Smoke 'em inside.
July 10, 2019 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Baseball pitcher and author Jim Bouton has passed away at 80, after a long battle with cerebral amyloid angiopathy.

Bouton enjoyed success as a New York Yankee in the early 1960s, including two wins in the 1964 World Series, but arm trouble led to him switching from a flame-throwing starter to a journeyman reliever known for his knuckleball. However, he is best known for taking a sportswriter Leonard Shecter's suggestion to keep a diary of the 1969 baseball season -- "Funny you should say that, I've been taking notes," he replied -- with the result being Ball Four, a groundbreaking sports book that broke tradition by describing the lives of ballplayers openly, warts and all.

In Ball Four, Bouton spared no one -- including himself -- with his descriptions of life as a professional baseball player. Drug usage, ribald antics (including holes drilled in a dugout wall to look up spectators' skirts, and groups of players on the roof of a Washington hotel hoping to spot nude women through a neighboring hotel's windows), anecdotes about the inanities of coaches and management, racial tensions, obscene humor, how to fake a venereal disease with a popcorn kernel, job insecurity (Bouton starts the season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, spends time in the minor leagues, then gets traded to the Houston Astros in mid-book), and many more stories from the road were both hilarious to read and illuminating, a glimpse of America's sports heroes as actual human beings.

Needless to say, much of the sports world was largely horrified by Bouton's book and his breaking the traditional "What you say here / What you see here / Let it stay here / When you leave here" clubhouse code of silence. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn cross-examined Bouton about his work, Bouton standing by everything he'd written, and even attempted to force Bouton to sign an admission of its being fictional. While many lauded him for his honesty and humor, Bouton's struggling career came to an abrupt halt the following year, as he retired to become a New York television sports anchor. A sequel, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, was in a similar vein.

He attempted a comeback several years later, with maverick Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner seeing Bouton as a kindred spirit. His comeback and related stories were compiled in a new edition of Ball Four called Ball Four Plus Ball Five, and Bouton continued to revise and update his magnum opus, the last being Ball Four: The Final Pitch in 2001.

Among Bouton's other claims to fame are his being a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention for George McGovern, co-authoring a fiction thriller set in the baseball world (Strike Zone), and being involved in the invention and initial promotion of Big League Chew, a shredded bubble gum in pouches designed to be a safer and flavorful alternative to chewing tobacco.
posted by delfin (21 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Ball Four was an important event that changed how people viewed ballplayers. But as a book, I found it pretty meh.

posted by Chrysostom at 8:40 PM on July 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh wow. I think about him every time someone talks about sharing salary info, in any industry, as still this entirely subversive thing. More people should be like Jim Bouton.

posted by limeonaire at 8:41 PM on July 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I remember picking up a worn copy of Ball Four that I found on the street in my suburban neighborhood in the 80s and knowing nothing about it decided to read it (I'm sure I'm not the only person that picks up books from discarded street piles and reads them??) - it was eye-opening; I was never a sports kid so I didn't know anything about anything but it gave me a certain anthropological insight into that profession.
posted by stevil at 8:59 PM on July 10, 2019


I loved Ball Four and have a copy around here somewhere, and he plays Terry Lennox in one of my all time favorite movies, Altman's The Long Goobye.
posted by vrakatar at 9:31 PM on July 10, 2019


He edited and expanded Ball Four more or less every decade since initial publication, and his voice as a writer deepened and expanded as a result.

I coincidentally watched the Elliot Gould “The Long Goodbye” just after reading Ball Four for the first time, a later edition that included some of his later life, and was gobstopped when I realized his connection to the film.
posted by mwhybark at 9:41 PM on July 10, 2019

Also, a few years ago you could pick up custom cards featuring him as a Pilot and in later gigs. He never got a real Pilots card at the time of the team’s existence.
posted by mwhybark at 9:45 PM on July 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I read "Ball Four" as a teen when it first came out in paperback. Compared to the standard sportswriting of the early '70s, Bouton's candor really did stand out, in a way that I'd imagine is somewhat hard for younger people to appreciate nearly 50 years later.

(It wasn't totally without precedent, though. If you liked "Ball Four," but haven't read "The Long Season" by Jim Brosnan, I encourage you to do so. Brosnan was a pitcher for the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, and White Sox, and the book is his account of the 1960 season, during which he was traded from St. Louis to Cincinnatti. Though not as explicit as "Ball Four," it too offers a candid-for-its-time portrait of MLB players Brosnan played with and against.)
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 12:37 AM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Quite eye opening for me when I read it at 12 or 13 years old. As a big Astros fan I was really disappointed to learn that my heroes were human. I'm looking at you Doug Rader.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 3:55 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

My dad let me read his copy of “Ball Four” when I was about 12 years old, shortly after its initial publication, at a time when I was still besotted with baseball and could quite you any number of historical or current facts or stats I’d absorbed from my reading and watching. His one proviso was that he never hear me using any of the off color language that pervaded the book.

My recollection is that, more than anything, the book brought ball players down to earth and showed them to be real, extremely flawed, though extremely talented people. This was well before Curt Flood and his legal team broke the Reserve Clause, or the owners pissed in their own pots with the free agency collusion scandal of the 80s. Players, while individuals, weren’t the, uh, free agents we know today with towering salaries, and high powered agents, and celebrity. They just guys who happened to be really good throwing or hitting or catching a baseball. “Ball Four” was the first widely public admission that the guys on the field were human beings, sometimes amusingly, frequently unattractively, so.

In some ways, “Ball Four” presaged all that, though in a slightly different way. Having obviously reached the end of a very respectable playing career, Bouton, through its publication, burned his bridges and launched himself on an unorthodox, and apparently profitable, post-career free agency that would otherwise have been unimaginable. Where’s his HoF plaque?
posted by hwestiii at 3:57 AM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by young_simba at 4:13 AM on July 11, 2019


As an aside, I (who was born and raised in St. Louis) wrote my undergrad senior thesis on the intersection of labor unions and race in the 60s and 70s, so I am very familiar with Curt Flood:

This was well before Curt Flood and his legal team broke the Reserve Clause

Sort of. Flood lost the Supreme Court case Flood v. Kuhn, but it was a pyrrhic victory for Commissioner Kuhn and the owners in two ways. First, it galvanized the players and their union because they now knew they couldn't rely on the powers-that-be to establish economic justice -- they had to do it themselves. Two, the argument from the owners was that any decision about the reserve clause must be collectively bargained, not adjudicated in the courts -- meaning that the owners were now on public record saying that they would deal with the union in good faith (this is a super oversimplified, glib explanation).

A few years later, it was an arbitration case that would "break" the reserve clause. "Break" is in quotations because the reserve clause is still in effect in MLB. You cannot become a free agent in MLB unless you have a certain number of years of service time that owners are still trying to pull shenanigans about. But the reserve clause still exists, not because the owners willed it so, but because it was collectively bargained to be so. Why the union would keep a diminished version of the reserve clause around should be it's own fpp.

It is important to remember that the excesses of the reserve clause were broken by union arguing against the owners through arbitration, NOT by a legal team appealing to the government. Government didn't establish economic justice here, the players and their union did.

Aside ended.
posted by Groundhog Week at 5:11 AM on July 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

> ...breaking the traditional "What you say here / What you see here / Let it stay here / When you leave here" clubhouse code of silence.

Ah, the Thin Foul Line.
posted by ardgedee at 5:33 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


(That's a knuckler)
posted by donpardo at 5:55 AM on July 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by Cash4Lead at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2019

RIP Jim, you rascal. I read Ball Four when it came out in paperback. I was a teenager and I laughed my ass off. In '69 my Minnesota Twins did very well, particularly my hero Harmon Killebrew. It cracked me up to read Bouton's nickname for the team: The Fat Kid and His Wrecking Crew.

I remember as well the horror and pearl-clutching that some in the Yankees organization held for the book, especially besmirching the name of St Mickey Mantle. Mickey would be the first to tell you he was no saint. I suspect it's that sort of idolatry that inspired him to write this infamous letter.
posted by Ber at 7:12 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I loved this book. And I'm no baseball fan. As an ADHD kid, baseball was behind watching paint dry in the slow and boring category. This book however, made baseball and sports come alive for me.
You will be missed, sir.

posted by evilDoug at 8:54 AM on July 11, 2019

Jim spoke to my sportswriting class at Columbia and someone asked him for a story he left out of the book and he recounted the tale of how each day at the back of the Yankees' team bus, two players he wouldn't name would recount their nightly tales of skirt-chasing and boozing. This was known as the C**tly/Drinkley Report...

R.I.P., Jim. I hope you find someone to catch you up there.
posted by AJaffe at 9:02 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think that Ball Four is a great book.

posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:44 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by Splunge at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2019

My friends and I, by the time we were high school sophomores, had all read Ball Four on our own. When we discovered we all knew the book, it became a source for catchphrases (e.g., "Yeah, surrre.") that stood us in good stead through the rest of our time at that school.

It was funny in a way I hadn't really encountered before that. Self-deprecating, sly, insecure, raunchy, smart. As a kid, with a Yankees fanatic father, who was, to put it mildly, unathletic, it was familiar yet intriguingly alien territory. Joe Pep and Elston Howard and The Mick and "The Scooter" Phil Rizzuto and all those guys were names I'd heard since early childhood.

So, thanks for all the laughs and for the preview of the adult workplace and for a sense of what it's like to hang around a locker room with your teammates and buddies, Bulldog, something both unattainable and very cool to me then.

Give 'em some low smoke, and we'll go in and pound some Budweiser.

posted by the sobsister at 7:56 PM on July 11, 2019

The reason why Ball Four might seem quaint today is because we live in a time after Ball Four was written.
posted by East14thTaco at 12:49 PM on July 12, 2019

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