* Jim Bouton: Still crazy after all these years?

Ron KaplanContributor IAugust 20, 2009

Some 40 years ago, Jim Bouton published what many consider to be the most important baseball book of all time. This Sunday, the MLB Network’s Studio 42 will host a conversation with Bouton  at 8 p.m. Bob Costas will be doing the honors as Bouton discusses his MLB career as well as his relationship with Mickey Mantle, his reason for writing the controversial memoir Ball Four, the reception the book received and what led to his return to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day in 1998.

From the MLB Network release:


I really wanted to share the fun in baseball. That was my purpose for writing it. It wasn’t really a tell-all book. I didn’t have racial comments, all the sexy stories are anonymous. It really was a great environment to be part of, a Major League Baseball team. I got lucky, I was with the right bunch of guys and I kept good notes.


It was a time in our history where people were questioning things, questioning authority, doing things in different ways. You had the Vietnam War, you had men landing on the moon that year, and it [the Seattle Pilots] was a wonderful team. It was an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots. These guys were getting to know each other because they haven’t played with each other. They were always telling stories about their careers and I was sitting there with my notepad.


I don’t think it makes Mickey Mantle look bad at all. He hit a home run with a hangover. It was more a story about what a great ball player he was than about what an awful thing it was.


I got into the clubhouse and the players were great. It was a really good feeling. I spent so much time in the clubhouse that I got onto the field late. I didn’t get a chance to run around the field and get that feeling. But it was some day.

I wrote a “perspective” on “The Legacy  of Ball Four and Other Sporting Tomes” for Bookreporter.com in 2001. Much of it still holds water. Of course, with the passage of time, Ball Four — which caused such a scandal back in the day — seems mild in comparison with some of today’s tell-alls. Enjoy.

The Legacy of Ball Four and Other Sporting Tomes

When Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life hit the stands, many readers were surprised and even angered with the way the Yankee Clipper was portrayed. Joe D. was a great hero for a generation of Americans (and not merely baseball fans). The revelations that he was, among other things, a wife beater, an indifferent father, a poor friend and a miser, did not sit well. How did it happen, readers moaned, that the veneer should be stripped off our heroes so casually?

Well, maybe we don’t want to see all the blemishes.

Decades ago, athletes were idolized on a level reserved for astronauts, explorers and presidents. Their stories were told with a mixture of awe and reverence. Often they were accounts of overcoming adversity, such as extreme poverty or serious illness. These were upbeat biographies, the type to enthrall youngsters to aspire to persevere against the odds.

Nowadays a player has one good season and rakes it in. His adversity stems from too much partying, alcohol, drugs, environment, etc. And then he writes his book.

With today’s technologies bombarding us with stimuli, it seems the passive days of “nice” stories are over. We want information, we want it fast — and the dirtier, the more graphic, the more outrageous, the better. How else to explain the inclusion of Wilt Chamberlain’s claims of erotic conquests in his autobiography or Bob Welch’s tales of alcoholism in Five O’Clock Comes Early, not to mention Dennis Rodman’s Bad as I Wanna Be?

And to whom do we have to thank for this genre? None other than Jim Bouton, whose groundbreaking oeuvre has recently been re-released, with updated material, as Ball Four: The Final Pitch. It is fascinating to reread it after all this time; the author’s additions put this controversial book in greater “historical” context.

Can it really be 30 years since Ball Four first came out? I remember first reading it at camp as a gangly adolescent, still naive enough to believe that I would never take money for the privilege of playing baseball. Yet the salacious stories that struck fear into the hearts of the baseball administration didn’t shock or phase me.

These days, Ball Four seems mild in comparison, what with the slew of foul-language “tell-all” books dealing with the drinking, the drugs, the womanizing and other antisocial behavior by a new generation of young men who have been pampered since their Little League days and handed bagfuls of money without accepting the responsibility that goes with being a public figure.

For those unfamiliar with this classic, Ball Four is the story of a year in the life of Bouton, a promising pitcher who came up with the Yankees in the early 1960s. He won 39 games in two seasons, plus two more in the World Series, only to succumb to injury and hard times and wind up a member of the expansion Seattle Pilots in their only year of existence. Washed up at 30, everyone said, although Bouton’s brain and heart wouldn’t agree with his arm. So he chronicled that 1969 season of struggles, both personally and for the team, which is full of enough colorful characters to cast an old World War Two movie.

Bouton was not the first to come along with the idea of an “adult” baseball autobiography (i.e., not a total sugarcoated tale). Jim Brosnan, a pitcher with several teams in the late ’50s and early ’60s, penned two books, The Long Season and Pennant Chase, but they were kid stuff compared to what “Bulldog” Bouton revealed.

Ball Four was more than a humorous examination of life in the big leagues. Bouton was no dumb jock. Though he tried to be one of the boys, he was under constant suspicion as a “free-thinker,” one step away from Communist leanings according to conservative sports minds. Yes, he worried about trying to master the knuckleball, but he also concerned himself with the real world: the Vietnam War, race relations and politics, among other things.

The vagaries of an athlete’s life, with the constant threat of career-ending injuries, the interminable moves from team to team at the whims of management, the toll it takes on domestic life, the difficulty in making lasting friendships — the average fan might forget these issues in the blinding light of astronomical salaries and glamour. For bringing these realities to light, Bouton was branded a pariah by the baseball establishment, as well as by a fair number of players who felt he’d betrayed the brotherhood. For years he was persona non grata and left off the invitation list for Yankee old-timers’ games.

Today’s players differ from their predecessors in many ways. There’s no question that the paychecks are a huge part of it. But for every major leaguer who gets that million dollar contract, there are still those who stay in the game because a hunger just won’t let them quit. The most memorable line of BALL FOUR, perhaps in all baseball literature, applies not just to players, but to anyone who has ever been a true fan:

“…You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”