R.I.P. Jim Bouton: “After Ball Four, sports hagiography was never the same.”


Jim Bouton has died at 80.

Long live the memory of Ball Four’s author. On Twitter and later at The Nation, sportswriter Dave Zirin recalled an epic meeting of the minds.

After Ball Four, sports hagiography was never the same. I was fortunate enough to speak on several panels with Bouton — including one in Boston with historian Howard Zinn, where Bouton and Zinn, longtime admirers of each other, met for the first time.

Bouton with Zinn?

How could I avoid being a Jim Bouton fan?

In my experience, Jim Bouton wasn’t just the quirky character who wrote “Ball Four,” the book that opened the door on what really goes on behind the curtain in Major League Baseball. To me, he was more of an anarchist. (The Village Voice even referred to him once as “Baseball’s Bolshevik.”) He didn’t just like to challenge authority, he reveled in it. He loved throwing grenades into foxholes to see what would happen and where the debris landed.

The preceding excerpt is from a column by Tony Dobrowolski in the Berkshire Eagle from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a city that figured prominently in what I believe was Bouton’s final book, FOUL BALL: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark.”

In his first diary since Ball Four, Jim Bouton recounts his amazing adventure trying to save Wahconah Park, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Host to organized baseball since 1892, Wahconah Park was soon to be abandoned by the owner of the Pittsfield Mets who would move his team to a new stadium in another town—an all too familiar story.

Coincidentally, we drove through Pittsfield in route to Northampton MA on June 29, at which point we were only twenty miles away from Bouton’s home in Great Barrington.

How influential has Bouton’s Ball Four been in my life? Well, it’s been 45 years since the first time I read it, and numerous anecdotes not only are fresh in my mind, but remain part of my daily repartee.

One of them is about a Seattle Pilots teammate who had a particularly vehement spat with the umpire behind home plate. Weeks passed, stars aligned, and this hitter again came to bat, with the same umpire calling balls and strikes.

The first pitch was ridiculously far outside, and the umpire decisively called it a strike. Bouton’s teammate stepped out of the box, but said nothing. The next pitch was two feet high, and the batter somehow tommy-hawked it off the outfield wall for a double.

The umpire turned to the Pilots bench and said, “See? It makes him a better hitter.”

Then there’s the one about Bouton’s former teammate, the legendary superstar Mickey Mantle.

It was the mid-1960s, and the Yankee dynasty was beginning to fade. The aging slugger Mantle arrived at the ballpark massively hungover and was given the day off by the team’s sympathetic manager, but late in the game, with the Yanks behind, Mantle was needed to pinch-hit.

Half-blind with pain and the effects of the previous evening’s dissipation, “The Mick” lofted a majestic game-winning home run.

He slowly circled the bases and returned to the dugout to greet his cheering teammates, saying to no one in particular: “You have no idea how hard that really was.”

The following dates to 2016.

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: https://goo.gl/BH9nOc) …

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 (https://goo.gl/Xre4Gs). 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.

There’s also this:

On the Seattle Pilots, George Brunet and the lives of journeymen.