Jim Bouton first made his mark as a star right-hander for the Yankees at the tail end of their 45-year dynasty, winning 39 games in the 1963-64 regular seasons (plus two more in a pair of World Series), and making one All-Star team (’63). Yet his second act — after he injured his arm, lost his fastball, and hung on to his career literally by his fingernails, trying to tame the knuckleball with the expansion Seattle Pilots — was far more interesting and impactful. Bouton began keeping notes chronicling his travails, which, with the help of editor (and fellow iconoclast) Leonard Shecter, became Ball Four. His candid, irreverent, and poignant “tell-some” account of his 1969 season with the Pilots, Triple-A Vancouver Mounties, and Houston Astros not only became a best seller, it revolutionized the coverage of athletes, and keyed a proliferation of inside-baseball books that went far beyond the diamond. Recognized in 1996 as the only sports book among the 159 titles selected for the New York Public Library Books of the Century, Ball Four brought Bouton enough fame and notoriety to last a lifetime. That lifetime ended on Wednesday, when Bouton, who was 80 years old and suffering from vascular dementia, passed away at his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
With its candid glimpse into the lives of major league ballplayers — hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, amphetamine-popping athletes using four-letter words — as they attempted to cope with the pressures and the boredom of the game, Ball Four was raunchy and controversial. Set against a backdrop of social upheaval, the outsider Bouton often found himself at odds with his teammates regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, politics, and the burgeoning union movement within the game, which would eventually challenge the Reserve Clause, leading to higher salaries and the right to free agency.
Amazingly, such an explosive exposé did not win Bouton many friends within baseball. Fellow players accused him of violating the sacred trust of the locker room. His ex-Yankees teammates were said to take it very hard, particularly Mickey Mantle, whose debauchery had previously been hidden from fans by writers who had sanitized heroes for public consumption. Bouton, whose major league career ended shortly after the book was published in 1970 (though he made a brief comeback with the Braves in 1978), was effectively blacklisted by the Yankees until 1998, after the tragic death of his daughter Laurie in an automobile accident prompted his son Michael to write an open letter to the New York Times, asking the team to help Bouton heal old wounds by inviting him to Old-Timers’ Day. They did, and Bouton was greeted with a warm ovation. His cap flew off on his first pitch, a signature from his playing days.
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. Read the rest of this entry »