Jim Bouton wrote the greatest baseball love story ever told.
Baseball hated him for it, because he shared the true love of the game — the passion, the pain, the smiles, the tears — with outsiders.
He opened the clubhouse doors for a generation of baseball fans who wanted more than what was on the back of the baseball cards they used to trade.
This was a generation of fans disillusioned by the institutions they grew up with, and they were ready to distance themselves from the things in their lives that had come to define America — including the national pastime.
Then Bouton wrote “Ball Four.”
Suddenly, fans had a New Testament of baseball — a book that made their heroes human, a story that tore open the body of the game and revealed its heart.
Bouton passed away at his home in Massachusetts after years of battling a brain disease. He had also suffered several strokes in 2012 — more than 50 years after he published the book that broke one of the golden rules of baseball — what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse:
“We’ve been running short of greenies. We don’t get them from the trainer, because greenies are against club policy. So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors, or friends who know where to get greenies. One of our lads is going to have a bunch of greenies mailed to him by some of the guys on the Red Sox. And to think you can spend five years in jail for giving your friend a marijuana cigarette.”
Bouton began his major league career with the Yankees in 1962. He was a hard-throwing right hander with the nickname “Bulldog” He went 21-7 in 1963 and 18-13 the following season, winning two starts in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. But he developed arm problems and was in the minors by 1968.
Bouton got his second chance with the expansion Seattle Pilots — which existed for one season and would become the Milwaukee Brewers — in 1969, developing a knuckleball. He had also made an arrangement with sportswriter Leonard Shecter to write a diary of his 1969 season and tell stories from his days with the Yankees as well:
“We were doing wind sprints and Gary Bell was having a terrible time because of certain local poisonous fluids he encountered the night before. We decided that (coach) Eddie O’Brien would let him off if he got a note from his bartender.”
When Bouton’s book came out in 1970, it was like someone dropped a giant stink bomb inside baseball. He was persona non grata among many teammates, and commissioner Bowie Kuhn called Bouton to his office for a meeting, demanding that Bouton sign a statement that the book was fiction. Kuhn called “Ball Four” detrimental to baseball.
But it became a best seller, an iconic book that was named by the New York Public Library as one of the best books of the 20th century. Just a few days ago, the Library of Congress announced it had acquired the papers of Bouton,
As damaging as some of the revelations may have seemed, “Ball Four” was the right book for the times. A few years later, White House officials would go to jail and the president would resign in disgrace.
No one was buying fairy tales anymore.
Bouton took a lot of heat for revealing Mickey Mantle to be a flawed hero. He wrote about how Mantle hit a home run while hungover after a night of drinking. He also wrote about Mantle leading the Yankees Peeping Tom excursions on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel during road trips to Washington to play the Senators:
“The Yankees would go up there in squads of 15 or so, often led by Mickey Mantle himself. You needed a lot of guys to do the spotting … one of the first big thrills I had with the Yankees was joining about half the club on the roof of the Shoreham at 2:30 in the morning. I remember saying to myself, ‘So this is the big leagues.’”
Bouton was done in the big leagues after that, going into television sports — and writing a book about reaction to “Ball Four” called, “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally.” But he loved the game too much to let it go. He spent much of 1975 and 1977 pitching for the Portland Mavericks, the legendary independent team featured in the documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.” It was there he met a kindred spirit in pitcher Rob Nelson, and the two of them, sitting in the bullpen, came up with the idea of “Big League Chew,” the iconic shredded bubble gum in a pouch that looked like chewing tobacco.
“Jim and I became partners on a handshake,” Nelson told me in a conversation on my “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast. “He put up 10 grand for trademarks and packaging and legal protections. I went back overseas to play ball, Jim was the one who pounded the pavement and did the work. Big League Chew would not have happened if Jim Bouton didn’t step up to the plate.”
He would make a comeback briefly with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and update his “Ball Four” book several times after.
Bouton would eventually reconcile with the Yankees and be invited back to their annual Old Timers Day in 1998, and received a standing ovation — as if everyone finally understood that Jim Bouton loved baseball so much that he just wanted to share it with everyone.
The last sentence of “Ball Four”:
“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.”
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