Think of the United States in the 1970s, and what are the first images that leap to mind? For most of us, the 1970s conjure up realms of pop-culture tackiness: the laughable fads and fashions of the "Me Decade," the leisure suits, roller skates, and disco. Or perhaps it's the airy pretentiousness of the decade's "I'm OK, you're OK" psycho-babble, rationalizing witless self-centered indulgence and blissfully granting license to such wackiness as crystal healing, talking to houseplants, and taking seriously the notion that aliens were systematically abducting ships and airplanes from the Bermuda Triangle. (1)
Now, turn the 1970s image over just a bit, and ragged, darker scenes emerge. Gas lines. Stagflation. Watergate. Patty Hearst, kidnapped, brainwashed, waving an Mi carbine while robbing a bank. The People's Temple committing mass suicide at Jonestown.
However we recall the 1970s, with a heavy sigh or a dismissive chuckle, we don't recall it as an era of success, of intelligent achievement, or even simply of good taste. It was one of those periods in our collective history that we regard rather as one of the more embarrassing episodes in our personal lives, one on which we quickly turn the page when browsing the photo album: oh, were we ever "going through a phase" back then.
Now, consider baseball during the 1970s. The era had its share of heroic achievements: Hank Aaron hitting number 715, Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair, Reggie Jackson making October his own. But, as with the broader culture, what generally comes to mind in thinking of the baseball of the 1970s is both its silliness--the hideous, gaudy, skin-tight polyester uniforms, the ubiquitous natural-as-a-parking-lot Astroturf, the comically overgrown hair--and struggles--the stagnating attendance, the first players' strike in modern history, and the three separate incidents of rioting fans storming a major-league field and causing a forfeit. (3)
THE 1980S AND THE POWER OF IMAGE
Such imagery stands in distinct contrast to that of the decade that immediately followed. To think of baseball in the 1980s is to be comforted by images far less threatening; the 1980s were an era of unprecedented prosperity and stability in the major leagues, populated by players dressed and coiffed far less flamboyantly, as old-fashioned white/gray flannel and conservative grooming once again became the norm. Major League Baseball in the 198os gained a sense of slick, corporate discipline, of carefully packaged, safe "goodness" such as it had never known before. This was fitting, given the American landscape in which baseball was operating. There was no more energy crisis and no more soaring interest rates.' With cheap fuel and easy credit, Americans restarted the bacchanalia of old-fashioned consumption.
The economic boom coincided with a resurgence of conservatism, not just political, but sartorial and behavioral: no more curly perms and pot parties, it was a time of power suits and Perrier. It was now "hip to be square," time to "dress for success." The national mood was ready, even eager, to put the messy, expressive experimentations of the past behind; this was a country that knew what it wanted, knew how to get it, and had no time for doubt.
Images reflect reality, but of course they don't define or contain it. Both within and beyond baseball in the 1970s and 1980s, reality was less tidy, less easily captured, than a simplistic image would have us believe. Yet images are profound: try as we may, we can't escape them, and they influence our understanding and our action in ways far beyond our conscious control. There's abundantly good reason for those in power to attempt to shape not just their own personal image, but the image of all within their domain.
It's no accident that the images we hold of the United States and of Major League Baseball in the 198os are so much cleaner, more positive, and more straight-arrow than those of the 19705. …