July 11, 2019

Jim Bouton (1939-2019) And The Lasting Impact Of "Ball Four"

Jim Bouton, a former major league pitcher and a proudly liberal thinker in a sport dominated by ignorant conservatives, died on Wednesday at the age of 80.

In 1970, Bouton published Ball Four, an iconoclastic diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros that Bruce Weber of the New York Times praised as "raunchy, shrewd, [and] irreverent". Alex Johnson of NBC News wrote that Bouton had "destroyed the myth of baseball as a wholesome pursuit of God-fearing, milk-drinking young men".

Ball Four was called "detrimental to baseball" by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (who tried to get Bouton to sign a statement saying the book was completely fictional), New York sports columnist Dick Young infamously trashed Bouton and Shecter as "social lepers", and Pete Rose of the Reds made his opinion known by shouting from the opposing dugout: "Fuck you, Shakespeare".

In the subsequent fifty years, the players who have written inside-the-clubhouse books could fill several big league rosters — I can easily remember enjoying The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle as a fifteen-year-old back in 1979 — but none of them touched off the firestorm of controversy that Bouton did. The baseball world changed forever after Ball Four — and it would never go back.

Mark Armour, in a biography of Bouton for SABR's BioProject, wrote:
There was a growing divide in the New York press at this time [the early-to-mid-1960s], between the old-school writers who believed their job was to present the players as heroes, and the new wave of journalists who were looking for a story, or some deeper understanding of what the players were thinking on and off the field. The Yankees players and management were used to being treated as royalty by the likes of Jimmy Cannon, and resented the young writers, whom Cannon derisively referred to as "chipmunks." When Bouton joined the team [in 1962] he was warned to stay away from the press, but he soon found that he had a lot in common with the newer writers ... For their part, the writers discovered that Bouton liked to paint, and to make jewelry, and to talk about more than just the day's game. When asked his opinions about the Vietnam War, or about civil rights, Bouton would answer directly and honestly. Bouton was good copy, though becoming less popular with his teammates and management.
Even as a young player, he had a pugnacious wit and a willingness to speak his liberal mind, most notably to reporters, whom other Yankees made a habit of disdaining, and on subjects like the war in Vietnam, student protests on campus and civil rights, that raised hackles of teammates and Yankees executives.
During his time with the Yankees, Bouton battled with management over his contract every spring. He began telling the press what he was asking for and what the Yankees were offering. Yankees GM Ralph Houk wanted to know why. "If I don't tell them, Ralph, maybe they'll think I'm asking for ridiculous figures. I just want to let them know I'm being reasonable." When the writers learned that Bouton had been forced to accept only $18,500 for the 1964 season, most of them sided with the pitcher, which (obviously) infuriated the Yankees' front office.

By 1969, Bouton was trying to revive his career, at age 30, by throwing a knuckleball for the expansion Seattle Pilots. Armour notes:
Making Bouton's job a bit tougher was his continued willingness to speak up when he felt there was a worthy cause at stake. In early 1968 he signed a statement supporting an American boycott of the coming Mexico City Olympic Games if South Africa's whites-only teams were allowed to participate in international competitions. The country had been barred by the Olympics beginning in 1964, but still took part in other events around the world. Bouton went to Mexico City to try to meet with representatives of the US Olympic Committee about the issue, but was rebuffed. He wrote about the cause and his ordeal in an article for Sport the next winter ["A Mission in Mexico City", Sport, August 1969].
During the 1969 season, Bouton took notes (sometimes during games) and spoke into a tape recorder almost every day. He and writer Leonard Shecter worked in the off-season turning the notes and transcripts into a book. Excerpts were published in Look magazine.

In Bouton's telling, players routinely cheated on their wives on road trips, devised intricate plans to peek under women's skirts or spy on them through hotel windows, spoke in casual vulgarities, drank to excess and swallowed amphetamines as if they were M&Ms. [Bouton later observed: "Amphetamines improved my performance about five percent. Unfortunately, in my case that wasn't enough."]

Mickey Mantle played hung over and was cruel to children seeking his autograph, he wrote. Carl Yastrzemski was a loafer. Whitey Ford illicitly scuffed or muddied the baseball and his catcher, Elston Howard, helped him do it. Most coaches were knotheads who dispensed the obvious as wisdom when they weren't contradicting themselves, and general managers were astonishingly penurious and dishonest in dealing with players over their contracts. ...

Over all, Bouton portrayed the game — its players, coaches, executives and most of the writers who covered them — as a world of amusing, foible-ridden, puerile conformity. ...

The commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, called Bouton in for a reprimand; some players shunned him for spilling the beans to players' wives about what players did on road trips. ... A few players, including Elston Howard, claimed Bouton was a liar. And many of an older sportswriting generation felt Bouton had done irreparable damage to the game out of his own self-importance and desperation.
In addition to calling Bouton a "social leper", Dick Young, the reactionary writer for the New York Daily News, added: "People like this, embittered people, sit down in their time of deepest rejection and write. They write, oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and it makes them feel much better."

Others writers, particularly those who possessed a measure of intelligence, held a different view. Roger Angell (The New Yorker) called Ball Four "a rare view of a highly complex public profession seen from the innermost inside, along with an even more rewarding inside view of an ironic and courageous mind. And, very likely, the funniest book of the year."

Robert Lipsyte (New York Times) noted that reading the entire book provides the necessary context for the more revelatory passages, which appear as "a natural outgrowth of a game in which 25 young, insecure, undereducated men of narrow skills keep circling the country to play before fans who do not understand their problems or their work, and who use them as symbols for their own fantasies."

When the New York Public Library celebrated its centennial in 1995, Ball Four was the only sports book among the 159 titles in the "Books of the Century" exhibit. In 2002, Sports Illustrated named it #3 on its list of the top 100 sports books of all time.

Filmmaker Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham") was a minor league infielder when Ball Four was published. In 2010, he said:
It shines light on sports from a different angle. Baseball is about the guys that play it and it's about all the things that happen in between the big plays. It's a working-class game. It's approached with great romance and poetry and lyricism by outsiders and writers. And if you play the game, there's no myth or poetry. You're just trying to improve your statistics. You're trying to meet a woman in a bar. Those are the things that drive you. And I think Ball Four got at that somehow.
In 2000, ESPN published a series of articles marking the 30th anniversary of Ball Four. Rob Neyer spoke to Jeff Neuman, who worked as an editor for Macmillan Publishing and Simon and Schuster:
Ball Four is, if not the most famous baseball book, certainly the most important, and in good ways and bad. It changed the expectations of what not only sports books, but sports journalism could be. It created a very different appetite among the fans for inside stories, and especially for inside dirt. It was the first book to pierce the veil of the locker room -- and once Bouton started telling these stories, how could the press ignore them any longer? This, in turn, radically changed the atmosphere in locker rooms. ... Before the book, there was an understanding between players and writers about what you could write and what you couldn't. Those old rules are gone, and players today, to a much greater extent, feel surrounded by hostile forces.
Jim Caple wrote:
Back when he lived in a different house, Pirates assistant general manager Roy Smith kept his copy of Ball Four in a prominent place where he could always turn to its pages when he needed to look up a bit of wisdom from Joe Schultz or Fred Talbot.

"I kept it in the bathroom," Smith said. "That and 'The Godfather.' That pretty much covered it all. What else do you need? Well, I guess I could have had The Bible."

Perhaps. But does the Old Testament tell you how to play for a manager whose advice for most any situation was generally limited to "go pound some Budweiser"?

Smith estimates he's read Ball Four in its entirety five times, which is about average. I know several people (myself included) who read all or part of it every February as a spring training ritual. Just as pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona, fans report to the pages of Ball Four, the best book ever written about baseball.
The diverse reaction to the book was part of the social and political divide the country was going through. Bouton, a "communist" to some of his critics, unabashedly supported the war protesters, and held decidedly liberal views on civil rights, religion, the rights of women, the new player's union, poverty, and the other divisive issues of the time. ... George Frazier, a Boston Globe columnist who later showed up on Richard Nixon's enemies list, called Ball Four "a revolutionary manifesto. ... What is happening among baseball players, their doubting the divinity of demagogues ... is what is happening among housewives and their husbands who have had their fill of the shoddy wares and planned obsolescence foisted on them by American industry." ...

The most considered of Ball Four's negative reviews was written for Esquire by Roger Kahn [who] admired Shecter and Bouton, but is particularly critical of their depiction of life on the road, especially when Bouton and Shecter name names. ...

Bouton defended himself against this type of criticism, responding that he portrays himself as a part of the off-field stories, the drinking, the beaver shooting, and all the missed curfews. This is true, but Kahn correctly counters that Bouton did not show himself cheating on his wife, an act which carried, and still carries, an additional level of opprobrium from friends and family. ... (Kahn's view on issues of decorum evolved over the years. In his 1987 book Joe and Marilyn, for one example, he claims to reveal details of their private body parts, and discusses the quality of their love-making.)
In a separate article on Ball Four, Armour wrote:
When Bouton joined the Yankees in 1962, he was warned by his teammates about associating with reporters, especially Shecter, or "that f**king Shecter." Bouton rarely did what he was told, so he not only talked with the reporters, he became friends with many of them, including Shecter. ...

[Excerpts of Ball Four, in the June 2, 1970 issue of Look,] included details of Bouton's contract negotiations with the Yankees, a depiction of many players as ingenious peeping toms, salacious dialog that included sexual humor about players' wives, the widespread use of amphetamines in the game, and playful kissing between inebriated Seattle Pilots on the team plane. Most of the passages were benignly funny, and included Bouton's poignant insecurities about his place on his teams (on and off the field).

Although Bouton spent the majority of the book dealing with his day-to-day 1969 life with the Pilots and Astros, his comments on his years with the Yankees predictably generated the most controversy. ...

Bouton's first appearance in New York was on May 31 against the Mets, when he allowed three hits and three runs in one-third of an inning. He was booed from the time he began walking in from the bullpen until he retreated into the dugout after his appearance. He later wrote that it was his lowest moment ever on a baseball field. [1970 was also Bouton's final season in the majors, save for five starts in September 1978.] ...

The book struck a chord with so many people, perhaps, because while readers could not relate to throwing a 90-mile-per-hour fastball or hitting a slider, they understood too well the frustrations of daily life, spending time in close quarters with people with whom you had nothing in common, and dealing with arbitrary and petty regulations set down by unimaginative bosses. ...

His fellow players still did not like it. Joe Morgan, his teammate on the Astros, said, "I always thought he was a teammate, not an author. I told him some things I would never tell a sportswriter." By the time the book came out, the Seattle Pilots were extinct, having relocated to Milwaukee as the Brewers. Many of his ex-Pilot teammates, including Fred Talbot, Wayne Comer, and Don Mincher deeply resented the book and Bouton. ...

Jimmy Cannon, predictably, was not amused. Cannon blamed Shecter, though he never mentioned the collaborator by name in his scathing July 28 column. "The book is ugly with the small atrocities of the chipmunk's cruelty. In a way, Bouton is a chipmunk, a man who obviously cherishes himself as a social philosopher. The influence of the ghost is obvious … The literary critics take him seriously. It is as though he were assaulted with a sudden inspiration and rushed to a typewriter and put it all down in a flurry of creation. But he went to the spook, and one has to speculate where Bouton stops, and the ghost begins. Whose hatreds are these, whose theories? Which ones ethics governed the partnership?" ...

Ball Four sold 200,000 copies in hardcover, and countless more in paperback. ... In 1971 Bouton and Shecter collaborated on a sequel, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, discussing the circus surrounding the publication of Ball Four. Bouton dedicated the new book to Dick Young and Bowie Kuhn.
In addition to Ball Four and I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, Bouton also wrote Strike Zone (a novel, with Eliot Asinof) and Foul Ball (about trying to save Wahconah Park, an old ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts), and I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (compiled with the help of Neil Offen, his research assistant).

The definitive edition of Ball Four was published in 2011 as Ball Four: The Final Pitch, which included epilogues from 1981 (Ball Five), 1990 (Ball Six), and 2000 (Ball Seven).


allan said...

Pitcher, Author, Everyman, Hero: Jim Bouton (1939-2019)
Jay Jaffe, FanGraphs, July 11, 2019

When excerpts of Ball Four first appeared in Look Magazine in the spring of 1970, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to recant his claims and state that the book was fiction. “It was the perfect form of censorship,” the pitcher-turned-author recalled in 2010, on the occasion of the book’s 40th anniversary. “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. Then the baseball Commissioner calls me in, and they have to print another 5,000 and then 50,000 and then 500,000 books…” Including 10th, 20th, and 30th anniversary editions with epilogues that created what MLB’s official historian John Thorn called “a candid, sometimes heartbreaking extended memoir without parallel in American literature,” Ball Four sold millions of copies worldwide. ...
[A]t a time when I was becoming acutely aware of the challenges of growing up Jewish in Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City, Utah, the book stoked my own self-awareness as an outsider, presenting a menu of options for nonconformity that were more nuanced than simple, outright rebellion. Ball Four sowed an inner monologue that shaped my powers of observation and, eventually, my writing. With apologies to Roger Angell and Bill James , it’s no exaggeration to say that no writer has ever had a greater impact on my life than Bouton.

johngoldfine said...

I read Ball Four in pb when it first came out--to put it in context, the 60s were only just arriving in Maine. Maine had jumped from 1959 to 1970 with only a passing glance at the decade in-between, so R. Crumb, Bouton, my first dogs, that VW Beetle, my new beard are all mixed together in memory.

And one particular thing I never forgot from Ball Four, a line I've used a million times since as advice to myself and fellow union bargainers and as advice to students was Johnny Sain's remark to Bouton about salary negotiations: 'Never be afraid to climb those golden stairs.'

laura k said...

Thanks for this great post.

I didn't know about this in real time. I'm pretty sure YOU turned me on to Ball Four, if not the book then its significance.

Also may I add a personal note here: transparency in bargaining! Ka-ching!

laura k said...

Great quotes Angell and Lipsyte.

johngoldfine said...

"Also may I add a personal note here: transparency in bargaining! Ka-ching!"

I've been involved with both traditional bargaining and win/win bargaining. Win/win certainly demands transparency.

My beef with some of my fellow negotiators in either type of bargaining was that they were forever bargaining against themselves, in caucus taking management's viewpoint (as they imagined it), and caving in advance. "No no, we can't ask for six percent a year and better insurance--that's completely unreasonable and they will say we're bargaining in bad faith! Let's ask for 1.5 % spread out over the whole three year contract, half a percent a year."

That's when Johnny Sain's advice always popped into my head. Did my fellow teachers think management would be grateful to us for our very modest demands and perhaps offer a pourboire in gratitude? Ask for what you want, dammit, and ask for what you're worth, and stop knuckling your forehead and eating 'umble pie.

johngoldfine said...

I used to tell my students how Roger Angell described getting his first driver's license in Maine back in the 30's. He wrote a letter to Augusta saying he was 16, knew how to drive, and enclosing the $5 fee--and got his license back in the mail a few days later.

All the stupid shit teachers tell students that they wind up believing--but no one ever believed that story.