Cultural education: Jim Bouton’s landmark book, Ball Four.


John Thorn is the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, and as Thorn rightfully gushes, Jim Bouton is the author of Ball Four, one of the most influential books of my reading life. In the early 1970s, my copy looked just like the one pictured here.

Not unexpectedly, an overview of Ball Four by Mark Armour at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website is among the most complete that I’ve seen.

Today’s fans and writers, children or young adults when they first devoured the book, re-read it every two or three years. The book is universally viewed as well-written, provocative, thought-provoking, and funny. It is difficult to imagine that such a book could be controversial, that its author would be shunned by people within the game for many years, and in fact is still shunned. It is so.

Thorn takes the story from here.

Jim Bouton: An Improvisational Life, by John Thorn (Our Game)

… What emboldened me to approach (Jim Bouton) was my knowledge of his ongoing efforts to bring baseball back to Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which had hosted baseball on this same spot since 1892.

“It might interest you, Jim,” I offered, “that baseball was played in Pittsfield a full century earlier, and I have evidence of a prohibition against its play anywhere near a newly erected church. The actual document, I was told by the town clerk, survives.”

This stunned him. It was a great way to promote Pittsfield and his campaign. We became fast friends. He and his colleagues went on to scour the town’s archives and unearthed two manuscript copies of the “Pittsfield Prohibition” of 1791 and, barely a month after our conversation in Hackensack, we held a press conference. Because the ban placed baseball — as played by that name — in 18th-century America, the discovery turned out to be an international event. (For more about the Pittsfield story and what it means, see: …

There have been a couple “vintage” baseball games played in metro Louisville during recent years, and I’ve always been out of town, which is frustrating.

… A Vintage Base Ball Federation followed, with games in a number of locations for several years. I was involved in all of it, but for me the principal benefit of reviving the old ball game was the friendship with Jim that continues to this day. Though we get together with our wives regularly for dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I confess to being star-struck still — and not because Jim won twenty games for the Yankees a couple of times before I went off to college.

He is the man who wrote Ball Four.

I will not detail Jim’s life here. His biography is wonderfully sketched by Mark Armour in an entry for SABR’s Baseball Biography Project ( Permit me to focus now on Ball Four: its landmark place in history; the revolution it inspired; and the importance of the impending sale at auction of its underlying notes, drafts, audiotapes, and related materials, whose very survival was largely unknown.