Hi all. If I see baseball at all tonight, I see it through tears. I was off the grid with a minor health issue of my own, which is why I didn’t write a piece about Tuesday night’s All-Star game as I had planned to do yesterday. When I have to go off the grid, there’s no radio as well as no Internet. Then this morning I got a garbled version of a news bulletin I hoped was wrong. A friend told me a former sportscaster named Bolton had died. Later, still unable to check Google, I contacted sometime correspondent Dan Cummo who put the pieces together. Jim Bouton, once a 20-game winner, derailed by an arm injury, then controversial writer of “Ball Four” had passed away at age 80.
I wrote in this forum that Bouton had been battling dementia, as are his contemporaries Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson and former teammate Fritz Peterson. As sad as that was, knowing the old Bulldog has passed away leaves a hole in my heart, and the hearts of others who were kids when “Ball Four” came out. Some read it under the covers by flashlight so their mothers wouldn’t discover how rough baseball language can be.. Since I’m blind, I read it on talking book records and needed to use headphones for the same reason. Mom just wouldn’t want to know who Joe Schultz was, especially if he used all of George Carlin’s “heavy seven” words–which he did! As far as the unlamented commissioner of baseball Bowie Kuhn saw it, the language was only the beginning. He might have let that go, as the book wasn’t aimed at children. What Kuhn and so many others in baseball resented was that Bouton showed the realities of who baseball men were and how they lived. They were rough talking and hard drinking almost to a man. Many took stimulants known to the players as “greenies” or “ability pills” although I didn’t read that term in “Ball Four.” Up until then, with few exceptions (“The Babe Ruth Story” is one exception) if you got a baseball book, you got a self-serving fluff piece that made the players appear saintly. A specialist in books like these was Gene Schoor, who wrote that sort of books about Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Phil Rizzuto. Bouton’s book brought the players’ human side into the light and showed their reality. They were men made of flesh and blood, (they liked to watch a teammate being patched up after a bloody injury) and after hours they did what other red-blooded Americans did. These revelations made the Commissioner about as mad as he could be. He didn’t realize the book was going nowhere and probably would have sunk without a ripple. Then he went public, banned the book as being “not good for baseball,” and hauled Bouton into the office for a harsh reprimand and a demand that Bouton must say he made up the stories. He refused and never took back a word he had written. Apparently, banning the book was the best thing he could have done. Bouton had a best-seller, (5.5 million sold) was able to write a second book, and spent several years doing sports on TV in New York. “Ball Four” is the one and only sports book on the New York Public Library’s list of the best books of the last century.
Bouton paid a price for his success, and it was a steep one. He lost most of his friends in baseball. The Yankees would have nothing to do with him for 3 decades. His marriage, which was written up in the book in glowing terms, ended shortly after he left TV. Somewhere his luck turned and he found Paula Kurman, his second wife who was at his side through two severe strokes and the final fight with dementia, a battle nobody wins.
I’d be surprised if anybody who reads this forum hasn’t read “Ball Four.” But if you haven’t, the idea was for Bouton to keep a diary of his ups and downs with the 1969 Seattle Pilots and, as it turned, out, their AAA team the Vancouver Mounties and the Houston Astros where Bouton was traded in late August. Bouton wondered if anybody wanted to read anything written by a mediocre pitcher with what was a lousy ball club, but he began the diary in spring training, and it took off. We readers got plenty about Bouton in high school and college, how he joined the Yankees, his annual bouts over money with a procession of baseball team executives who got their negotiating skills from Ebenezer Scrooge, (Ralph Houk said he wasn’t a team player because he wanted a well-deserved raise) his 1965 injury (not that medical science knew much about it then) and the struggles after that that left him in Seattle with a bad team in a rotten ball park where no pitcher with any pitch was likely to cover himself with glory. The power alleys there were an absurd 345 feet, not even the 365 feet at Camden Yards in Baltimore that makes sluggers out of light-hitting shortstops. But the book wasn’t all about Bouton. Lots of names most of the country never would have known became household names once the book went super nova. Are you familiar with Marvin Milkes, Joe Schultz, Eddie O’Brien, Freddie Velazquez, Jack Aker, Dick Baney, Dick Bates, Gary Bell, Gene Brabender, George Brunet, Wayne Comer, Jim Gosger, Mike Hegan, Steve Hovley, Bob Locker, Jerry McNertney, Ray Oyler, Jim Pagliaroni, Marty Pattin, Jerry Stevenson, Fred Talbot, Steve Whitaker? If you’ve read “Ball Four” (and if you’ve read it you’ve read it more than once, as I have) you know who they all are. They came up 64–98, drew so poorly they shifted to Milwaukee after a season and would never have been remembered without their Boswell, which was Jim Bouton. He showed them as fun and interesting guys. Few MLB players went to college then, and some weren’t the brightest or the best. Just to name one, Fred Talbot came out of a reform school, but then so did Babe Ruth. Bouton and future star closer Mike Marshall were easily the smartest guys on the team, and while I don’t know how much heat Marshall took, Bouton was called a Communist–not something you wanted to be called 50 years ago.
If he had just_ written about his ’69 teammates, Bowie Kuhn might not have flipped his cork. What did it was Bouton’s use of free speech concerning the Yankees of their dynasty years, especially Mickey Mantle. Unlike Jane Leavy who trashed Mantle in a full-length book 15 years after The Mick was in his grave, Bouton told funny stories about Mantle. Yes, they involved drinking, but who didn’t always drink in baseball and who doesn’t now? Kuhn probably didn’t love Bouton writing about Mantle demanding that the clubhouse assistant sign Mantle’s name on souvenir baseballs, or Mantle closing bus windows to avoid young autograph seekers. The thing is, if Bouton knew these things were happening, the First Amendment grants him the right to write about Mantle’s antics. But he also wrote of Phil Linz buying a harmonica and playing it on the team bus. That irked manager Yogi Berra. The rest of the story should only be written as Bouton told it.
Bouton also wrote about the low wages baseball players received. While this had been the case since baseball began, no player dared write about the underhanded tactics general managers used to keep their players from earning a living wage. While it isn’t right that they make what they do now, if owners had dealt with their players more fairly from day 1, they might not have to pay what they’re paying today. Bouton flashed the shining carbon lamp of truth on the game as the owners played it. A few years later, the book was called into evidence because it was written day by day as the 1969 season went on. It played a role in the Reserve Clause” being struck down, paving the way for millionaires, and then multi-millionaires playing the game today. The stories are tame compared to those written by David Wells, Jose Canseco and others. Mike Shropshire’s book “Seasons In Hell” is almost as funny as “Ball Four.” But none can top the original. James Alan Bouton, R I P.