Jim Bouton: Briefly a Brave, forever a personal hero

From the Bradley archives.

Combined ShapeCaption
From the Bradley archives.

Baseball has inspired many a wordsmith to practice word-smithery of the highest order — Roger Angell in The New Yorker, Red Smith on a daily basis, Roger Kahn in “The Boys of Summer,” Bill James in his industry-changing Almanacs. Many recall John Updike more for “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” his reportage on Ted Williams’ final at-bat, as for his Rabbit Angstrom chronicles. Don DeLillo, maybe the greatest living writer, began his fin de siecle “Underworld” with an imagined recounting — Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover are involved — of Bobby Thomson’s home run.

But the greatest book about baseball — one of the greatest books about anything — was written by a baseball player. His name was Jim Bouton. He died at 80 on Wednesday.

Bouton’s last big-league appearance, after nearly a decade of wandering in the minors, was as an Atlanta Brave at the shank of the 1978 season, when the Braves were wretched, and Ted Turner would do anything to get noticed. Ted signed Bouton, who was 39 and who went 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA. When he was 30 and a Seattle Pilot (later a Houston Astro), Bouton kept the diary that would, with the assistance of Leonard Shecter, become “Ball Four.”

It’s impossible for anyone who wasn’t of reading age when “Ball Four” was published to grasp what a commotion it caused. Excerpts ran in Look magazine. (Look was the competitor to Life; both are long gone.) When the book was released in June 1970, nearly every sports writer — I wasn’t yet one; I’d just finished my freshman year at Maysville (Ky.) High — in the land decried it. The famous Dick Young unleashed this gentle appraisal in the New York Daily News:

“I feel sorry for Jim Bouton. He is a social leper. His collaborator on the book, Leonard Shecter, is a social leper. People like this, embittered people, sit down in their time of deepest rejection and write. They write, oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and it makes them feel much better.” (And here you thought Michiko Kakutani was the most acidic New York book reviewer ever.)

Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner too busy to be at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the night Henry Aaron hit No. 715, wasn’t too busy to deem the book “detrimental to baseball.” Players hated it. In May, after the excerpts appeared, Bouton started at the Astrodome against the Cincinnati Reds, then in imperious Big Red Machine mode. He got nobody out. The first four hitters were Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench. Three got hits; the other walked. He was pulled before further damage ensued.

Watching on TV, I felt conflicting emotions. I always liked the Reds — Maysville is 60 miles from Cincinnati – but the Reds’ announcers and the Reds themselves were oppressive enough in their glee that I wound up feeling sorry for Bouton. He would later write about that game, and how the Reds were calling him “freaking Shakespeare” and yelling, “Put that in your flipping book!”

Players, see, were mad because Bouton had touched the third rail: He’d let the world know that big-leaguers weren’t exactly Chip Hilton. He described their flexible approach to marital vows. He wrote that they were often more zealous in their pursuit of, shall we say, late-night sports than in their dedication to their day jobs. Worst of all, at least in their minds, he depicted the sainted Mickey Mantle as a weepy drunk.

Almost alone among major sports, baseball inspired an almost religious devotion in its followers. Bob Costas, who had no trouble bashing the NFL over concussions (and good for him), has admitted carrying a 1958 Mickey Mantle Topps card in his wallet long into adulthood. Bouton yanked back the curtains and informed us that Kahn’s Boys of Summer were no longer boys and, in some cases, not very good men. In sum, he committed sacrilege.

Personal note: I never much liked Mantle. I much preferred Carl Yastrzemski and Roberto Clemente and Hammerin’ Hank. Even then, “Ball Four” put me to the test: Bouton wrote that Yaz loafed on the field. By the time I read that part, I didn’t care. I loved “Ball Four” so much – I estimate I’ve read it 10 times – that I’d have followed Bouton anywhere.

True story: Gary, my UK roommate, and I were of similar minds about “Ball Four.” Gary put together a “Ball Four” quiz. It included 50 questions. I took it. I missed one.

Another: Before a game at Riverfront Stadium in the early ’70s, I sidled down to the visitors’ dugout and struck up a conversation with the Astros’ Norm Miller, a player of no renown except for having been Bouton’s roommate. Said Miller of Bouton in response to the first question I ever asked a professional athlete: “He’s an interesting guy.” (Can I elicit a pithy quote or what?)

By then, Bouton was gone from the majors. He started with the Yankees – hence his insights into Mantle – as a hard thrower, but he hurt his arm and sought to remake himself as a knuckleballer. (“Ball Four’s” original subtitle: “My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Major Leagues.”) He hooked on with the expansion Pilots, who traded him to Houston late in the 1969 season. It must be said: As a knuckleballer, he wasn’t Phil Niekro. But the charm of Bouton was that he was bright enough to challenge received baseball wisdom and reveal much of it as rank stupidity.

The best parts of “Ball Four” — there are no bad parts — were Bouton’s withering takes on Pilots manager Joe Schultz and pitching coach Sal Maglie. (Johnny Sain, who’d been Bouton’s pitching coach with the Yankees, is presented in a warmer light. Indeed, I still quote Bouton, who was quoting Sain: “It never hurts to say you’re sorry, even if you don’t mean it.”)

Maglie – the legendary Sal the Barber of New York Giants days – is portrayed as a classic second-guesser. Schultz is portrayed as a cretin. Schultz’s advice to a reliever on how to work a particular batter: “(Forget) him. Give him some low smoke and we’ll go pound some Budweiser.” Other Schultz-isms, even today, remain NSFW. All are hilarious in a pre-“Dumb and Dumber” way. Bouton had a great ear.

He wrote a follow-up to “Ball Four,” titled “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,” which is what the ever-gracious Young told Bouton after labeling him a leper. It’s nearly as good. It includes Yankees president Mike Burke’s verdict on “Ball Four,” which was, in its entirety: “I, on the other hand, enjoyed it.” It also includes the LOL meeting with Kuhn in which the gasbag commish harrumphs his displeasure before deciding, in the grand Kuhn way, to do nothing. But nothing could ever trump “Ball Four.” You can only tear the veil asunder once.

It’s among my many regrets that I never met Jim Bouton. I’ve no idea whether “Ball Four” led me into this vocation. (I liked sports and sports writing already.) Reading and re-reading “Ball Four” has been, to quote Neil Young at the Band’s Last Waltz, one of the pleasures of my life. It has also, alas, been the burr under my saddle for 40 years. I still can’t believe I didn’t ace that “Ball Four” quiz.