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“Ball Four” changed the way we understand baseball

James Alan Bouton, 1939-2019

Jim Bouton & His Book Photo by Susuan Wood/Getty Images

I’ve read probably thousands of books over the years, and to be honest they sometimes become a blur. But I have no trouble recalling vivid details from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, a book I read nearly fifty years ago.

Bouton had been a promising, hard-throwing Yankee starter in the early 1960s, winning several World Series games, until he blew out his arm. (Indeed when I hear people bemoaning the “coddling” of pitchers today because “back in the day” young guys didn’t need innings limits, I often think of Bouton).

Unable to throw anything close to a 95 mph fastball, he tried to resurrect his career with a knuckleball, which he’d played around with earlier. Ball Four is based on a diary he kept over the course of the 1969 season, which he split between the expansion Seattle Pilots, their Vancouver AAA team, and the Houston Astros.

Among other things his book documents the brief life of the Pilots, a team that lasted just one year (they relocated to Milwaukee where they became the Brewers). One of my favorite details of the book is his recollection of the view from the ballpark: “When a home run hit off you disappears over the fence, your eye catches a glimpse of the majesty of Mt. Rainier and some of that bad feeling goes away.”

It also fixes in amber some baseball personalities that you might not encounter today. His Pilots manager, Joe Schultz, is what Bouton calls an “old school guy” whose managerial insights included reminding players to touch all the bases; telling struggling pitchers just to throw some low smoke and then we’ll pound some Budweisers; and cursing a lot. Upon its publication the book inspired a lot of talk about its expose of player antics, some of which would frankly seem pretty creepy today. Bouton, however, was not just gossiping. He included a great deal of soul-searching and reflection about those who are just hanging on. It’s a funny book, but a poignant one as well.

You’ll read today that Ball Four was controversial at the time. This is an understatement. In my recollection, it became one of those cultural touchstones, splitting the baseball world and leaking into the broader culture wars of that day. Liking or condemning Ball Four said a great deal about who you were and what you believed. Among many in baseball — players, management, and media - Bouton was excoriated for lifting the “cone of silence” from the game behind the scenes, and defying the “what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse” ethic. However, Bouton was pretty careful not to point fingers at active teammates. He was willing to shed light on the less public side of a well known retiree like Mickey Mantle (who was a mean drunk) but he did not throw more vulnerable teammates under the bus.

Bouton was clearly a large personality; my guess is that had his arm held up and provided him the stardom he craved we would not have Ball Four. He left baseball the year after the book came out, in part because he was greeted with tremendous hostility and in part because he wasn’t a very good pitcher at that point. His post-MLB life included sports broadcasting, some TV acting, efforts to hang on in semi-pro ball, several more books and speaking engagements. I remember hearing him as a very funny guest on the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” He and a few teammates invented “Big League Chew”; the royalties from bubble gum were a major source of income for him.

I think Ball Four holds up pretty well today. It’s fun to consider which parts of Bouton’s experiences remain true for players in 2019 and what has changed. Drug testing might limit some of the pharmaceutical experimentation his describes. And I think — or hope? - that guys drilling holes in walls to gawk at unsuspecting women would, today, at least be frowned upon, although I’m not so naive to think that objectification of women is not still a vital part of clubhouse culture.

I think that the general anti-intellectualism that was rampant in Bouton’s experience is not as prevalent now. Back in his day, any guy with a college degree or a guy who simply read a book was derisively called “professor.” Today we have Sean Doolittle tweeting from independent book stores, and players talking with fluency about spin rates and launch angles.

His critics argued that Ball Four was bad for baseball. For me, however, an eleven-year old who had recently discovered baseball, the book made the players seem human and the game more engaging. (Note: I am quite sure that my non-baseball-fan parents had no clue what that book was about because no way is it appropriate reading for an eleven-year-old!) The ties between players, the pull of the sport were the main theme of a book that ends with this well known line:

You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.

You’ll find obituaries of Jim Bouton here and here. Tyler Klepner also writes about him in his knuckleball chapter of the book K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches