Bouton's seminal 'Ball Four' turns 40
Legendary diary made history, changing face of sports books
In 1969, Jim Bouton, at one time a star pitcher for the Yankees, had lost his fastball and was relying on throwing a knuckleball to preserve his career in the Major Leagues. He had been acquired by the Seattle Pilots, an expansion team that was playing in an older stadium with an uncertain future.
What followed was a mostly nondescript season, though only four other Major League pitchers appeared in more games than Bouton did that year. But it was a season that made him famous beyond his World Series years with the Yankees, and forever changed the landscape of sports journalism.
Teaming with sportswriter Leonard Shecter, a friend from his days in New York, Bouton kept a daily journal of his observations of that season. It became his bestselling book, "Ball Four." This is the 40th anniversary of its publication.Bouton opened a new door to the inside world of professional sports. It was a book the likes of which had never been seen before. That world included the off-the-field behavior of ballplayers, which included off-color and obscene jokes, sexual escapades, the use of amphetamines, and much more.
"As much as he was reviled by the players and baseball for breaking that old code of 'What you say here, what you see, let it stay here when you leave here,' Jim Bouton really started a whole new genre of sports biographies," said Dan Epstein, author of the book "Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s."
"You wouldn't have had something like 'The Bronx Zoo,' by Sparky Lyle, or Bill Lee's 'The Wrong Stuff' or his former teammate Joe Pepitone and his book, 'Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud,' which is one of my all-time favorite books of that era," said Epstein. "Bouton really did open the door for these books and so many more that have come out since then."Bouton did not see himself as a trailblazer at the time of the book's release. "My only thought at the time was, 'Am I going to be able to stay with the Houston Astros after this book comes out?'" said Bouton, who was traded to the Astros in August of that season. "My first concern was what was it going to do with my baseball career. The idea that it would lead to another career, another life, didn't cross my mind at the time." Timing was the key to why the book took off, Bouton said. "What happened was that the most controversial excerpts from the book appeared in Look magazine in March of that year," he said. "I think the book's publisher was late in getting the book printed and into people's hands until like June. So what you had were the sportswriters and ballplayers commenting on the most controversial things in the book, like Mickey Mantle hitting a home run with a hangover and stuff like that.
"So they had all of the spring and the first part of the summer to say what a terrible thing I did and that I should have never written this book. So, when the book finally came out and people read the whole thing and the controversy in the context of the humanity of these players, these wonderful characters -- it didn't seem controversial at all. It just seemed like part of the overall tapestry."Bouton said the fan mail he got praising the book was great, but it was former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn who helped make "Ball Four" a bestseller.
Kuhn summoned Bouton to his office for a meeting, during which, according to Bouton, the Commissioner tried to get him to renounce the contents of the book."I guess if you're writing a book, you want to be banned in Boston or called in by the Commissioner. Of course the fans are going to want to read the book the Commissioner doesn't want you to read," Bouton said. "It was the perfect form of censorship. The publisher had only printed 5,000 copies on the grounds that nobody would want to read a book about the Seattle Pilots written by a washed-up knuckleball pitcher.
|"Mickey being OK with 'Ball Four' was a big thing for me. I really felt good about that."|
|-- Jim Bouton|
Those were the Yankees of Mantle, Maris, Ford, Berra and Howard, and it was his recounting of his time with them that created the biggest stir. Mostly it had to do with what he wrote about Mantle. Stories about Mantle's drinking habits were not publicly known at the time, and some believed Bouton had unnecessarily tarnished an American icon.
"When the book came out, there was reaction from the ballplayers, and it wasn't the greatest reaction in the world," said Tommy Davis, Bouton's teammate in both Seattle and Houston in 1969."Jim is liked and disliked, but I always liked him, and we've been friends all these years. I have nothing bad to say about him, because he always treated me like a gentleman. Jim was writing stuff that most ballplayers don't want to see in print, and I was looking in the paper every day back in '70 to see if he got hit in the head with a baseball or something." Bouton didn't make it through the 1970 season, released by Houston in August. He did, however, last longer than the Pilots, who went bankrupt after one season and became the Milwaukee Brewers. And Bouton made a successful return to the Major Leagues -- after several failed tries -- in 1978, winning one of five September starts for the Braves at age 39.
"I never read it, [and] Jim Bouton did reference me in a not-too-positive way, but it certainly was the first book that let the fans in on certain things that went on in the clubhouse," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "Jim Bouton stood behind it and never ran off and hid."Bouton was ostracized by many in baseball. He wasn't invited to Old-Timers' Days at Yankee Stadium. He was even barred from entering the Yankees' Spring Training facility while working as a television reporter. "I walked up to the gate, and Elston Howard and some of the other coaches wouldn't let me in," Bouton said. "I ended up interviewing my old roommate Fritz Peterson through a chain-link fence." Bouton went on to wrote and act in a short-lived TV series for CBS based on "Ball Four." He wrote four other books. He said he knew whatever ill will existed was thawing after he sent a condolence message in 1994 to Mantle, whose son Billy had died. "I never expected to hear back from Mickey," said Bouton. "Two weeks later I come to my office and my secretary is standing by my answering machine and says, 'You are going to have to play this one yourself.' I pressed the button, and it was Mickey in his Oklahoma twang, 'Hi, Jim, this is Mick. Thanks for your note about Billy, I appreciate it. I just want you to know I'm OK about 'Ball Four,' and it never did bother me that much. ... One more thing, I'm not the reason you don't get invited back to Old-Timers' Day. I heard that going around, it's not true.'
"Well, I kept that tape. Mickey being OK with 'Ball Four' was a big thing for me. I really felt good about that."Mantle died in 1995. Two years later, Bouton's daughter Laurie died in 1997 as the result of a automobile accident. Michael, one of his two sons, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times for Father's Day 1998 asking George Steinbrenner to let his dad take part in Old-Timers' Day. Steinbrenner said yes, and not long after, Bouton was back on the mound at Yankee Stadium for the first time in nearly 30 years. "It was great to be received by the fans," said Bouton. "The players were nice to me, too. They came over and patted me on the back. When they announced my name and I ran out to the foul line, it was a really emotional moment for me. I looked up to the right-field bleachers, where we had left a whole bunch of tickets for Laurie's friends, and they held up a huge banner that you could read from the first-base line that read 'We Love Laurie,' and I just lost it at that point. It was just one of those days." "Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues" was named one of the New York Public Library's Books of the Century in 1998. There were 100 books on the list. It was the only one about sports.
Forty years later, Bouton looks back with pride at what he accomplished with a tape recorder, a notepad in his warmup jacket and a typewriter all those years ago."I think that people's responses to 'Ball Four' really depended on how old they are," said Bouton. "I think for older fans, it reminds them of a simpler time, when money was not a part of them being fans -- they didn't root for players based on how much money they made or dislike them because of how much money they made. People who read it today say, 'Man, that must have been really cool back then.' It was a simpler time, and the players on the Seattle Pilots were so likable and have such humanity, it still resonates today."
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.