Ball Four’s Big Bang: A Conversation with Jim Bouton and Dr. Paula Kurman

In January 2017, a publicist from SCP Auctions contacted me with an invitation to interview Jim Bouton, the pitcher-turned-author whose candid, irreverent, and poignant “tell-some” account of his 1969 season, Ball Four, became not just a best seller but a game-changer in the coverage of athletes, and a cultural touchstone that resonated far beyond the diamond. I jumped at the chance; not only had I first read a dog-eared copy of Ball Four at age nine, I had returned to the book countless times over the years, connecting to its outsider point-of-view and drawing the inspiration to write myself while crossing paths with Bouton a few times from 2000-08. Our conversations had always been a delight.

SCP was auctioning the Ball Four original manuscript and ancillary materials, “every note Bouton scribbled, every tape he recorded, the full manuscript and all the heated correspondence from Major League Baseball, which ordered him to deny it,” wrote the New York Times’ Typer Kepner. Also included was the edited manuscript “detailing the publisher’s attempt to gut the book of every tough, revealing, or sexual passage,” a letter from the publisher’s lawyer “identifying 42 instances of potential libel, and Bouton’s final edits that addressed only 4 of them,” correspondence related to Bouton’s always-contentious contract negotiations from his playing days, and “exquisitely maintained scrapbooks” kept by Bouton’s mother, detailing every stage of his career, including his 1978 comeback. The Ball Four lot, whose auction was scheduled to end on January 21, was expected to fetch “somewhere in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range” and already had attracted multiple bidders, according to the managing director of SCP Auctions.

The stars did not quite align. Initial hopes of conducting our interview face-to-face at MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, in connection with separately scheduled appearances on MLB Now, were dashed when the 77-year-old Bouton decided to pass on a trip from his home in the Berkshires to the studio. Instead, we did the interview by phone on Friday, January 13, eight days before the auction closed. What I did not know until calling was that Bouton was ailing. As his second wife, Dr. Paula Kurman, explained before our interview, he had not fully recovered from a 2012 stroke and had difficulty speaking (as well as reading and writing). Hence, she would assist with the interview.

(Nearly six months later, in conjunction with Bouton’s appearance at a SABR convention panel in Manhattan, Kurman revealed that her husband was suffering from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a form of vascular dementia.)

I did my best to cope with this unexpected curveball, and after reminding Bouton of our past connections, we spoke for over 45 minutes. He was in good spirits, and quite lucid when recalling events from nearly a half-century ago, but he struggled to parse my multi-part questions. Kurman helped to coach both of us, while sharing some of the workload and offering valuable insights informed not only by her 35-year marriage to Bouton but also her doctorate in behavioral science.

While the interview itself worked out, the timing did not. I was swept up in the news cycle of the Hall of Fame election results (including my interview with Tim Raines one day after Bouton), and my editors, both at Sports Illustrated (where I wrote daily) and at Thomas Dunne Books (where The Cooperstown Casebook was awaiting its final touches before going to press for July publication) felt that the Raines story deserved priority. Before I could fully transcribe the Bouton interview, the auction lot, despite receiving 22 bids, went unsold, its reserve price having gone unmet. My editor lost interest. Both of us have since left, and the interview — which was intended to form the basis of a feature article instead of standing alone — remained on the back burner.

On July 8, MLB official historian John Thorn and the Library of Congress jointly announced that the institution had acquired Bouton’s personal papers and related materials — the auction lot and more — an estimated 37,000 items, in 104 containers, with 73 gigabytes of digital files. Two days later, Bouton died at the age of 80. Upon hearing the sad news, I realized that not only could my unpublished interview augment my tribute to the man and his work, but that despite the challenging conditions under which it was conducted, it was worth publication given the circumstances. What follows are the highlights of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Jay Jaffe: For the record, how’s the arm?

Jim Bouton: (Laughs) Believe it or not, I continue to throw a ball two or three times a week, a rubber ball that’s the same size and weight as a regular baseball. I have a cinderblock wall at the other end of the property and it bounces back to me. I have a strike zone painted on the wall. Every once in awhile it goes over the top of the wall and I have to go find the damn thing (laughs) but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a familiar thing to me. I didn’t think about doing it, I just continued to do it, it just seemed like a natural thing, like breathing. 

JJ: When you’re doing it, do you think about, ‘I’ve got to put this one on the outside corner to this lefty’?

JB: Once in a while I think about locating [the pitch]!

Paula Kurman: We were very lucky the stroke did not affect anything physically. If you were look at Jim, he’s still extraordinarily handsome, very lean, and looks like he could pick up a ball and join any game. It’s just his speech and language center that was kind of blown out for awhile.

The stroke hit the language center of his brain. We were able to stop it very quickly with a shot at the hospital, but for several days he could neither read nor write nor speak or understand what was said to him. It was terrifying but over the days in the hospital, the doctors were saying, ‘Tell us how you throw a knuckleball.’ Little by little it came back, but there’s a residual problem in that he doesn’t have the verbal alacrity that he used to — except for some days.

JJ: You’re auctioning off the manuscript and the notes and a whole bunch of materials connected to the book. It struck me that this collection goes back to the very genesis of Ball Four, a big bang. When did you start keeping notes?

JB: At the end of each season, I would talk to my parents and my neighbors, and I would tell them these stories about these marvelous characters. My mother would say, ‘You should write that down, that’s funny.’ So I was always able to tell these stories. When I realized I didn’t have my fastball anymore and was in the minor leagues at that point [Bouton, who had been signed by the Yankees in 1959 and debuted in the majors in 1962, was sold to the Seattle Angels of the Pacific Coast League in mid-1968, as one of a small handful of players who would become Pilots the next year], I thought, ‘If there’s ever going to be a time where I take notes, this is the year for it.’

It turned out to be a marvelous stroke of luck because the Seattle Pilots were an expansion team. All the players were rejected by other teams. So here we were, all playing together for the first time, so right from the first of spring training they were all introducing themselves, so they all had their stories to tell. Boy, I was writing like a maniac. I couldn’t even keep up with it. I had a little notebook in the back pocket of my uniform. I’d keep notes and then talk into a tape recorder.  

[As Bouton has often detailed, and as the auction lot photos illustrate, he not only filled up notebooks, he wrote on “hotel stationery, scorecards, popcorn boxes, laundry receipts, cocktail napkins, menus, ticket stubs, travel itineraries, air sickness bags, even toilet paper.”]

JJ: I’ve seen where you mentioned the Jim Brosnan book [The Long Season, a 1960 forerunner to Ball Four, written by a pitcher about his 1959 season, which was candid particularly with regards to its open discussion of amphetamine use among players but was hardly as explosive as Bouton’s book]. When you read that, did that plant the seed in your mind, that it would be something you could do?

JB: I do remember reading Brosnan’s book. I was in the minor leagues at that point [1960]. I thought it was fascinating to see what the players were actually saying to each other during games, the conversations in the bullpen. It was fascinating for me to think, ‘This is what major league players say to each other.’ But I didn’t think of writing a book at the time. I just was thinking this is a cool thing. Years later, that’s when I realized if I’m ever gonna take those notes, now’s the time. 

JJ: Looking at the auction stuff and the manuscript, I’m wondering, when you were putting the book together, did you think that the publisher would try to remove the controversial stuff, the sex, the drugs, the foul language?

PK: They did! And part of the archives includes the legal exchange of letters, ‘You’ve got to take this out, got to take that out.’ There were 40-some-odd things they wanted to remove and he removed, I think, one.

JJ: So it must have been quite a battle to keep that stuff in.

JB: Yeah, but before then, I was not censoring myself. I didn’t have any idea what the whole thing would look like. I just kept these notes all the time and I didn’t really know how it would actually get put together.

PK: You know that when you write, the best thing to do is just write it all, and then you begin to edit and clean it up and pare it down. That’s what happened. I think there were originally 800 typewritten pages and all of those ‘outtakes’ are part of the archive that nobody has ever seen. The things were removed either because the stuff that remained was better, or because it would have been hurtful to somebody to include that at that time.

JB: Leonard Shecter, who was the editor on this, his idea was not for me to try to edit, just keep listening and writing notes and talking my notes into the tape recorder at the end of each day, and then mail those tapes to a lady that would type the notes. 

PK: What you have in the archives is the unedited, complete things that were written. You have Lenny Shecter’s handwritten editing notes, Jim’s comments and response, the correspondence with the publisher and the lawyers — it’s really quite inclusive. The letters from people, some from the wives of players, all the things that nobody ever sees. 

JJ: It must be a fascinating archive! I wish I could afford to bid on it myself. 

PK: We held onto it as long as we could, and I began helping Jim organize it some years ago, but he wasn’t ready to let go of it because he gets some fun out of looking at it and saying, ‘I remember…’ and his whole face lights up with the memory. But at some point, you look in the mirror and realize you’re getting older and you can’t take it with you, and the notion of trying to split it up equitably among your children and grandchildren, when there’s more than one — it’s like splitting up a birthday cake. ‘He got more than I did!’ ‘He got the flower on his icing!’ We just thought this was a better way to go.

JB: The grandchildren wouldn’t have known what it means now anyway. They’re too young to appreciate the characters. 

JJ: Once you got through the editing phase, with Shecter battling to keep the spicy stuff in, did you realize what kind of uproar the book would cause, and did you think it could possibly end your career at the big league level?

JB: (laughing, in part due to the gentle scolding his wife has just given me regarding a more convoluted version of the question) It crossed my mind!

PK: Jim is sometimes accused of being angry or vindictive. I have never known him to be mean-spirited or vindictive in any way, but he is mischievous, and that mischief is half the fun of being with him. So he did have some clue.

JB: I didn’t really think [it could threaten my career]. There was probably a time where my father said, ‘You know, I don’t know whether this is going to be great for your career or not.’ I thought there were going to be some repercussions. There were several moments along the way where I was thinking to myself, ‘Boy, this might be a problem here.’ It was mostly because I was laughing at a lot of the stuff.

You don’t think about how funny certain guys are, but I had been keeping track of them and I started to think of them differently. They were not just teammates or adversaries, they were incredible characters and I started to think of them in a different way. At a time when normally a player would be a pain in the ass, he’s now the star of a great discussion in the bullpen. I came to love them, to tell you the truth. Guys I didn’t particularly like that much. There were some guys I would never spend any time with.

PK: We’re at an age where a lot of them are gone, and as each one passes, he truly mourns them. 

JB: I came to really like Fred Talbot [a former Yankees teammate, more adversary than friend, and the victim of a well-executed Bouton prank involving a fake telegram, purportedly from a fan who had won $27,00 via Talbot’s improbable grand slam and promised him $5,000], and when there was a notice in the newspaper that he died [in 2013], I had to call up and ask the local newspaper about the circumstances. I had something nice to say about Fred for a website. I called him one of the greatest original characters I’ve ever known. I actually had tears in my eyes that Fred was gone now. I’d really love to have him back, and think about who he was, and how funny he was, because he became such a character. 

I came to think of these guys differently. They were not adversaries or competitors for opportunities to pitch in a game or make the team. These guys were very special, all different, from all different parts of the country, different backgrounds. In those days there were very few players who were college kids. It seems like everybody came off of a farm or out of a mine. These were tough guys who didn’t have the background for this. Using Fred Talbot again, we were talking about players arguing with general managers, I said, ‘What do you do when they send you your contract and it’s a pitiful amount of money?’ Then Talbot said, ‘I sign them, but I throw in a few fucks.’

PK: Jay, if I can go back for a moment to something you were talking about. People when they talk about Ball Four, they skim across the surface and they think what made it controversial was the sexy stuff, drinking and so forth. Then someone picks it up today and says, what are they talking about, this is tame. What made the book so controversial was that it exposed the unfair labor practices of the owners. That was why it was a revolutionary manifesto. From inside the system, you had this very funny whistleblower who is rolling along with an easy manner and talking about what he’s seeing but revealing what is going on, a kind of serfdom. That’s why they’ve never forgiven him.

JJ: It’s interesting you mention that. When I first read the book in 1979, I was nine years old. I’m learning about Marvin Miller here, and then there’s the 1981 strike. I’m a kid, I love baseball, and suddenly, there’s no baseball on, but I don’t remember being angry at the players. I remember, ‘Oh, Marvin Miller, he’s the guy from the book!’ and appreciating that there was, to the extent that I could understand it, something at stake that connected to the book. Certainly differences in the ways that the salaries you guys were making were so piddling – 

PK: $19,000 a year was Jim’s average salary!

JJ: That’s crazy. One of the enduring legacies of the book is that it paints a picture of the players’ union just before things changed.

PK: And that, by the way, is all in the archive. The archives are not just the book itself and its editing but all of the furor that surrounded it. There are 34 scrapbooks that Jim’s mother kept meticulously, from his early years playing baseball in school and all the way through the publication of Ball Four, the controversy and the uproar that surrounded it, how he handled it, it’s a complete tale of a major shift in an industry. 

I often say that although we had an instant attraction between us, I fell in love with Jim when I read the book because I understood that here was a brilliant scientific observation of a culture from the inside with an outsider’s point of view. He has that inside/outside thing so beautifully balanced. The structure — something he couldn’t have realized — it’s the same structure as fables which have lasted through all cultures for thousands of years, and that is the little guy going off on an adventure, running into obstacles, trying to prove himself, trying to find himself. That’s why I think people read it over and over again. It’s an everyman story.

We have letters from kids, 14, 15, 16 years old, who are not quite jaundiced yet but they understand the feeling of being not allowed in, they can’t get in, they don’t understand how to get in, and so they relate to him and they wrote to him about that. ‘I’m 15 years old and I didn’t think my father would let me read this…’ The revolutionary thing for these kids is that he spoke to them about their feelings about themselves without setting out to do that. 

JJ: I connect to it as somebody who grew up an outsider myself, growing up Jewish in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s like being on the dark side of the moon in Salt Lake City. So I understood from a young age what it was like to be outside the in-crowd, and that observational perch, as Jim said there, it affords you a certain vantage.

Moving on, I read something recently by Dan Epstein, who talked to Jim about the attempt to make Ball Four into a TV show [in 1976], a funny article, about a side of things I didn’t know much about. When you talk about the characters, that really connects there. Do you ever wish you had another chance to try a show in a more modern time when cable TV comedies and dramas can show more? 

JB: Sure. 

PK: Jim has had a fantasy for some time about Ball Four: The Broadway Musical. He started trying to put some notes down. We’ve been approached over the years by various people wanting to try their hand at a script for a movie, a play. There was once somebody who wanted to do a kind of Mad Men series on Ball Four, but none of them was a good enough deal or with the right people who could make it happen. That’s still on the back burner as an idea. 

JJ: Oh, that would be neat. Dan’s article came about as Fox was producing this drama, Pitch, about a female pitcher. Did you get a chance to watch that? 

PK: We don’t watch regular TV. We tend to go between the news, which takes some recovering from, and straight to movies and fantasy. We’re not regular TV watchers so we don’t know any of the series. We’re movie buffs and news junkies. 

JJ: How has your view of the book’s legacy changed over the years?

JB: Whenever I think about Ball Four, I think about how fortunate I am to have been able to stick with the daily notes from the first day of spring training all the way to the end. I’m just so glad I did it, because I never would have been able to remember all that stuff. I had this marvelous cast of characters who were all thrown together at the end of their careers and nobody wanted them, and we had an opportunity to play on this team. [The book] is just so dense with good things and funny things, inside things.

PK: Jim talks frequently about how he considers Ball Four the best thing he’s ever done. But around the house sometimes we have a few copies, and he’ll pick it up and just open it idly and start laughing to himself, and I look over at him and he just looks like he’s dropped years and years, and he’s back in that time and his face lights up with pleasure and enjoyment. He insists on reading wherever he’s opened the book, he wants to read it to me again so that I can get in on the fun, because I wasn’t there. That’s a really good thing. My daughter, his stepdaughter, once said to him, ‘You know, Jim, if you never did another thing in your entire life, it would be enough. Dayenu.’

JB: I’d like to think that the players, if they read the book, that wherever they are, they’re saying to themselves, ‘Jeez, that was a great time, wasn’t it?’ or ‘I was funny, wasn’t I?’ My fantasy is that they’re all glad they did it, that they’re all part of it, and now having fun with it, not feeling angry about it.

On Thursday, July 18, at 7:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street, New York, NY), I will join Neil deMause, Paul Lukas, and Mitchell Nathanson (the author of a forthcoming Bouton biography) to pay tribute to Bouton as part of the Gelf Magazine Varsity Letters series. The event is free.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Thank you for sharing this Jay.