By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Back around the summer of 1970, America’s baseball-loving teenagers noticed there was a great deal of commotion caused by the release of a new book on the sport. It only seemed naturally, then, to ask their parents for the money to buy a copy. The parents, who hadn’t really noticed what was going on in this area, figured it was good to see their youngster taking an interest in a book for a change, so they bought the book.
The book, as you may have guessed, was “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. And it started a revolution of sorts.
I was one of those teens, of course, but many, many others of that generation have the exact same story to tell. Based on my Twitter feed, every sportswriter of that generation loved the book and wanted to tip his baseball cap to Bouton upon hearing of his death on Wednesday.
Before “Ball Four,” sports books often were rather boring. Mostly they were designed to tell sanitized life stories about athletes that were designed to present a perfect image to the public. A couple of books in the Sixties – “The Long Season” by Jim Brosnan and “Instant Replay” by Jerry Kramer – broke the mold by offering first-person diaries of particular seasons.
Bouton took it a step – maybe several steps – past that. He took all sorts of notes as he experienced the 1969 baseball season, and he and co-author Leonard Shecter turned it into “Ball Four.” Shecter had known and liked Bouton for a few years, and thought he’d be the right man to write an honest account of his experiences.
This was an unfiltered look at what the life of a baseball player was. It turned out that the grown-ups that the kids had hero-worshipped weren’t too much different than those teenagers. In some cases, they drank too much, chased girls too often, used colorful language, and tried drugs. In some ways, there were like the rest of us.
Outside looking in
“Ball Four” was also funny. Laugh out loud, read aloud to the guy next to you funny,. It turned out that Bouton was well equipped for the job of pulling back the curtain. Not only was he smart (the man read books, which by baseball standards of the time made him an intellectual) and a good observer of life’s oddities, but he was an outsider and an iconoclast. He loved the game, but didn’t mind pointing out the issues surrounding it. Bouton had been a star with the Yankees in the early 1960s, but his arm went bad and he eventually tried to ride a knuckleball to a comeback. Bouton spent 1969 with the Seattle Pilots, a first-year expansion team, and the Houston Astros, a contender for the National League pennant.
Bouton was a different sort of personality in that era, and you can bet that some of the “baseball lifers” like Seattle manager Joe Schultz and pitching coach Sal Maglie didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with him. Don Zimmer and Bill Lee were the same way in Boston in the 1970s.
Once the book was published, the response came quickly. Baseball’s leadership had been stumbling through the Sixties, allowing football to pass it as America’s favorite sport. Its leaders acted predictably here, criticizing Bouton for revealing some of the game’s secrets. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn even called Bouton into his office for a well-publicized, stern lecture, causing thousands to say, “What’s in that book that has baseball so worried? I’d better go buy a copy.” In other words, sales went through the roof. The Lords of the Game would have been better off ignoring it, but that was typical of the leadership of that era.
Bouton’s baseball career soon came to an end from there, but he went on with a variety of other projects – including more books. They were entertaining, but they weren’t “Ball Four.” Well, Led Zeppelin didn’t top “Stairway to Heaven” either. Author John Feinstein called him in a Tweet a perfect interview subject – “Bright, self-deprecating, thoughtful and kind.” Bouton lived out his days outside Pittsfield, Mass., tilting at windmills when the situation called for it.
One baseball expert once described the many ways that “Ball Four” not only broke ground, but served as a textbook for study of a variety of different aspects of the game. How did players handle the constant losing that comes with playing for a first-year team? What’s it like to pitch the knuckleball, the effectiveness of which comes and goes like the wind? What do the players do during and after games? What sort of games took place in salary negotiations in those days? In short, what’s it really like to be a baseball player?
What’s more, people apparently liked their athletes to have a few warts. There were plenty of reasons why fans returned to the parks in the 1970s, but “Ball Four” probably sold some tickets as well.
A change for the better
We never looked at sports the same way after Jim Bouton came along, and that was a big step forward. A lot of those young readers in 1970 became sports writers in their later days, and so “Ball Four” influences journalism to this day.
The book has been put on lists of the best books – of any kind – of the 20th century. It will be read for years to go. And Bouton may have given us the best quote ever about the game of baseball and its effect on its participants and spectators.
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time,” he wrote.
Bouton will be missed, but not forgotten.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)