Ball Four: The groundbreaking 1970 book about the game of baseball

Jim Bouton was an average baseball pitcher, although he had a couple of very successful years. He had once been a member of the proud New York Yankees, where he won 21 games in 1963, and appeared in two World Series, even winning two game in the 1964 series. He won 18 games in 1964, then his arm gave out, winding up a struggling pitcher on the 1969 expansion Seattle Pilots.

He was approached about keeping a baseball diary to cover the 1969 season. The diary recorded the baseball that fans did not see or hear about. The diary became a book, a very popular book, making Bouton very famous, and very hated by players and management, who never agreed on anything except their disdain for the man who told their secrets.

Jim Bouton

Bouton updated his book several times for anniversary editions. I am reading the 50th anniversary edition, published a year after his death in 2019.

Before I get into the book, Jim Bouton was an interesting man. In addition to ball player and author, he was an actor, co-owner of Big League Chew bubblegum, sportscaster, inventor, motivational speaker and philanthropist.

Bouton was a guy who could be blunt, not mean, just direct. He saw the absurdity in things, and baseball was full of absurdities. What got him in trouble was calling out the absurdity, not just in using it against The Man, but he broke the cardinal rule by exposing it by writing a best seller. Players didn’t like him because he wrote about how unheroic and adolescent they behaved. At the time, having your face on a bubblegum card made you an idol – to be admired and even revered. The man behind the bubblegum card was famous, but not a wizard, and often a flawed human being with problems like anyone else. Bouton pulled down the curtain to reveal the human failings, told humorously and with only a touch of malice.

There was no internet or social media back then. No ESPN. Reporters covering a team had to maintain relationships with the players and management; you weren’t going to burn those relationships by revealing secrets. Bouton, like every player then, had to negotiate annually with the club. Have a good prior season and your salary might go up; general managers couldn’t upset the salary structure by offering too much, which players always felt wasn’t enough. Have an injury or a less productive season and your salary was cut. As Bouton discovered, the club held the cards, so the player could sign or hold out, and risk their livelihood. Bouton begins the book with his annual contract battles, first with the Yankees, then with the expansion Pilots. What irritated team management was when Bouton shared his salary battles with reporters. Salaries, except for star players, was private – even between players. This gave the clubs more bargaining power over the rank and file players. Teams weren’t just frugal, they were cheap. They fined players for ridiculous things, charged them for nickel and dime expenses, and often slow to pay required items like relocation and travel.

Bouton began his career in the early 1960s when the Yankees were still good, but that changed. The Yanks stopped winning and Bouton developed a sore arm. That’s how he ended up with an expansion team.

One of the things I like about this book are the stories, as short as a few sentences long, but illustrative of the camaraderie of grown men playing a kid’s game, most fighting to keep playing for a small fraction of today’s MLB minimum salary. These guys played winter ball or worked off-season jobs to support their families.

“Went to the rodeo with the family, and when they played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ Mike said, as he does every time he hears it, ‘Dad, they’re playing the baseball song again.’”

“Curt Blefary is another guy with classically bad hands. When he was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson nicknamed him “Clank,” after the robot. Once the team bus was riding by a junkyard and Robinson yelled for the driver to stop so Blefary could pick out a new glove. (If you’re going to shake hands with a guy who has bad hands you are supposed to say, ‘Give me some steel, Baby.’).”

Now, these are G rated stories, though many are not, and that’s part of what got Bouton in trouble. Not only were the stories risqué, they are what teenage boys would do at summer camp. That’s not the worst of it, Bouton included the names of players and others in baseball. Mickey Mantle’s name was occasionally mentioned. Not only were those players embarrassed, but the baseball establishment closed ranks. Secrets like this were supposed to stay inside. The milk and cookies image of baseball players was forever soiled. No wonder it was years and years before Bouton was invited back to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers Day.

In Ball Four, player got drunk, messed around with women not their wives, took amphetamines, were not always nice to fans and the public, and often acted like jackasses. Remember, this was 1970, books like this, especially by an active player, were simply not published. Today, a book like this would be tame and hardly cause a ripple.

Later, former players like Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker made careers out of telling stories on The Tonight Show and speaking at business meetings. If Bouton had stuck with passed balls or falling down on the base path, or funny sayings by Yogi Berra, his book might have been accepted by players.

That story is not even PG rated. Neither is this one:

According to Bouton, road-trips were as much about enjoying the nightlife as it was playing ball. Players found vantage point to view women undressing or ways to look up their skirts. Even star players like Mickey Mantle enjoyed this pursuit. There’s a name for this activity, but I’m too gentlemanly to say it.

Even worse than hitting into an inning-ending double play is taking home a venereal disease.

Bouton was trade to Houston and was out of baseball after the 1970 season. In 1977, Bouton began a comeback and was signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and at age 39, started five games, ending with a 1-3 record and 4.97 ERA. Not exactly impressive, but actually considering his age and lack of pitching arm left, that is rather impressive. Opposing teams called it a circus, a publicity stunt, as the anti-Bouton resentment continued nearly a decade later.

A 39 year old pitcher.

Every 10 years after the first publication, Bouton wrote an update, not only covering developments in his own life, but updating contacts with former teammates.

A phone call from Mantle, who was nearing the end of his life, where he and Bouton consoled each other on the loss of children, that Mantle admitted that he had no hard feelings toward Bouton and wasn’t the reason for Bouton never being invited to a Yankees’ Old Timers Day. This act began a thaw, as the Yankees reached out to Bouton and invited him to the upcoming event.

Mantle and Bouton

Being welcomed back into the Yankees family was healing for Bouton on several levels. Not every former player, manager, coach or general manager forgave Bouton, but most had over time.

Ball Four was a short-lived television series, starring Bouton, unfortunately it wasn’t funny and offered little of the swagger of the book.

Bouton and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

Ball Four is one of the most influential sports books, certainly the most controversial of its time. To say that it changed Jim Bouton’s life, would underestimate its impact, perhaps what it accomplished was to reveal the real athletes as opposed to the squeaky clean, manufactured image. Reading the book 50 years later, much of it is pretty tame, but at the time was not. I can understand the blowback then, I suspect the greatest damage was to the marriages of some players. Boys may be boys, but wives are less tolerant.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s