For the most part, Gruver, an award-winning author and sportswriter, delivers a solid narrative. The season began with the first strike in major-league history and ended with a taut seven-game World Series between the conservative, tradition-minded Big Red Machine and the flamboyant, hip and brawling Oakland Athletics. Oakland won three of the first four World Series games, then the Reds battled back to force a seventh game in Cincinnati.
“Rarely has a World Series featured such a startling contrast in championship clubs,” Gruver writes.
Gruver uses some nice imagery — Bobby Tolan’s batting technique is described as a “Lady Liberty stance,” for example — and some snappy word play, noting that the Reds were in for “a Rudi awakening” after A’s left fielder Joe Rudi made a spectacular catch in Game 2.
Another technique Gruver uses very effectively is quoting the actual broadcasts of key games during the 1972 season. It gives the reader a more intimate, “you are there” feeling, and in my case, made me go back to the actual broadcast and listen to the call. Gruver gives broadcaster Curt Gowdy his due, reminding old-time baseball television and radio veterans why “the Cowboy” was so good at his craft. Gowdy seemed to be broadcasting everything during the 1970s and at times came under fire for his understated approach. But a look back now shows how effective Gowdy truly was, and Gruver brings that point home in “Hairs Vs. Squares.”
The research for the 1972 season is generally on the money in Gruver’s work. It’s when Gruver strays from the ’72 season that he runs into trouble with some factual gaffes.
In the middle of a nice profile about 1972 American League MVP Dick Allen, Gruver notes that the slugger had been the first black to put on a Phillies uniform when he broke in with the club in 1963. However, shortstop John Kennedy actually had that distinction, debuting against the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 22, 1957.
In summarizing the first three National League Championship Series, Gruver writes that the Mets and Pirates had sandwiched four-game wins around a Cincinnati sweep. However, the Mets took three straight from Atlanta in 1969.
Gruver notes that when Harmon Killebrew retired in 1975, “The Killer” had hit more home runs than any right-handed hitter. Willie Mays retired two years earlier with 660; perhaps Gruver meant American League right-handed hitters.
At one point, Gruver refers to George Weiss, the Yankees’ general manager during the 1950s as the team’s owner, and notes that Billy Martin’s final hit in the 1953 World Series gave the Yankees their second straight championship, when it fact it was their fifth in a row.
Gruver writes that former Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson was said to be living in “semi-hiding.” Peterson is a very visible presence on Facebook these days, posting stories and anecdotes on a daily basis, so I’d question that.
And finally, Gruver writes that “many of the game’s hallowed moments have come in October,” but includes Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch in the Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. A monumental play, but it occurred on September 29, 1954. Yeah, I am being picky and probably piling on by now, but there’s no arguing the date in this case.
Despite these fact errors — and you have to be a baseball history geek (which I am) to find them — this book is very, very good. Gruver sketches some nice profiles of players who were key figures during the 1972 season — and not just those who figured into the pennant races. Stories about Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Rod Carew and others give the reader a more rounded portrait of the season.
While the narrative drags in a few places, Gruver saves his best work for the postseason. He brings rich detail to both league championship series and the World Series, bringing the readers into the locker rooms, on the field, and even in the planes transporting the teams cross country.
It is easy to dismiss the A’s as merely “the Mustache Gang,” but they were a fundamentally sound team that won — sometimes in spite of themselves. There certainly was some animosity between the A’s and Reds during the World Series, and Gruver documents it well. But Oakland had plenty of dissent to go around — first baseman Mike Epstein vs. manager Dick Williams, Vida Blue against fellow pitcher Blue Moon Odom — and these dustups took place after Oakland had won key World Series games. And of course, the entire team was aligned against maverick owner Charlie O. Finley.
Gruver, recapping Game 5 of the 1972 NLCS, writes that Johnny Bench believed that “while growing old was mandatory, growing up was optional.” The Reds went to four World Series during the 1970s, winning twice. The Athletics won three straight from 1972 to 1974. Both teams achieved their success with a childlike enthusiasm and combined for a memorable World Series in 1972.
Despite its warts, “Hairs Vs. Squares” captures that vitality through Gruver’s narrative.