Jim Bouton’s Ball Four
It isn’t too much of a stretch to split baseball literature into two distinct eras: pre-Ball Four and post-Ball Four. Publishers didn’t have terribly high hopes for a season-long diary from a journeyman middle reliever for an expansion team (with an invaluable assist from editor Leonard Shecter) but Jim Bouton’s Ball Four quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, a real game-changer. In the parlance of Scharpling & Wurster, it was a “lid-blower,” a scandalous tell-all that enraged owners, players, fans, and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
It also made Bouton persona non grata with his former team, the Yankees. He was essentially blacklisted from baseball. Bouton was very conspicuously not invited to Yankees Old-Timers Day. According to Bouton, everybody is invited to the old-timers game. Hell, the dude who flashed Reggie Jackson during the 1977 World Series is invited to Old-Timers Day. But Bouton was snubbed out of Yankees events for decades after the book’s release.
I was a rabid sports fan in my childhood and teen years. I am not too proud to concede that I devoted many wasted hours to standing in line to get the autographs of various pituitary cases worshipped for their ability to hit a ball great distances with a stick. These days, however, I tend to read about sports more than watch them, so it’s a little insane that I’ve read José Fucking Canseco’s book and two books about Vince McMahon, but until recently, I’d never read Ball Four, one of the best, most important, most influential sports books of all time.
Bouton shook up the stagnant, tradition-bound, image-conscious world of major-league baseball simply by telling the truth. Yet reading Bouton’s seminal tome nearly 40 years after its release, I was struck by how relatively tame it is, and by its fundamental sweetness. Bouton wasn’t an angry punk who wanted to destroy baseball. He was a fiery idealist who passionately loved the game and was frustrated that it so often failed to live up to its ideals. He loved being a baseball player. He loved signing autographs and playing in front of giant crowds and living the life he’d fantasized about as a baseball-mad kid.
Ball Four captures a man and a game in a state of flux. Though only 30 when he wrote Ball Four, Bouton was middle-aged by baseball standards. While still in his early 20s, he reached the very pinnacle of his profession. At 24, he made the All-Star team, won 21 games with an impressive 2.53 ERA, and pitched in the World Series.
Bouton was movie-star handsome, charismatic, whip-smart, passionate about politics both inside and out of baseball, and—in his spare time—a bestselling author, an entrepreneur, and an inventor, best known as one of the minds behind Big League Chew. He was almost too good to be true. While barely old enough to drink, Bouton was living his dreams, winning championships, playing for some of the best teams in baseball history, and breathing some pretty rarified air.
There was nowhere to go but down. The Yankees worked Bouton like a misbehaving mule in 1963 and 1964, when he led the league in games started, but by 1965 he was starting to suffer from overuse, wracking up a dreadful 4-15 record and a 4.82 ERA.
By the time Bouton was drafted by the expansion Seattle Pilots for their inaugural 1969 season, his glory days were long gone. He’d reached the baseball equivalent of purgatory, pitching middle-relief for a team that didn’t even exist the year before, and getting shunted off to the minor leagues shortly after signing with the Pilots.
In film terms, Bouton was like a leading man trying to make a transition to quirky character actor once his looks started to fade. It somehow seems fitting that Bouton was staking his career on his knuckleball, the kookiest and most unpredictable of pitches. Knuckleballers tend to be real characters (like our own Leonard Pierce), and the pitch itself is anarchy in motion, the uncertainty principle in pitch form.
Ball Four is relentlessly optimistic. Bouton seems convinced that he can think, practice, and strategize his way back to greatness. He is forever eager to prove himself and his worth as a ballplayer. He wants to start, to perfect his knuckleball, to show those bastards in the Yankees what a mistake they made in letting him go.
Like so many of us, Bouton is unhealthily obsessed with the Yankees: they’re his bête noire, his arch-enemies, the sinister entity that keeps him awake at night, plotting revenge. Bouton probably could have gotten away with talking all the shit in the world about the Seattle Pilots, but he had the temerity to speak of the sainted Yankees in less-than-reverential terms. He even had the audacity to suggest that Mickey Mantle enjoyed a drink every now and then. Of course, that’s common knowledge now. Hell, the back of Mantle’s baseball cards even read:
But back in 1970, it was considered heretical to suggest that Mantle was a boozer, Roger Maris was surly and lazy, and the Yankees organization was chockablock with douchebags and jerkemers. Bouton had the chutzpah to suggest that baseball players were less golden gods than overgrown adolescents with bad haircuts who drank, abused amphetamines (or “greenies,” as they’re lovingly known) en masse, and devoted considerable time and energy to “beaver-shooting,” the time-honored baseball tradition of thinking up exciting new ways to look up women’s skirts.
How was Joe Baseball Fan supposed to relax during a game knowing that the All-Star beaming happily in his general direction was probably just trying to steal a peek at Jane Baseball Fan’s pubic hair or cleavage? Yet for all its naughtiness, homoerotic games of locker-room grab-ass, casual drug use, and raging hormones, Ball Four isn’t particularly mean-spirited. Bouton isn’t trying to shock or titillate. He’s just telling it like it is.
Reading Ball Four, I got the distinct sensation that Bouton was pulling his punches, that the book could have been substantially more shocking and sordid. If Bouton set out to write a dirty book, he could have devoted endless leering chapters to the groupies known as “Baseball Annies.” Instead, he mentions them only in passing.
Bouton begins Ball Four with a fairly involved discussion of his negotiations with the Seattle Pilots. It isn’t particularly compelling, but it serves to throw down the gauntlet and let readers know that Bouton will be talking about shit he isn’t supposed to discuss, that he’s taking readers behind closed doors and will write about whatever the hell he wants to, regardless of the consequences.
One of Ball Four’s many revelations is just how little baseball players made in the days before widespread free agency and multi-million-dollar contracts. The book’s baseball players lead lives with little financial or professional security. They can be released or traded or sent down to the minors at any time, and many, if not most, have to work regular jobs in the off-season just to get by. They lead a vagabond existence largely lacking in glamour, an endless series of bus rides and plane rides and hotel rooms and roommates and long hours spent riding the pine.
The diary format suits the long-haul, marathon nature of baseball. Bouton captures the languid, leisurely rhythms of an endless baseball season that’s less about big games and pennant races than about steady progress, camaraderie, and finding ways to remain sane on the road.
Bouton chronicles a game in a profound state of flux. The times were changing outside the ballpark, but the major-league mindset seemed stuck somewhere in the mid-’50s. The old guard still ruled with crew cuts, knee-jerk patriotism, reactionary politics, and near-religious belief in the necessity of maintaining the status quo.
So you can only imagine how threatened they were by a guy who not only reads books, but writes them, loves Ralph Nader, and is passionate about unions and protesting apartheid. In Ball Four, which certainly skirts self-aggrandizement at times, Bouton seems intent on single-handedly dragging baseball kicking and screaming into the late ’60s. In a game that rewards docile conformists, he has a questioning, challenging intellect. His ferocious independent streak (an early, appropriate nickname was “Bulldog”) wins him few friends and a lot of enemies, especially among his coaches and managers. In a particularly resonant passage, he writes fondly of an old coach who’d stand on his head while delivering signs so the opposing team couldn’t steal them. Then he observes that his sport had grown so colorless that the current definition of a kooky baseball character was a guy who wore his hat at a rakish angle.
Ball Four doubles as a colorful cornucopia of baseball lore, as Bouton shares years and years of amusing (literally) inside-baseball anecdotes involving his teammates and Yankees days. It’s an extraordinarily funny book that’s so insightful and beautifully observed that it transcends the sports-book ghetto and becomes a canonical piece of American literature.
Ball Four became a controversy magnet and a pop-culture phenomenon at the time of its release because it was shocking, sexy, and irreverent but it’s endured because of the substance and sweetness behind the not-as-sordid-as-you-probably-imagine revelations. And also because it’s fucking great. It’s undoubtedly better to be a baseball fan if you want to dig Ball Four, but you don’t have to be. You just have to like a great story wonderfully told.