Jim Bouton, the author of Ball Four, died this week. Half a decade before he wrote that classic, Bouton was a star pitcher for the New York Yankees. But arm trouble derailed him and his decline coincided with the end of the Yankee dynasty.
Bouton reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher, caught on with the expansion Seattle Pilots, and chronicled his season with them (and with the Houston Astros after he was traded) in a behind the scenes look at the national pastime that captured both the foibles, the anxieties, and the grind of players’ existence.
To say that Ball Four made a splash would be to understate its impact and the reaction to it. The book delighted fans but outraged much of the sports establishment. Dick Young, a leading New York sportswriter, called Bouton a “social leper.”
The librarian at Dartmouth’s Baker Library selected Ball Four for display. Planning to take a half hour break from my studies, I grabbed the book. I did no more studying until I had devoured it. This, I concluded, is the best sports book I’ve ever read.
Reading the book a few decades later, I still enjoyed it, but was less enchanted. Somehow, I hadn’t been bothered by Bouton’s snobbery, elitism, and condescension the first time around.
I remembered that Jim Brosnan, a pitcher whose two books pioneered the genre Bouton perfected, objected to Ball Four’s less than flattering treatment of Seattle manager Joe Schultz, who had coached Brosnan.
Ball Four wouldn’t be Ball Four without Schultz saying “sh**f**k” and telling his players to “pound the Budweiser.” But I felt that Bouton crossed the line into cruelty in his depiction of fringe players like Fred Talbot and Merritt Ranew.
I also found it unseemly that Bouton ridiculed Dooley Womack, the player Seattle received in the trade with Houston, as unworthy compensation. At the time of the trade, Womack was a better pitcher than Bouton, and had been for several years.
The Jim Bouton of Ball Four is not at all a sympathetic character.
Looking at the matter now, a few more decades down the road, I give Bouton credit for not sugar-coating his personality. He didn’t just offer a no-holds-barred look at baseball, he painted a thoroughly honest picture of Jim Bouton, the human being.
I still say Ball Four is the best sports book I’ve ever read.
Do athletes still write these kind of inside, “kiss-and-tell” accounts? I’m not aware of many such baseball books in recent years.
Maybe modern baseball players — more educated, professional, and wealthy than their predecessors — aren’t colorful enough to provide the characters for a Ball Four kind of book. Maybe the “what happens here stays here” mantra of the traditional baseball club house has regained its sway.
No matter. We don’t need more Ball Fours. We have the original, and that’s more than good enough.