor. For the Tigers, I loved Willie Horton, Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, etc., but my true favorite was Lou Whitaker. When Sweet Lou came up from the minors, I told all my friends he was going to be a star; and unlike my other grade school baseball predictions (like my brief championing of the Blue Jays' Doug Ault as a sure bet for superstardom), it actually panned out!
Least favorite team? I hated the Reds, because they were so damn good and always gave the Dodgers a hard time--and I also hated them for sweeping the Yankees (who I liked at the time) in the '76 World Series. Least favorite player would have to be Fred "Chicken" Stanley, at least when he was on the Yankees; he was the weak link in that lineup, and a really mediocre shortstop, and I couldn't understand how he continued to have a job in the majors.
With the disappearance of non-retractable domed stadiums from baseball, Astroturf is all but gone from the game. What players from the 70s would suffer the most if they had to play in this new carpet-free world?
The players who benefitted the most from artificial turf were the guys who didn't have a lot of power but could make contact with the ball and run like hell, and infielders (especially shortstops) who had good range but not so great arms. Dave Concepcion, Larry Bowa and Freddie Patek all fit the above profiles, and all figured out how to get extra mileage on a throw to first by one-hopping it off the turf. They were all key members of their teams, to be sure; but they also all would've had a tougher go of it playing full-time on real grass.
Worst promotion: Cleveland's Nickel Beer Night or Chicago's Disco Demolition Night?
Nickel Beer Night--actually, it was Ten Cent Beer Night [D'oh! -- ed.]-- hands down; if not the "worst" promotion, it was certainly the era's most idiotic. Disco Demolition Night was obviously a disaster, but that was largely because the White Sox organization had no real understanding of how popular the "Disco Sucks" movement was in Chicago, or that it would primarily bring rowdy rock fans to Comiskey. But you can't offer your fans unlimited beer at a dime per cup, like the Indians did, and not expect that things will eventually get WAY out of hand; Jesus, even a third grader could tell you that.
Bigger waste of talent: Dave Kingman or Dick Allen?
I don't think it's fair to dub either Kingman or Allen a "waste of talent"--they both enjoyed long careers and put up some impressive numbers along the way. Did Allen's attitude hamper his production during his final few seasons? Possibly, but he was also getting into his mid-30s and dealing with the after-affects of the broken leg he suffered during the 1973 season. And would Kingman hit 442 career homers--would he have hit more if he were less of an asshole? I doubt it. To me, a true waste of talent was someone like David Clyde, the brilliant Texas high school pitcher who the Rangers signed and immediately sent to the big leagues--without necessary minor league training or seasoning -because they knew he would bring the locals out to the ballpark. Clyde couldn't handle the pressure, or the hard-partying lifestyle of the veterans he hung out with, and he was out of the majors for good by the time he was 24. That's just sad.
Best uniform of the 1970s? Worst? (My vote for the latter goes for those black and red Indians tops with the inexplicably jagged letters or pretty much any Padres jersey from the entire decade.)
Hideous as they were, I'm actually really fond of the Houston Astros' "tequila sunrise" jerseys--to me, they beautifully embody both the colorfulness and ridiculousness of the era. But aside from the truly awful 1976 White Sox uniforms with short pants (which the players only wore in a handful of regular season games), my vote for Worst Uni of the 70s goes to the 1978 San Diego Padres. As if the fecal brown and mustard yellow color palette wasn't bad enough, the lettering on the jersey looks like Ray Kroc had 'em thrown together in about five minutes at an iron-on t-shirt store at the local mall. My '78 Little League jersey looked classier than that.
Do you like the recent trend of teams bringing back alternate powder blue jerseys, another 1970s innovation? (Brewers, Royals, Blue Jays)
I do, actually--or at least, I far prefer them to the dark solid "softball" alternates that have been so unfortunately prevalent in recent years. I wish the Phillies would go back to the zip-up powder blues (with the red "P" on the front) that they wore on the road for most of the '70s and into the '80s--I still think those look really sharp.
Best year for Topps baseball card design? (I vote for 1972 or 1975)
1972, no question. I would describe the design template for that year as psychedelic Hollywood retro; it's as if each player was briefly transported into the "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" sequence from Yellow Submarine. And it made even the scrubs look like superstars.
What are the features you look for in an awesome 1970s baseball card, in terms of design, pose, facial hair, etc.?
Simply depends on the card. It's hard to beat funky facial hair or a voluminous 'fro, and action shots can be really cool, too. Then again, would a card of Roberto Clemente or Hank Aaron be any more awesome if they'd sported Fu Manchu moustaches? I don't think so.
Dock Ellis's no-hitter-on-acid has gotten a lot of renewed interest, thanks to the No Mas animated short that came out last year. How prevalent was recreational drug use in baseball in the 70s? What was the drug of choice among players? And had performance enhancing drugs entered the picture yet?
I don't have anything other than anecdotal evidence to go on, but pot use seems to have been fairly prevalent among major leaguers in the '70s. Coke much less so, though (like in the rest of America), it became more common by the end of the decade. As far as performance-enhancing drugs, it's not inconceivable that steroids had entered the picture by then--they've been around since the '30s, and there's evidence that football players were using them as early as the late '60s--but they were hardly widespread. Back in those days, weight training and getting buff wasn't a regular part of the major league baseball fitness regimen; the prevailing wisdom of the time was that you should run a lot, and that lifting weights would make you too "muscle-bound" to be effective in the field. Use of amphetamines, however, was extremely common; I'm sure a lot of players wouldn't have made it through a 162-game season without them--though whether or not "greenie" use actually improved anyone's play or jacked up anyone's numbers in the long run is still pretty debatable.
Is there a game or playoff series from the 1970s that you consider a "lost classic"--something that should still be remembered now but isn't?
Well, it's not been completely forgotten, but the June 28, 1976 game between the Yankees and Tigers is pretty dear to my heart. That was the night that Mark "The Bird" Fidrych made his national TV debut, beating the Yankees 5-1 on Monday Night Baseball in front of an ecstatic Tiger Stadium crowd. He's so goofy on the mound, yet also so dominant--and during the post-game interview, he's just radiating pure joy. "The Bird" was the real deal, both as a pitcher and as a human being, and clips from this game always bring that home beautifully.
What event marked the death knell of 1970s-style baseball (other than the arrival of the year 1980)?
Just like the increasing freakiness of the '70s, it's hard to ascribe the demise of 70s-style ball to one particular event, though it's not too much of a stretch to say that, as America became increasingly conservative during the Reagan years, the game did so as well. I do think that 1980 was the last truly "70s" year of baseball--after being denied for half a decade, the Phillies and Royals finally made it to the World Series, and played the first all-Astroturf fall classic. Then came the players strike of 1981, followed by the "Pittsburgh Drug Trials" of 1985, owner collusion in the late '80s, and (as we know now) the spread of steroids. Baseball definitely changed in the '80s, and for the worse.
Are there any modern players you can imagine playing--and thriving--in the 1970s?
I'd say the most "70s" player out there today is Tim Lincecum -- not just because he has long hair and got popped for weed, but also because of his natural charisma, his unusually slight build (at least for a 21st century starting pitcher) and unorthodox delivery and mechanics. And if he can do this well against bulked-up batters in the PED era, just imagine how well he would have done in the '70s.