The pitch: It was March 21, 1976 when The Who played a concert at the Big A before 55,000 fans, the largest show on the band’s North American tour. The Angels’ season wouldn’t start until 2 1/2 weeks later against Oakland. Good thing there was all that time in between for some house keeping. “A few days (after the concert), Angels groundskeepers discovered what turned out to be hundreds of marijuana plants growing robustly along the ballpark’s left-field line, and another lush patch in center field,” Epstein writes on page 86. “These herbal invaders were presumably the result of pot seeds discarded during the concert, which were then inadvertently watered and fertilized by the ballpark’s grounds crew.
” ‘At first we thought it was weeds,’ said stadium manager Tom Lieger. ‘Later, we found out we were right.’”
A couple of weeks earlier, the Dodgers were wondering what got into Mike Marshall’s frosted flakes. The relief pitcher who won the Cy Young Award for them less than two years was arrested. Employed by Michigan State University as a graduate assistant in their phys ed department, Marshall was upset that the owners had locked the players out from spring training, and he was trying to throw off a mound in an indoor facility at the Intramural Building. The school, however, wanted no part of him being there. So when he tried to get in and found it locked, he returned with bolt cutters and a hacksaw and told his accomplice/catcher: “Before the police get here, let’s get some throwing done.” By the time June 15 trading deadline came around, Dodgers GM Al Campanis waived Marshall, and made Charlie Hough their closer.
“It’s probably more the Dodgers being down on Mike than being wild about me,” said the knuckleballer. The nation’s Bicentennial birthday offered up bi-partisan craziness for the Angels and Dodgers at a time when things were getting a little hairy in our country over patriotism, Liberty Bells and Oscar Gamble’s Afro (which the Yankees made him cut). The Dodgers may have won 92 games, but that was still 10 behind Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in the NL West, and it led to Walter Alston finally calling it a career, giving the managerial duties to a 49-year-old third base coach named Tommy Lasorda at the end of the season. The season also found Steve Yeager with a broken bat stuck in his neck while he was in the on-deck circle in San Diego one night in September. The California Angels were under .500 for managers Dick Williams and Norm Sherry, resorting to bringing back 37-year-old Tommy Davis as a designated hitter to provide offense with Bobby Bonds (a team-high 10 homers), Jerry Remy and Ron Jackson for Nolan Ryan (17-18) and Frank Tanana (19-10).
So what, then, put the sizzle in ’76? For starters, Mark Fidrych (the subject of Doug Wilson’s 2013 book) and Randy Jones, “the first pairing of Harpo Marx look-alikes in All-Star Game history,” writes Epstein. Too bad Pete LaCock didn’t make the game.
Add Bill Veeck’s new Chicago White Sox shorts pants, Charlie Finley’s garage sales from his previous World Series teams and Ted Turner’s dive into the free agent market for Atlanta.
There was Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, Rick Monday’s flag-saving act and George Brett’s batting title race against teammate Hal McRae, all the while parents were trying to keep their kids from seeing the first “Bad News Bears” movie that made it seem as if every kid playing baseball in the San Fernando Valley had some rowdy, foul-mouthed streak in them (and don’t get started about the volunteer coaches).
Then it ended in a World Series where the defending champion Cincinnati Reds swept the New York Yankees. Still, Epstein, who in 2010 came out with “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and American in the Swinging ’70s,” said that 1976 is “a year that remains woefully under appreciated by baseball historians — primarily (or so I’ve long suspected) because its World Series was a one-sided affair that ended an exhilarating season on a dour and chilly note.” So with that Epstein sets out to relive it all the “electrifying moments, oddball events and unforgettable characters — all set against the star-spangled backdrop of the Bicentennial.”
Epstein does the year proper, one that was also in competition with the Summer Olympics in Montreal and the first presidential election since Watergate. And where a players’ minimum salary was raised to $19,000.
Still not enough to make anyone have to listen to Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Baseball.”
It probably was the right time for Hank Aaron to just walk away at that point.