Pop culture historian Dan Epstein's new book, "Stars & Strikes," vividly illustrates that moment in time for readers who weren't around then, as it hits home with a lightning bolt of recollections for fans of a certain age. Dan and I sat down last week, along with four-time All-Star Al Oliver as well as San Diego Padres great Randy Jones. There may even be a special musical guest involved as we discuss the 1976 All-Star Game, The Bad News Bears, the number one song of the summer and even the Democratic National Convention.
INSTREAM: After reading "Stars & Strikes," I truly wonder where nostalgia plays a role in all this, or if it plays any role at all. Talk to me about nostalgia and what really does it for you with 1976.
EPSTEIN: Well, you know, I think nostalgia is part of it. I have an issue with that term because nostalgia implies a pining for things in the past, a sense of how things were better then. I don’t think you can look back and say, categorically, it was better then. There were a lot of cool things that happened inside the game and out that year, but the country was also kind of a mess. Events going down in New York, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia were ugly, so “Stars & Strikes” is not strictly an exercise in nostalgia. I envisioned it as this fascinating and entertaining year in baseball as well as American cultural history, so just what I tried to do was construct a written time machine that would take you back to that and underline just how important this was and how much transition was happening-
INSTREAM: I think transition is a huge underlying theme in this book-
EPSTEIN: I know, transition in the game, in America, in music and I’ve always believed you really can’t understand the present unless understand the past. You can’t understand why Baseball is the way it is now, in 2014, without looking at 1976. Look at the struggle for free agency, the players won their own independence – it was huge. It was a war the players were on the right side of, the reserve clause needed to be revoked and how that played out is definitely something we should look at.
INSTREAM: Let’s step back in time now. It’s Tuesday, July 13, 1976. Where are you and what are you watching?
EPSTEIN: I’m sitting in my grandparents' wood-paneled living room in Tuscaloosa, AL. Gramps and I had a quarter bet on the game; he took the NL and I took the AL. It was actually the first All-Star Game I ever watched, and the roster introductions blew me away — I couldn't believe how cool it was to see all the best players lined up together in their different uniforms.
INSTREAM: That was always my favorite part, too. Whether it's the midsummer classic, the LCS or the World Series, I always enjoy the player introductions, their reactions to the fans’ adoration or verbal contempt. I also like observing how the players interact with one another, going down the baseline, slappin’ fives. Really irks me when the networks don’t nail these nuances properly in their live broadcasts.
EPSTEIN: I also remember casting my All-Star ballot at Tiger Stadium in May 1976. I pretty much voted for the guys I thought were good, though that often as not meant "guys whose baseball cards I had." Bobby Grich fell into the latter category. Guess a lot of little kids had his card!
INSTREAM: This was the first All-Star game I remember watching, too. As I recall my uncles, all World War 2 veterans, being over the house playing pinochle when the All-Star Game was on. During the ‘70’s, it was like an event on par with the Super Bowl or an Ali fight. This game was kind of a big deal back then.
EPSTEIN: Oh yeah, definitely on par with that. I was incredibly excited about what I perceived to be a total clash of the titans!
INSTREAM: According to Baseball-Almanac.com, the ratings for the '76 game were second highest in history since they began calculating the figure in 1967, with the most viewers overall of any ASG. My guess is because when you flip through the TV Guide the only other program on all of our pre-cable, pre-dish network television sets was THIS…
(turns on the TV)
It was the 2nd DAY of gavel-to-gavel coverage for the Democratic Presidential Convention, which was broadcast live all afternoon on all three networks. However, once you got to 8 PM, ABC took a break from politics and provided the viewer of choice of either watching Steve Garvey, Rod Carew and Thurman Munson or you got to observe highlights of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan's historic keynote address as well as the coronation of Jimmy Carter & Walter Mondale as presidential running mates.
EPSTEIN: Of course, ABC later cut away to the DNC proceedings during their ASG broadcast; someone must have figured that the game was clearly in the bag for the NL, and they didn't want their viewers to turn to the convention coverage on CBS or NBC. Hard to imagine that ever happening now, even though the ASG is no longer the "must-view" event it was in 1976.
INSTREAM: As I get off the bean bag in the family room and walk over to our 22-inch Zenith color television set, give us your quick memory about Mark Fidrych BEFORE the all-star game. Was the craze a slow build among baseball fans in Michigan?
EPSTEIN: He was the talk of my elementary school in Ann Arbor for the last three weeks or so before we got out for the summer. Everyone, even our teachers, was talking about this crazy new pitcher that the Tigers had. Thing was, me and my 4th grade pals were all cynical little pricks who'd become aware of the world in the shadow of Nixon, Nam and Watergate, and were already completely suspicious of anything we saw on the news, etc. So we were all like, "The Bird is a fake — he's just doing that for the attention!" I remember saying that to my dad one night, and he totally chewed my ass out, like, "Oh, so YOU know it all, huh?" It wasn't until the Monday Night Baseball game at the end of June that I let fully let go of my cynicism and embraced him for the amazing character that he really was. From that point on, I was a huge fan.
(changes the channel)
INSTREAM: Speaking of Nixon and Watergate, check out who’s chucking the first ball!
EPSTEIN: At this point in the summer, President Ford's chances for being elected in November were looking dubious; there was some question as to whether he would even snag the Republican nomination in August, because Ronald Reagan was giving him some serious competition. There's a great photo from the All Star Game of Ford walking with Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson and Reds manager Sparky Anderson, who were of course managing for their respective leagues in the contest; Ford and Johnson both seem to wear deflated expressions, and I always imagine Sparky saying to Ford, "It's okay, Mr. President — Johnson here is gonna be out of a job soon, too!"
INSTREAM: As we watch rising star Chevy Chase at the 1976 Convention acting like a total jackwagon dressing down this poor documentary filmmaker:
INSTREAM: You know, I wonder what it was like for the players to meet the president. I mean it’s a big deal for most fans to meet athletes, movie stars or someone with a certain echelon of celebrity, but what happens when a “star” meets a bigger star? What that's like is what I'm curious about, so before the game starts, let’s ask two of the stars from the actual All-Star Team how they felt about it. National League starting pitcher Randy Jones and outfielder Al Oliver. What’s goin’ on, guys?
RANDY JONES: Hey Guys!
AL OLIVER: Hi, Dan. Hello, David.
EPSTEIN: Hey Randy, I know President Ford came through both clubhouses before the 1976 All-Star Game to welcome you guys. Did you meet the President?
RANDY JONES: I remember a nice conversation I had with President Ford. One of the advantages to lockering next to Tom Seaver! The President talked a little bit, he autographed a baseball for both Tom and me, which I still have to this day. I know I had 16 wins coming into the break, but he had three Cy Youngs, was a certain Hall of Famer. Sure was an honor being beside Tom Terrific.
INSTREAM: Al, did it seem to be a procession of greetings as Ford made his way through the clubhouse?
AL OLIVER: Yes, I also have the picture hanging on the wall of myself with the President in the clubhouse in '76. There was light small talk. He may have been more aware of the more celebrated players on the team, but he knew who I was. When you do anything at an elite level, especially sports, it gives you an opportunity to rub shoulders with some very interesting people. I enjoyed every minute of it.
RANDY JONES: Wanna know what I hated about the All-Star Game? Autographing those 144 baseballs that every player had to sign-
AL OLIVER: Oh yeah, spent of a lot of time signing stuff-
EPSTEIN: I actually have one of those 144 balls that my Dad gave me signed by most of the guys from the NL Squad – you’re both on there!
RANDY JONES: My name is smaller than most people, so luckily I found the spot on the ball - that little space in between the seams because it fit real nice, especially because guys like Concepcion needed just a little more room than I did (laughs). Boy, did I sign so much stuff.
INSTREAM: Where does meeting President Ford rank among the highlights of All-Star Week for the two of you?
RANDY JONES: Aww, man, there’s so many great memories of those three days. There were a lot of parties and you know us in the ‘70’s, we never missed a party. I had my family there with me, I flew my Mom and Dad into Philadelphia, had my wife there, too. I had been on a 10-day road trip at the time, so I glad to see my wife. I remember one corporate party where it was my wife Marie and I hanging out with Frank Tanana and his wife, being California boys, swapping stories at the table, laughing and just having a blast.
AL OLIVER: I spent most of those two nights with family and friends at the hotel. A lot of players had suites at the Bellvue-Stratford and entertained in their rooms. I wasn’t much of a drinker, so other than the formal league gatherings, I spent most of the time in the suite with my family.
RANDY JONES: The following morning there was this league luncheon – since I was starting for the NL, I was invited.
AL OLIVER: Yup, the league lunches. One of the nice things about the All-Star Game is getting together with the players. Truth be told, there’s a lot of activities that keep you busy. Think about this - by the time most guys leave All-Star week and return to their clubs, their game is worn out, because there’s no downtime and they are just exhausted.
RANDY JONES: Here's a cool story about the luncheon. I showed up in this three-piece suit at the luncheon, we started around 11:30. About five minutes to 12, here comes Fidrych flying through the door – overslept, had a pair of jeans on and a T-shirt. His hair was a mess, looked like he just woke up, comes in and sits down. I laughed my ass off, the two of us sitting together. He was a great kid, though. We had a good time there.
EPSTEIN: Was that the first time you met Fidrych?
RANDY JONES: Nah, I actually met him the day before during batting practice at the Vet. Took some promotional pictures. Joked around & talked pitching.
EPSTEIN: Randy, my favorite photo from the All-Star Game that year is one where you and Fidrych are doffing your caps to one another, I think it was taken right before the game. You’re wearing that pillbox that they gave you guys in the National League. You both have these great sort of Harpo Marx heads of curls. Always wanted to know, were those natural or did you have a perm?
RANDY JONES: I had a perm. In like ’74, I let my hair grow and it curled in the back, Might’ve been after my 20th loss that year, I snapped and was like,”I might as well just curl the rest of this crap.” I went home to my wife and said, ”Go run to the store get one of those Toni things and curl the rest of my hair.” She looked at me and said, “You’re nuts.” And I go, “Am I gonna go buy it or will you go buy it?” The first perm I got my wife gave me in the bathroom of our house. That was the beginning of it. Got off to a good start in ’75 and then became the “curly-haired left-hander.” I remember taking that photo, pretty sure it was the day before – the media had us take some photos for the newspapers – that’s where I first met “The Bird.” Funny story, I actually closed out the 9th inning of the 1975 All-Star Game. Walter Alston called down to the bullpen and Andy Messersmith answered the phone. I asked what Alston wanted and Andy goes, "He wants that curly-haired kid that gets the lefties out.” Alston didn’t know my name, but he knew I was tough on the mound, so that was cool. I also may have been the only pitcher to close out an All-Star Game, get a save, then pitch the first three innings the following year and get the win. I’d have to look that up, though.
INSTREAM: What’s it like having to cast aside the rivalries with players on other ballclubs for a few days? Garvey, Cedeno, The Big Red Machine, these are your sworn enemies, no?
RANDY JONES: After the Monday workout, we all got on a bus from Veterans Stadium back to the Bellevue-Stratford. The Padres had a three-game set against the Phillies the weekend before, so I felt like I was in town for 10 days. I sat next to Tony Perez and talked a bit, but I gotta say, I didn’t like talkin’ much to the opposing team players. That was just kind of how I was and how the game was back then. It was nice to hang out with them in that circumstance, though. I’ll admit I enjoyed that.
AL OLIVER: Randy’s correct. It was very much like that then - just ask Bob Gibson - but I was kind of friendly with a couple players on each team and we would chit-chat around the batting cage before games, I don’t remember what year it was, but the league instituted a no-fraternizing rule (Rule 3.09 in the handbook) between teams before games, so that stopped a little bit. The All-Star Game was different, though. I still have pictures of myself with Pete Rose & Ken Griffey, Sr. from that game hanging on my wall.
INSTREAM: That's must be a pretty cool wall you have in your home office.
AL OLIVER: (laughs) It sure is.
INSTREAM: Let's turn the game on now. For those of you who would like to watch the 1976 All-Star Game in its entirety, you may do so right below. We will be skipping in and out of the time machine with selected clips from the evening. Randy, Al, you ready?
AL OLIVER: Great. Let's do it.
RANDY JONES: Fire it up! Let’s go!
DAN EPSTEIN: Those graphics are just awesome. It’s so primitive, but-
INSTREAM: Understated. Almost classy. Today’s intro graphics for network sports shows seem to be more about high-level resume pieces and Emmy bait for the producers than adding any real visual value for the viewer.
EPSTEIN: Look at Warner Wolf! Man, perfect ‘70’s anchor hair.
INSTREAM: Uecker's sportin' some pretty solid chops as well. Dan, you write about the death of the Reserve Clause. As Warner Wolf elaborates here, the night of the All-Star Game, Marvin Miller announced that the owners agreed in principle to granting the players free agency rights. Really became a seminal moment in the transformation of baseball, no?
EPSTEIN: Yeah, I think where you wanna drop that dart of “then the game changed forever” can be anywhere between the end of the 1975 series and the inaugural free agent re-entry draft in November of ’76. These are all points where you can go in your best narrator voice, “And the game was never the same.”
INSTREAM: That’s pretty funny.
EPSTEIN: It’s true, though. These 12 months are the cutoff point between the first half of the ‘70s and the second that figuratively divides them, and I don’t think in the game, in pop culture, in American history, in music, you have a year that is so unique from the years that precede and follow it.
INSTREAM: Right, the underlying feeling is, “This is the LAST game under the old rules” and everything changes once the players return to the field after the break. Again, transitions.
EPSTEIN: Yeah, and after the game, it’s starts hitting home with the owners, this is for real, this is not going away, it’s not just a bad dream.
INSTREAM: The paradigm has shifted. Look at it this way, by Charlie Finley trying to sell Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers & Vida Blue to the Red Sox & Yankees, he might have done more damage by pricing the market on these players, who were at this point being advised by brilliant men like Marvin Miller and Jerry Kapstein, alerting them to the fact that “You guys are worth at least a million dollars each,” and not just superstars like Catfish Hunter & Andy Messersmith, either.
EPSTEIN: Right, I mentioned that in the book, where Rollie Fingers is like, “Wait, I’m worth a million dollars?” Say, what? You could just see the light bulb going on over these guys’ heads. I love the Bill Veeck quote about how the reserve clause was truly a protection for the owners against themselves, and that starts playing out with the first free agent signings.
AL OLIVER: Keep in mind, too, Dan, playing out the option still never occurred to some of us. I could’ve become a free agent, but to be honest, coming up in the game surrounded by Stargell, Clemente, Mazeroski, lifelong Pirates, I still had that kinda old-school mindset. You did the job, you weren’t going anywhere. I came to find out that wasn’t the case.
INSTREAM: What do you think now, looking back?
AL OLIVER: Sometimes, I look back and think maybe I should’ve become a free agent, but I never wanted to leave Pittsburgh. I would’ve liked to stay with the Pirates for all of my 18 years, but it just wasn’t in the cards. At least now when I return to PNC Park for events, the fans haven’t forgotten me and treat me like I never left there. That’s how Pittsburgh fans are.
INSTREAM: Here we go, game’s starting.
EPSTEIN: Randy, watching the guys take the field here, definitely got the impression that the National League, guys like Pete Rose and Joe Morgan were really looking to get out there and tee off on Fidrych, like there had been so much of a buzz about him. Did you feel the same as far as the American League lineup? I mean, here you were 16-3 and they were gonna try and take you down a peg.
RANDY JONES: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt about it. There was an edge to the All-Star Game back then, Guys. There was a lot of intensity in the dugout. We really wanted to win. It started with Pete Rose leading off and went right down the line. It wasn't all hugs and kisses between the National & American League like it is now. It was competitive – that was fun. I loved that part of it.
INSTREAM: Denny McLain was 16-2 at the All-Star Break in 1968, on his way to winning 31 games. There was talk during early July of '76 that maybe you could possibly reach that historic mark as well. Did you happen to take any time to consider that maybe in the 2nd half you could get to 30 wins?
RANDY JONES: No, I didn’t think that was a real number. The Padres were averaging five, six runs a game for me in the first half-
INSTREAM: Yeah, when you look it up, you’ll find the offensive support you received in ’76 was much, much higher than ’75, like close to 20% higher-
RANDY JONES: I know, so number one, that wasn’t going to last. Number two, we were all gamers, every one of my teammates on the Padres gave everything they had, but to be honest, our defense needed some work, we had other deficiencies, but definitely, the runs dried up a bit. Nothing I could do about it. I was blessed to get the run support from the guys in the first half like I did. I was tickled to death. It was uncanny.
EPSTEIN: When I was writing “Stars & Strikes,” I went over your game-by-game breakdowns and I don’t remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that you could have gotten to 29 victories if your games the Padres lost by one or two runs had gone the other way.
RANDY JONES: You’re right. I had two 1-0 losses & four no-decisions that year. I also got six runs from the offense in my 16th win. That’s baseball.
INSTREAM: As you stand on the mound facing the American League, do you feel like you have a good chance to win?
RANDY JONES: Aww, man, just look at my infield! Had Rose at third, Concepcion at short, Morgan at 2nd, Garvey at first. Bench behind the plate. I had a pretty good idea I was gonna win that ballgame.
EPSTEIN: Infield was iron-clad right there.
AL OLIVER: (laughs) Oh, yeah. I'll say. I'm telling you, those were some ballplayers. Great players. Clutch players.
RANDY JONES: I know, someone asked me, “Who’s playing the outfield?” I said, “Who cares?” (laughs) I wanted the ball to stay in the infield with the caliber of guys I had behind me. I remember as I finished my warm-ups, there’s 50,000, 60,000 people at Veterans Stadium and man, is it noisy. They throw the ball around the infield, Pete trots to the mound, flips me the ball and says, “60,000 people make ya nervous?” And I look over at him and I said, “Nope.” Then Pete laughed and said, “How ‘bout the 100 million watching us on TV right now?” I felt my butt pucker up a little bit when he said that. I nodded to third, “Get over there, would ya?” (laughs)
EPSTEIN: Randy, I wanted to ask you about that. Back then, it’s not like now, where every game is televised, every game is streamed on the internet, every game is on a cable package, I imagine there only had been a handful of times where you go out there and know you’re on national television.
RANDY JONES: Very, VERY rare. Very rare. As a player, especially a starting pitcher, you either that love theatre or you don’t, I think, and I embraced it. You know, in ’76, after I got on that roll, I was averaging an extra 18,000 to 20,000 fans every time I started a game at home in the first half. Everyone in the ballpark got behind me – it was magical. We weren’t getting that much notoriety but I was extremely proud to represent San Diego.
INSTREAM: So not only as the lone Padres representative among the National League All-Stars, but the starting pitcher as well, did you find any extra pressure as the game began?
RANDY JONES: As you watch me in the beginning of the game, I was over-ampped. Felt like my ball had straightened out a little bit. (laughs) My control was off at first - walked a guy early, which was not like me. I was a sinker-ball, slider guy, that wasn’t gonna change. Just changing speeds. You know, here LeFlore leads off with a base hit. Carew gets up and hits into that double-play right there. Saw that happen a million times. I saw that on the mound a lot.
INSTREAM: Right, and you hear Bob Uecker & Bob Prince saying that exact same thing. The double play’s your signature move.
RANDY JONES: Oh yeah, it always was. I pitched to contact – I didn’t want you to swing and miss. Heck, if you missed the first pitch, the second one was gonna look just like it. I just kept the ball down.
* * * * * Middle of 1st: 0-0 * * * * *
INSTREAM: During the commercial we see an ad for the spring/summer hit film “The Bad News Bears” – now in its 13th SMASH WEEK!
INSTREAM: Here’s the thing I realized while watching The Bad News Bears and the Breaking Training Sequel back-to-back that rarely gets discussed. Some critics have cited the use of classical music on the soundtrack which has elevated the stature of TBNB, but I think it's the hand-held camera work that really invigorates the pace of the first film. Even in 1976, it wasn’t an overused cinematic technique. You get this voyeuristic sense, this documentary feel while you're watching, which makes the second film come across as sort of cinematically stilted by comparison, and that’s all Michael Ritchie. You see it in "Downhill Racer." You see it in "The Candidate." Hell, you even see it in "Smile," one of the most overlooked films of the decade. I’ll even go as far as to say Michael Ritchie is one of most underrated and sadly overlooked filmmakers of that era.
EPSTEIN: I think you’re right. To pull natural performances out of kids is a lot more difficult than it sounds. You don’t turn on the camera and tell the kid to be himself. What happens if they freeze up? I also think the chemistry between Matthau and the kids is a big part of it. I mean, he and Tatum O’Neal are the two stars obviously, but it’s clearly not just "Here’s the star and here’s some nameless kids," he really interacts with those kids and their personalities in a way that makes it seem like he knows them. That really becomes more apparent each time I sit through it.
INSTREAM: The scene where Buttermaker throws the beer at Amanda, the 11-year old wunderkind pitcher, is simply jarring-
EPSTEIN: That feels very real even though it’s not pleasant. At the same time, as absurd as it is that Lupus makes a perfect martini, Matthau makes it seem perfectly natural. Ritchie’s directing is definitely an underrated part of it.
INSTREAM: There’s so many fabulous touches in the film, I mean, who gets a beer in a Pizza Hut-
EPSTEIN: That's a fascinating scene to me. I know, I fixated on that glass. I’m not a Pizza Hut fan, but I would drink from that glass-
INSTREAM: I think the folks at Yum Brands, Pizza hut’s parent company, need to really re-think their business model.
EPSTEIN: That’s the suburbs of Southern California in 1976. It was Shakey’s or it was Pizza Hut, and that’s the important point. We have this image in the media of the ‘70s being this flashy decade, and it was in a way, but as a kid, I remember there being a real drabness to it, on the day-to-day life in an American town. It wasn’t people running around in white freaky suits with disco balls hanging over their heads, it was kids with long, greasy hair piling into their parents’ van to go to Pizza Hut. It was not glamorous.
INSTREAM: And Joyce Van Patten, who played the Little League Field coordinator, adds so much realism to this film. She’s has this glaze in her eyes through her description of the uniform colors and her utter contempt for Kelly Leak. She could’ve been your Cub Scout Den Mother, the head of the PTA or that battleaxe running your little league snack bar. We all knew that mom in the late ‘70s.
EPSTEIN: Absolutely, and we all knew Dads like Vic Morrow, who played the opposing coach. I was lucky none of my coaches were like that, but we certainly played teams with guys like that, who thought they were running a military operation.
INSTREAM: Randy, as we watch you in the Top of the 2nd inning here, I loved how back in the day, the starting pitchers got that extra spotlight, pitching two, three, sometimes even four innings in the All Star Game. I mean, this is why you were chosen, this is your reward for your fabulous first half. And here comes Rusty Staub to the plate.
RANDY JONES: Oh, I remember this. I have a great story about this at-bat. Rusty Staub had two hits in the game, one off me and one off Seaver. There was a 1-2 pitch in the at-bat. Every time I see Rusty we argue about that pitch. There’s a sinker ball down and in – a perfect strike. The umpire called it ball. I say, “Staub, I struck you out! You never would've gotten to the point where you got a base hit. I punched you out on that pitch,” and Rusty’s all, “No, you didn’t, that was a ball.” 40 years later we’re still arguing about that gosh-darn pitch.
INSTREAM: To Dan’s question before about NL batters looking to tee off on Fidrych, were there any players in the AL lineup that concerned you? Was there anyone in particular that had you thinking, “I have to be careful here?”
RANDY JONES: No, to be honest not really, that lineup itself was-
INSTREAM: Brett, Lynn, Staub, Carew, lot of lefties in that lineup for you to feast on-
RANDY JONES: Yeah, not much of a concern with Brett and those guys for that reason. Speedy LeFlore at the top of the lineup caught my attention, but the one guy that I really wanted to be careful with was Grich. With his good power from the right side, I was really aware of him in that lineup and tried to set him up-
INSTREAM: You can see that in the sequence – Bench sets up off the plate, nothing but outside offerings to Grich, three pitches, taylor-made groundball to Concepcion, throws to first, inning over.
RANDY JONES: I’ll give ya one sideline story with Bench behind the plate. I’m a sinkerball/slider pitcher. My rookie season in ’73, Johnny Bench hit a two-run homer off me in the 8th inning to beat me 2-1. I threw him a good slider in and he was looking for it, and he just got the head out and hit it really well. I made a mental note and Bench was always waiting for that slider for another three years (laughs) and I never threw him another slider again. The only player I threw curveballs to was Johnny Bench. I would not throw him that slider in. God bless him, he would wait and wait and wait for it. So when he finally gets behind the plate catching me in the All-Star game. I was like, “One’s a fastball, two’s a curveball, three’s a slider, now get your ass back there, let’s play.” In the first two innings, I’m laughing because he must’ve called five curveballs in the first inning alone. I didn't argue with anybody. Heck, call a pitch, I’ll throw it, and so after the second inning I go in and sit down next to him, I go, “Johnny, I gotta tell ya somethin’. You’re the only guy in this whole league I throw curveballs to. I throw sliders. Remember that one you hit out on me?” He nods and goes, “In ’73? Sure do.” “The pitch you’re still waitin’ on? That's why you’re only guy I throw the curve to.” Johnny goes, “You’re kidding me,” I nod and say “Jeez, I didn’t wanna tell ya that, but will ya stop callin’ for that darn curveball?” (laughs) “I just don’t throw it that much. I’m gonna get beat up here pretty soon." Bench was laughing his butt off hearing that story. It was hilarious.
* * * * * Middle of 2nd: 2-0 National League * * * * *
INSTREAM: So as Fidrych returns and begins his warm ups for the bottom of the 2nd inning, I think of a piece from Josh Wilker and his Cardboard Gods blog. Over the course of Fidrych’s amazing ’76 season, what the hell was going on with Bill Freehan, the Tigers’ iconic catcher? He didn’t catch any of The Bird’s starts.
EPSTEIN: I don’t think that was a slam at Freehan, though. Freehan was getting old, it was probably his final season, he certainly couldn’t catch every game like he used to. He came from that whole 50’s 60’s, early ‘70’s mentality, where the starting catcher handles every game but every other Sunday and the nightcap of a doubleheader. So, Bruce Kimm had worked with Fidrych at Evansville and Montgomery in the Tigers’ minor league system, it made sense to manager Ralph Houk, you know, “We got this weird kid who can pitch but he’s kind of an oddball, let’s just let the two of them do their thing.” Nobody thought Detroit would be a contender that year-
INSTREAM: Sure, they lost 102 games the previous season. Clearly a youth movement was in place-
EPSTEIN: That was the philosophy. I think it was about giving Freehan some time off as it was to make Fidrych comfortable.
* * * * * End of 2nd: 2-0 National League * * * * *
INSTREAM: Going into the third inning now, Fidrych’s night is done as he heads into the locker room – hey check out Belanger grabbing a smoke in the shadows of the runway-
EPSTEIN: Totally, (laughs) that’s awesome. Don’t think he’ll be the last we’ll see of that – especially with ABC’s fledgling MLB camera work.
INSTREAM: You know, that reminds me of this funny story on Page 142 of your book, an altercation of sorts between Reggie Jackson and Orioles manager Earl Weaver as they arrived at the team hotel in Milwaukee. Seems like shit’s always going down at the Pfister Hotel-
EPSTEIN: (laughs) I know, yeah, that’s where the Yankees had that brawl in ’74 between Bill Sudakis and Rick Dempsey, and it’s like, in both those cases, it happens in the lobby when they get there, it’s not like they were drinking at the bar for hours.
INSTREAM: I love hearing about these legendary baseball stories at upscale hotels in the smaller cities, like later in the ‘80s with Billy Martin and Ed Whitson at the Cross Keys Inn in Baltimore where things get weird in a hurry.
EPSTEIN: Randy, going back to what you said about staying the Bellevue-Stratford hotel in Philly during this game, and then there’s that breakout of Legionnaires disease two weeks later. How did you feel about hearing that news?
RANDY JONES: Yes I remember that well. That happened a week after we left. Myself and some of the Padre players couldn't believe our luck at not getting sick. Figured it just wasn't our time. Very freaky.
INSTREAM: Al, do you remember much about this?
AL OLIVER: I remember the Legionnaires disease thing all too well. About two weeks after the All-Star break, I came down with an inner ear problem, balance problems. I was hitting .360 at the break, the best first half of my career-
EPSTEIN: You were leading the league in hitting at the time-
AL OLIVER: That’s right, and soon after that, I came down with the inner-ear problem. Got so bad I had to ask out of a couple games. They ran tests on me but didn’t find anything. Their conclusion was the inner-ear infection was causing my instability. I ended up not qualifying for the batting crown that year. I thought, some way, I got some kind of strain. I just wasn't the same in the 2nd half.
* * * * * Middle of 3rd: 4-0 National League * * * * *
INSTREAM: So Randy, it's the 4th inning and your night on the mound is done. How long did you hang out in the dugout after Sparky brought Seaver in to pitch?
RANDY JONES: I only hung out in the dugout about an inning or so. John McNamara, my manager with the Padres, was one of the coaches for the National League, he was there. There were a lot of bodies on the bench, I just got the heck out of the way. Walked into the clubhouse, iced down my arm, and watched a little more of the game with the other guys. Well, as they say in the game, "Time for me to hit the showers."
EPSTEIN: Right on, Randy! Thanks for watching the game with us!
INSTREAM: As Randy Jones heads into the clubhouse, we'll take this commercial break to show one of these righteous clips created for the "Stars & Strikes" book release. Dan, why did you choose “Play That Funky Music” by the band Wild Cherry as the soundtrack for the clip?
EPSTEIN: I have a very vivid memory of riding to my first ever National League Baseball game the summer of ’76 in Los Angeles. It played on the radio in the van I was riding, and every day for the next week, it seemed like I heard it four or five times a day on the radio. Seemed like the perfect choice for background music.
INSTREAM: Right around the night of this game, the tune began its ascent up the pop charts. Rob Parissi, former lead singer for the band Wild Cherry, where were you on this night?
ROB PARISSI: We were on tour with Santana and a little band called Journey was opening up for us. We were just a Cleveland band, we played clubs to larger and larger crowds as the song grew more popular. Just ten months earlier, though, we were having a tough time. Dance music was emerging, the discos were opening up and the rock clubs were closing down. I was having a hard time booking our band and getting gigs.
INSTREAM: So how did you and the band respond to this?
ROB PARISSI: We started to play songs-disco songs-in a way the band would tolerate playing and would get us jobs. My thought process was, “How would Led Zepplin do ‘That’s the Way I Like it?’” So this way, we could play disco clubs & rock venues and we had one set of songs for both.
EPSTEIN: Of course, we have to ask, where did you get the title “Play That Funky Music?”
ROB PARISSI: This goes back to my bandmates not wanting to play disco music. We were in this dressing room after a gig and I said, “The club owners won’t book us anymore.” I was furious. I was like, “I’ve had it. You guys are driving me nuts. You’re either gonna have to play more of the disco music or you’re gonna lose your apartments and your cars and I don’t care – I’m just tellin’ ya, I don’t wanna hear it anymore.” Went on that night in this club where we played our rock standards and this group of black couples were sitting at a table and one of them called out, “Hey, when you white boys gonna play some funky music???” And after yelling at the band, the drummer was like, “Yeah, play that funky music, white boy!” And I said, “That’s a great title.” Wrote that song in five minutes on a napkin in the van on the way home.
EPSTEIN: Now before you recorded it, you must have played the song out live, no?
ROB PARISSI: The first time we played it, it went over extremely well and yet I still did not realize how big the song could be. We would play it in the clubs and people would get up immediately and start dancing. Next thing you know we’re getting airplay, we’re on The Midnight Special, getting music awards. It was like an out of body experience.
EPSTEIN: Coming out of the Cleveland music scene, did you overlap with The Raspberries?
ROB PARISSI: We all knew each other. Grand Funk Railroad was recording in Cleveland at this time, the James Gang – the James Gang wanted to buy the song from me. We were trading sessions with Grand Funk, The Rasberries, The James Gang. When I was recording the vocals, the lead singer from the James Gang walked into the studio to pick up some tapes and he heard the playback, I wasn’t even finished and he said, “Rob, what are ya gonna do with that song?” I went, “Dunno, maybe put out a local record. Why?” He said, “We need a hit, I think that song could be a hit for us.” I was floored, thinking, “Man, if you think this is a hit, then maybe I should shop this thing around!” So he said, “I’m managed by some guys down the street. Do you mind if I play that for them?” I said “Knock yourself out,” and they turned out to be the reps that got us in front of CBS Records, which was funny, because we went to all the record companies in New York City except CBS because I didn’t think we could get into the building and as it turned out, CBS was the company that signed us. That song was magic for us from the moment we recorded it.
EPSTEIN: That’s a cool piece of the story. Where & how did you come up with the use of the word "disco" as a verb, as in "disco down and check out the show". To my knowledge, that's the first time it was ever thusly used in a song!
ROB PARISSI: Honestly, the whole "Disco" deal just struck me as funny, and I started thinking of that word as George Carlin did his comedy sketch about the "F" word to the band, because they were so rebellious about doing anything that had to do with the Disco genre, as again, we were a very heavy duty rock band, so when I wrote that tune, I just threw that in to make them laugh. All the guys in the band had a great sense of humor and I started to use the word "Disco" as noun, verb, adjective, you name it, and all the guys picked up on it and we pretty much ran it into the ground.
INSTREAM: Now what was the time-lapse from releasing the record to hitting the top of the charts?
ROB PARISSI: It was a seven-week record. I really got my shock when all the promotion and A&R guys at CBS came out of their offices and were like, “Thanks for giving us a song that makes us look good, man.” I found out that “Play That Funky Music” was the biggest hit single that label had ever had up until Survivor recorded “Eye of the Tiger.” They had Bruce, they had Sly & the Family Stone, they had Dylan. Lucikly, I never took the success for granted. I figured this crazy trip would run its course and that would be it. The song never died. Took on a life of its own.
EPSTEIN: Right, with a hit song, you tap into something in the cosmos for those five minutes-
ROB PARISSI: We did a tour around this time with the Isley Brothers, he had a deal with Epic, too. The Isley Brothers, and their leader Kelly, told me they never saw a hit like this, and these guys wrote “Shout!” It was scary how big that song became.
EPSTEIN: Incredible how it became an anthem of that era-
ROB PARISSI: We were part of the music transition, and because of this, nobody knew what to call us. Rolling Stone called us a punk band, that didn’t work. The music media was trying to label us and pigeonhole us, but they didn’t know what to do with us.
INSTREAM: So, to Dan’s point earlier, 1976 was a year of many transitions, and Wild Cherry was one of those bands incorporating rock music elements from the earlier part of the decade wrapped in the emerging disco sound.
ROB PARISSI: Exactly. We were the musical transition of the era.
INSTREAM: Games back on. Rob, you wanna hang out with us a little bit?
ROB PARISSI: Sure.
INSTREAM: We’re in the 6th inning now, with the National League All-Stars ahead 4-1. Dan, I thought one of the saddest elements of this game, and you give it an extended look toward the end of the book, is the decimation of the once-mighty Oakland A’s. Phil Garner, as you see here, and Rollie Fingers were the only A’s reps at the game. The year before the A’s had five starters! And here in '76 even Garner was merely an injury replacement for Willie Randolph. Basically one guy made the team!
DAN EPSTEIN: Yeah, I think that’s really emblematic of how far things have fallen for Oakland. But with all of Finley’s meddling, ruining morale further, refusing to let them play in games, Kuhn squashing the player sales — even with all that, they still almost win the AL West. It still comes down to the end of the season and the Kansas City Royals almost throw it away. That gives you a sense of what intense competitors those guys were. Bando, Campy, - they’re not gonna let this go, there’s no “Screw this” attitude. They wanted one more.
INSTREAM: There’s one helluva MLB documentary just on the last legs of the Oakland A’s dynasty out there waiting to be produced. I’m sure at least once a week during the 1977 season, you had Blue and Billy North glancing at one other across the dugout, shaking their heads in disgust.
DAN EPSTEIN: Of all those guys, the one I feel sorriest for in 1976 was Vida Blue. Finley tricks him into signing this deal, Blue’s thinking, “Finally, Charlie’s giving me the contract I’m asking for” and then realizes it was simply a ploy to make him “sellable” to the Yankees. Then, when the sale doesn’t go through, all his pals get to leave in the free agent draft, Vida has to stick around for another year. He has more money, but it’s clear he is not happy about it.
* * * * * * * * *
INSTREAM: We're hitting the 7th inning stretch here, so Rob, back to Wild Cherry for a second. Randy and Al mentioned meeting President Ford at the game. As your song topped the charts and hit the heights of 1976 pop culture, did you find yourself in the middle of something similar to meeting the president?
ROB PARISSI: Oh yeah. After the song hit #1 and stayed there, things were going crazy for me, so I took a few days and went to Acapulco to decompress. I get to the hotel and see all these record industry execs milling around the lobby and heading off to the rooms. I bumped into my friend Tom, who ran the Peaches Records & Tapes chain and I said, "What's everybody doing here? What are YOU doin' here?" He goes, "Rob, it's the Warner Brothers convention this weekend. Everybody's here." Man, I did all I could to get away from the nonsense for a few days and now I'm surrounded by them. So Tom leans over to me and goes, "Hey, wait a minute. You wanna meet George Harrison?"
INSTREAM: Again, to Al's point earlier, whenever you perform at an elite level, you often find yourself rubbing shoulders with some very interesting people.
ROB PARISSI: Exactly, and I was like, "Hell yeah!" So an hour later, we're in the bar overlooking the water, and he comes George Harrison and it's like another out-of-body experience. Finally, George is like, "So where is this all going for you?" I was dumbfounded. I said, "You're a Beatle! You're my guitar god, you tell ME where this is all goin'." That was the top celebrity thrill for me in 1976. Having a business drink with one of the Fab Four.
INSTREAM: Here in the bottom of the 7th inning, the NL still holding a 4-1 lead. By this time Al, do you see a lot of players coming and going from the dugout to the clubhouse in the final few innings? A lot of milling around?
AL OLIVER: Once the game starts, as a reserve, you had to be in the dugout because we never knew when we you're needed. We don’t wanna be in the clubhouse. Some of us get a feel when we might be called upon as a pinch hitter or as a fielding replacement. You just have to be ready.
EPSTEIN: Al, you're getting your 1st at-bat with two outs. I know you went 4-for-9 with three doubles in All-Star Game play over your career. Did you go up there swinging, wanting to put on a show?
AL OLIVER: Oh yeah, in the All-Star Game, you definitely want to put on a show. The last thing you don’t want to do is strike out. I faced Frank Tanana in my at-bat. This was when Frank was throwing extremely hard and knowing me, if the fastball was hittable, I was usually first-pitch swinging. I was very excited to make an impact. I grounded out, if memory serves me right.
INSTREAM: So that takes us to the top of the 8th now and get a load of Mickey Rivers trying to take out Bill Russell at 2nd to break up the double play. It looks like the game is probably out of reach at this point, in an exhibition no less and here you have Mick The Quick treating the moment like it’s Game Seven.
AL OLIVER: When I first came up, the National League dominated the game. Some said the AL didn’t take it as seriously, but I never believed that. Randy was right, there was still an edge to this game. I just think the National League had more speed and that was the real difference. The American League, during most of my career, did not possess the overall speed that you saw with the National League-
INSTREAM: Dan addresses that in the book in his chapter on the Kansas City Royals and introduction of artificial turf to the American League-
AL OLIVER: Correct, and right around the Rickey Henderson era, the American League started getting more speed and if you noticed, a few years after that, the AL started winning because they didn’t rely strictly on power.
* * * * * Middle of 8th: 4-1 National League * * * * *
INSTREAM: As we check out Rusty Staub rockin’ the funky threads here in the bottom of the 8th inning, it’s pretty amazing that as so many Tigers started this All-Star Game. Ron LeFlore. Staub. Fidrych, obviously.
EPSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. You look at the National League team, five guys from the Reds , but that makes sense because they are far and away the best team in the National League in 1976. Defending World Champions. The Tigers are not a good ballclub, but remember Fidrych had that hot 1st half, LeFlore had the 30-game hitting streak in the spring, that got him some fanfare. I’m more surprised that Staub made it. I know he was very popular in New York and everywhere else he played, but it wasn’t like he was having such an amazing season that he would’ve been an automatic lock.
INSTREAM: Flipping through the July 10th, 1976 issue of TV Guide here – remember the TV GUIDE “CLOSE UP” – they have a Close Up of the Game with the potential starters as the issue went to print a week earlier. “Outfield: Fred Lynn (top vote getter) and two of the following: LeFlore, Bobby Bonds of the Angels, Rusty Staub of the Tigers, & Reggie Jackson of the Orioles. Interestingly enough, you had a lot of Texas Rangers fans voting for their guys. Toby Harrah started at Shortstop. Mike Hargrove was actually leading Rod Carew in the early voting at first base. Jeff Burroughs also had a ton of votes in the outfield though ultimately fell out of contention for the final spot. Al, you’ve been both a starter in the All-Star Game as well as a reserve. Do the designations feel different once you get there?
AL OLIVER: It’s a big difference. I recall the first year I was an all-star first time in 1972. We had five players from the Pirates on that team. It was big thrill for me-
INSTREAM: Of course, the Pirates had won the World Series the previous year, and your manager Danny Murtaugh was the skipper of the NL squad-
AL: Correct, and I was picked as a reserve, as an outfielder, on a team with Aaron, Mays, Clemente, Stargell, Brock, Billy Williams, and the young guys were myself and Cedeno. That was a lineup where I knew I was taking a seat on the bench as a reserve. Murtaugh had me go out and replace Aaron. That was the first time in my career I felt good about going out and replacing a player. It is a difference between starting and sort of spectating.
INSTREAM: Al, I'm glad you brought up Cedeno. Very cool at-bat here by "CEE-ZAR Cedeno," according to Warner Wolf. You know, a lot of younger followers of sabermetrics always talk of the former Houston Astros outfielder as a borderline Hall-of-Famer, and no argument there. Just set aside the 52 WAR & 123 OPS+ for a moment and behold this at-bat. It's a tremendous display of his abilities, his working the count, his fouling off Tanana's filthy pitches, the extension of his swing, his swift trotting around the bases. This is why we watch the classic games over and over again, to experience the visual context of players where footage of their greatness has been lost to wiped videotapes and never-televised ballgames.
AL OLIVER: No question, Cedeno was a very special player. That was a great home run to see in person.
* * * * * End of 8th: 7-1 National League * * * * *
INSTREAM: We're in the top of the 9th inning, last shot for the american League to get back in this and there's still a couple of reserves on the bench who have yet to see any time in the game. Al, was there ever any players lobbying the manager to get in this game, as we wait to see if Amos Otis makes it in?
AL OLIVER: No, if it did I was never aware of it. We know that someone’s probably not playing tonight, but when you’re a reserve you have to be ready for pretty much anything. Tonight's it's probably Cubs catcher Steve Swisher. Usually the last catcher knows this going in, though.
EPSTEIN: Al, I talk about a trade that involved you between the Pirates and another ball club. When did you find out about this?
AL OLIVER: It was in the winter before the 1976 season. I was on vacation in Hawaii when I got the news. I thought it was a done deal until one of the players on the other team invoked his 10-and-5 & killed the trade.
INSTREAM: Did you have you qualms about playing in the American League?
AL OLIVER: No, not really. The way I saw it, the pitching mound was still the same distance from home plate. Wouldn't have mattered to me. Was just unhappy about leaving Pittsburgh. Really loved it there.
INSTREAM: Looks like the game is in the hands of the National League, as the ABC camera guys catch Sparky Anderson finish off yet another dugout smoke. Nice call there, Dan.
EPSTEIN: (laughs) To say that was a common occurrence back then is a bit of an understatement.
INSTREAM: And with the Otis strikeout, that should do it. For an exhibition game, pretty good feeling coming out on top, Al?
AL OLIVER: Oh, we enjoyed winning the game. There was no champagne baths in the clubhouse, but we calmly enjoyed it afterward. We expected to win when took the field and it worked out for us.
INSTREAM: Al, enjoy the celebration! Thanks for joining us.
AL OLIVER: Thanks, Guys. It was a pleasure.
INSTREAM: Rob, thanks for hanging out and sharing your '76 experience.
ROB PARISSI: You bet, anytime.
INSTREAM: So, the National League triumphs again, by the score of 7-1. Our own Randy Jones is the winning pitcher, with our beloved rookie Mark Fidrych, taking the loss. George Foster, with his 2nd inning homer against The Bird, takes home the game MVP. Dan, in a world with no internet, where fans without both leagues in their broadcast market, we're still a year away from the debut of This Week in Baseball, this was a pretty special game. Any closing thoughts?
EPSTEIN: Obviously, I have an affinity for this year and America's journey in 1976. I enjoyed this game very much - it's not a great game - it's still just really fun for me to watching it. Fun to see the guys, fun to see the uniforms, fun to just experience those moments lost to time that, like Rivers going into Russell with the game basically over, we would NEVER see today. It's a pretty special event.
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