HALF CENTURY LATER, BALL FOUR REMAINS GREATEST SPORTS BOOK EVER
By STEVEN TRAVERS
It is impossible to write a review of Ball Four (1970) without making this personal, first in terms of the effect of the book on a junior high school student, second as a primer for what eventually became a professional baseball career. Because of Ball Four, I knew exactly what minor league life would be like. It did not disappoint.
From the standpoint of Dr. Michael Savage, it might seem unusual that a review of a sports book appear on his web site. Dr. Savage admires the “tough guys” of ultimate fighting, associated by sponsorship of his son Russ Weiner’s mega-successful energy drink Rockstar, He sees in them the last vestige of true American manhood; the guys who defeated Adolf Hitler and took on Al-Qaeda. But beyond that, he often derides fans that wear their hats backwards and seem to worship their teams more than serious political thought.
I have long known Dr. Savage, and agree with him a vast majority of the time. On this I must beg to differ. I was once a guest on his show after writing an article about Barry Zito, one of the most complex personalities in the modern sports scene. On another occasion Dr. Savage wanted greater inter-action with his audience and asked listeners to let him know what areas of expertise they could offer to his show. I said I felt sports were one of mine and he agreed.
Athletics are unquestionably important. The Greeks became an empire largely built on the beauty of sport, and Rome’s gladiatorial games were the first concept of true leisure time not just for the upper classes, but a prosperous middle class, too. America re-created this in the 1920s, and named stadiums after the Romans (the L.A. Coliseum), while festooning them with Greco-Roman art.
Outside of Dr. Martin Luther King, baseball player Jackie Robinson must be the next most influential black man. It was football above all else that integrated the American South.
Ball Four was far, far more than “just a baseball book.” It was political, leaning to the left, with a slant opposing the Vietnam War being fought during its writing and publication. It told racial truths and opened the door for economic reform in sports, in the form of reversal of the reserve clause and creation of free agency. The tabloid nature of fame and reality show tangents of the book became reflected in changes since its publication. But more than anything, it influenced and enlivened the lives of countless people, many impressionable kids, mesmerized by its description of the game, the people in the game, and the incredible, tantalizing amount of fun that they had. As mentioned, this became as much a motivation to become good enough to become one of these players as the pure ambition of success. Finally, it peeled back the curtain on the private lives of men previously viewed as gods on Earth. After that, they became human beings, often with feet of clay. Nothing would ever be the same.
Before Ball Four
The only thing comparable to Ball Four before its publication were the writings of Grantland Rice describing how the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” threw the World Series, and The Long Season, an insightful diary of the 1959 season by a Cincinnati Reds pitcher named Jim Brosnan. Babe Ruth’s drinking and womanizing were off limits. So were Joe DiMaggio’s associations with mobsters. Lester Chadwick wrote a series of novels based on the “Christian gentleman,” Christy Mathewson that painted him and his teammates as men of virtue. Biographies and autobiographies avoided controversy. Even Jackie Robinson’s racial battleground was papered over, while Ty Cobb’s virulent racism was not yet fully revealed. White fans did not want to know what it was really like.
By 1968-69, however, the world was changing, and fast. First, the children of World War II veterans were now part of a prosperous middle class. Many went to college, where they were exposed to books and ideas previously reserved for the “intellectuals.” The Vietnam War was going badly. Many questioned why we needed to sacrifice our youth in a war with Communism. Liberals painted Communism as a well-meaning attempt to help the poor and the minorities of the world.
Athletes, baseball and football players in particular, were not nearly as educated as they are today. Most baseball players were from small towns and had signed out of high school. They were mostly Christian, conservative, and while good enough teammates with their black and Latino brethren, there was still a chasm.
Enter Jim Bouton. Bouton grew up in New Jersey, near New York City. He rooted for the New York Giants. Even this innocuous choice had a social edge. The New York Yankees were the dominant team, but most of his working class mates could not relate to them; not even their god-like, blonde stud of a center fielder, the incomparable Mickey Mantle. Bouton felt rooting for the Yankees was, as a famed sportswriter put it, “like rooting for U.S. Steel.” They wore pinstripes, like Wall Street bankers. They were late in signing black players and when they did the man had to be of a type: quiet, Christian family men who rocked no boats.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the team of the Jewish and black fans of Brooklyn. The New York Giants had Willie Mays and made great strides in signing the first Latino players. They played at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, in a dangerous slum. Once Bouton attended a game and went after a foul ball. He got to it perhaps a split second before a young black kid. Out of egalitarian fairness, Bouton surrendered the ball to the black child.
Bouton’s family moved to suburban Michigan where Jim was an average high school pitcher. He drew no attention from colleges or pro scouts, so his father wrote an anonymous letter to the coach at Western Michigan University, which included a few favorable press clippings, a glowing description of Jim, and the declaration that he could help the team. It was signed, “A Western Michigan baseball fan.”
The ruse worked and Bouton was recruited there, where he was little more than above average until he played in a national summer baseball tournament. He pitched against a team from Cincinnati favored to win, and defeated them in a brilliant performance. After the game he was besieged with attention from pro scouts, but after a few weeks nobody was beating his door down to sign him, so his dad again sprang into action.
Mr. Bouton wrote a form letter to all the teams that scouted his son at the tournament, announcing a bidding contest in which the team offering the highest contract could sign the kid. Nobody took a bite except . . . the New York Yankees.
Bouton signed and went into the low minor leagues, a vast wasteland of baseball especially in those days. The Yankees were filled with high-priced, elite prospects, all considered superior to Bouton. But the kid grew, got stronger, and developed a “bull dog” competitiveness that allowed him to succeed against all odds. In 1962 he made it all the way to Yankee Stadium, where he was teammates of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford; earned a starting spot in the pitching rotation; and helped the team win the World Series.
Fast forward to 1968
By 1968, Bouton was washed up. After several spectacular seasons, he injured his arm in 1965 and never came close to his old effectiveness. He had developed an odd fan base among the Yankee faithful but the team was a mere shell of its once-powerful self. Bouton was allowed to be placed in the expansion draft, selected by one of the lowliest teams in baseball history, the first-year Seattle Pilots. Bouton’s only hope was to abandon his fastball and throw knuckleballs, an odd pitch that only a handful of big leaguers had ever mastered. He was the picture of “over the hill,” forgotten by the game, his time running out fast.
Then a man Leonard Shecter approached him. Shecter had covered politics and the Blacklist in the post-war years from a decidedly liberal angle. He was Jewish and had a chip on his shoulder. He became a sportswriter covering the Yankees. The players despised him. One establishment writer called him “a pariah,” because he was always stirring up controversy.
A staple of baseball clubhouses is a sign in all of them that reads, “What you say here, what you do here, and what you hear here, let it stay here.” Bouton wrote he imagined the same sign hangs at CIA headquarters, not to mention most Vegas casinos. But Shecter’s specialty was to sniff around, listen to conversations off-handedly, and then print what he heard without permission.
Naturally he and Bouton became friends. He found Bouton to be virtually the only player who shared his politics. Bouton gave him off-the-record quotes and insides nuggets. This being the Yankees in New York during newspaper’s golden age, all of it was tabloid fodder. One gossip columnist of the era, Dorothy Kilgallen, met an untimely demise and to this day her death remains a mystery.
Shecter’s fantasy was to get inside the clubhouse with unfettered access and print every singe thing the players said, did, and talked about. Nobody had ever done it before. It was unheard of.
He approached Bouton about writing a diary of the 1969 season. At the time Bouton was still a Yankee, so presumably it would be an inside look at the Bronx Bombers. When he went to Seattle Shecter decided it would still be good. Bouton could not only describe events of the upcoming season, he could dish on juicy details of the Yankees of the previous seven seasons, all of which included the biggest story of them all, Mickey Mantle. Bouton readily agreed. A small publisher, World Publishing of Cleveland, agreed to release it. They figured it would make a little profit and be forgotten. Bouton was given a tape recorder and notebook. He would record the diary and his stories, noting events he saw in the clubhouse, on the field, in the bus, on airplanes, in airports, in hotels, bars, restaurants, and every place else. Little was off limits. The only no-no was the name of players and their sex habits. Married players had to remain masked, although Bouton’s descriptions often made it easy to figure whom he was talking about.
The first challenge was the biggest. Bouton had to make the team. If he injured himself or was just plain cut from the squad, he would have no season to write about in his diary. He went to Spring Training in Arizona with the Pilots, an expansion team of cast offs, unknowns, rookies, washed up veterans like himself, and other undesirables. The manager was a former Tigers coach named Joe Schultz whose methods and approach to the game was the same as it had been since Babe Ruth played. His coaches were mostly old cronies and drinking buddies.
The team was terrible, maybe worse than that. But it did not matter. The book was not about a great pennant race, champion players, terrific feats of derring-do. It was about the daily grind of baseball; the personalities, the relationships, the boredom, the fun, the jealousy, the stupidity, the camaraderie. This, as Ball Four revealed, was what fans truly wanted to feel. What is was like to be a big leaguer.
Had Bouton stayed with the Yankees, he likely would not have made the team. Because the 1969 Seattle Pilots were so bad, he was given a spot on the roster. He described archaic training methods and old school minds unwilling to consider change. Schultz constantly uttered the phrase, “Ah, shitfuck,” and was soon known to the players as “Ol’ Shitfuck.” Bouton was convinced by a teammate, a kinesiology Ph.D. named Mike Marshall, that he needed to throw a great deal in order to strengthen his arm. The coaches believed he needed to rest in between appearances and thwarted his efforts at extra bullpen work. His pitching coach was a former star named Sal Maglie, who looked and carried himself like a Mafia hit man. Every time Schultz saw Bouton, he would say, “Sal says you’re throwing too much.” Any effort to explain Dr. Marshall’s theories about sinew development via heavy bullpen work was dismissed, with Marshall’s education viewed as a complete hindrance to successful baseball orthodoxy.
Bouton kept charts and graphs, common in today’s computerized baseball world, but if he tried to show it to Schultz or Maglie he always received the same reply: “I don’t need to look at that stuff, I see the games.”
Bouton described how he and Marshall were ostracized as “college guys.” This was tantamount to Communism. Most of the uneducated players were Neanderthals who despised long hair and hippies. Bouton’s lack of support for the Vietnam War immediately cast suspicion on him.
Almost everybody still wore crew cuts in 1969. Bouton was once quizzed in McCarthy style by a bullpen mate about his views in general, and when the subject turned to cuisine one of his right-wing teammates said, “Ask Bouton if he can recommend any good Communist dishes.”
Once in Oakland Bouton and teammate Gary Bell, his roommate, good friend and apparently a political fellow traveler, decided to take a taxi cab over to the University of California campus in Berkeley, where they hob-nobbed in solidarity with the anti-war protestors. This caused Bouton to recall his manager in New York, Ralph Houk, a World War II hero nicknamed “the Major,” who commented on the police on the field to stop some anti-war protestors at Yankee Stadium.
“They should be at the university where they belong,” he remarked.
Bouton was not a drug user and only a light beer drinker, which made him an odd ball among the heavy swillers in baseball at that time. He bravely tried to drink beer and play cards, which he hated, if only to try and fit in. He claimed that the game of baseball bored him, but he loved the competition and despite being an outsider, the camaraderie. This was perhaps his greatest accomplishment.
Bouton captured to perfection the art of the put down, the joke, the prank. In this rarefied world, to be the object of jokes was the height of popularity, the ultimate sign one was “one of the guys,” and nothing was more important in the social hierarchy than acceptance as one of the guys. Tremendous baseball ability was of course the ultimate way to rise above the pecking order, but even that could waver.
Bouton described Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox, a Hall of Famer then at the absolute zenith of his magnificent career, yet Yaz could be surly, unfriendly to teammates and press, and even failed to hustle on occasion. He was a player who performed with Herculean ability when his team was winning and in reach of the pennant, but dogged it otherwise. Lack of hustle was a true no-no with managers, coaches, teammate and fans.
Bouton described players who tripped the light fantastic in bars in the company of young women known as “baseball Annies,” or groupies, then the next day were haggard from the previous evenings escapades. The answer to this dilemma was the “greenie,” an amphetamine pill dispensed in clubhouses like chewing tobacco or bubble gum. It was the butt of inside jokes. Even fans seemingly in the know were unaware of the prevalence of amphetamines in baseball before Ball Four.
Besides talent, other ways a baseball player achieved popularity was his ability to drink, to crack jokes, and to talk women into having sex. Aspersions were cast at book smarts and intelligence. Bouton, Marshall, a Stanford player named Steve Hovley, and a few others were semi-intellectuals, but they had to hide it almost as if they were closet gays, which was beyond saying, simply not allowed and apparently never an issue, either in Bouton’s descriptions or any other memories of baseball, at least until the late 1980s or 1990s.
There were far more African-American players in baseball then than now. Latino players, particularly Dominicans, were prevalent but not nearly the force that they are today. It is interesting to note that Latino players of the era were usually small, wiry middle infielders. Over time the diets and lifestyles of players in Latin America improved so much that today Dominicans tend to be as huge and muscular as any of the players.
Bouton naturally enjoyed friendship with black teammates. It was not frowned upon but the unspoken rule was that such a relationship had limits. For instance, it was very rare for blacks and whites to room together on the road. At the time, the Chicago Bears football team and the Houston Astros baseball team had black-white roommates, but it was rare enough to earn headlines in The Sporting News.
Pete Rose in later years spoke of how when he was a precocious rookie breaking onto the veteran Cincinnati Reds, only the black players were nice to him. He was “warned” not to socialize with them, but was too good and ignored the edict. Bouton developed a strong friendship with teammate Tommy Davis, in some ways the “black Jim Bouton.”
They were both young stars in the early 1960s. Bouton was an ace right-hander with the Yankees, Davis a power-hitting star with Hall of Fame potential for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They faced each other in the 1963 World Series, and would wistfully reminisce of glorious seasons past.
But Davis like Bouton suffered a career-defining injury in 1965. Neither was ever remotely as good again, yet here they were, hanging on with the expansion 1969 Pilots. The relationship with Davis caused the thinker Jim Bouton to do an amateur study of race in baseball, if not all professional sports at that time. He went over the league batting leaders of recent seasons and saw that roughly half the players with the best statistics were black, yet only about 10-15 percent of the players in the game were African-American.
This confirmed for Bouton what he only suspected, which was that if two players were ordinary, the white player got the job. The blacks had to be stars, or close to it, to have a job in the Major Leaguers. This was part of an overall “good ol’ boys” network in the game. Managers and coaches were invariably white, not necessarily brilliant strategists, often picked because of friendships and drinking camaraderie with those hiring them or right under therm. The blacks were usually not quite in this little social order and were not hired as coaches and certainly not as managers. The owners were white men who enjoyed cocktails, and often hired general managers and managers who would share a libation with them.
Much of this came to Bouton’s attention by way of Davis and other blacks that enlightened him to this otherwise hidden truth in the game. This caused a great deal of consternation when the book was published, inferring racism on a game proud that it had opened up for Jackie Robinson and was Our National Pastime.
That was not all. Bouton revealed that the minimum salary was $7,000. Most fans believed baseball players made big dough. Star players did, but it was a scramble for the rest. Bouton had gotten injured too early in his career to have ever made the money of a Don Drysdale or a Camilo Pasqual, two aces of his era. 1969 was also the year Curt Flood of the Cardinals sat out instead of accepting a trade to Philadelphia, thus challenging the reserve clause. The reserve clause had been a part of the game since the 19th Century, when the players attempted to unionize and challenge the rule stating they were indentured to a single team only until that team saw fit to trade a player, re-negotiate a contract, or release him.
Bouton was a big fan of Marvin Miller, head of the nascent player’s union. Most of his teammates were not. Miller was viewed as some kind of Communist or agitator. The players could not see that they would benefit from Miller some day, although a truthful look at his impact on the game indicates that cable TV, growth of American cities especially in the sunbelt, and basic capitalism was the real reason they now make mega-millions.
Bouton wrote that players never revealed their salaries to each other. Only the most high-priced stars had salaries known by fans. The team discouraged discussion among teammates of salary, because in truth they were paying so little. That was in the big leagues. Minor league life was a form of indentured servitude. Because the guys were young, having the time of their lives playing a children’s game, had their run of partying and pretty girls, who cares? But the Major Leaguers had wives and families. They sold insurance and drove beer trucks in the off-season to make ends meet. The owners just wanted them dumb and happy, not agitating about money or racial rights. That was a big reason the baseball establishment reacted so negatively to his book.
At some point Bouton’s teammates realized something was up. He was always making notes and would speak into a tape recorder every night, sending the cassettes to Leonard Shecter in New York for editing. They would speak periodically and both realized they had dynamite.
Stories of sex adventures of course helped sell Ball Four, although Bouton tried hard to maintain discretion. Players would be described as “the roommate of a star player in St. Louis swears this” or “a veteran player did that.” But it was obvious that Major League baseball players were not lonely. Their favorite playmates were stewardesses, known as “stews,” who in those days were hired for their looks, single status and availability, the complete opposite of the matrons of the sky currently occupying airplanes along with their gay male workmates. But in 1969 they looked like models, dressed in mini-skirts with thigh-high boots, and were looking to party. They often stayed in the same hotels as the players and it was a sex fest. Hotel lobbies and bars were havens for available “local talent.” While surely wives and others with a little moxie knew ballplayers were players off the field, Ball Four opened up a can of worms for married men who had to explain that Bouton was talking about somebody other than them. There were later claims that the book was responsible for a fair amount of divorces, possibly even Bouton’s.
The book had to be funny, the jokes had to be off-color, and it had to be a tale of good times, because the 1969 Pilots were truly bad. This caused a form of gallows humor; a team full of cast-offs and nobodies realizing their careers would soon end. Bouton embodied this, and wrote that he did not “control a baseball”; rather the game “controlled me.”
Despite his obvious intelligence and a couple years at Western Michigan, he was not educated or trained to do anything else. Only a few of his teammates were. It was telling that Mike Marshall had the credentials to be a college professor, yet he chose baseball and all its vicissitudes. The game, while boring some times, had a grip on everybody involved in it. Everybody in Ball Four had a love affair with baseball, in one way or another.
But Bouton, with his note pads, his charts, his constant nagging that he throw more between appearances, his odd training methods and way of thinking, was viewed as a threat to the established order of the game, even in 1969 before publication of the book. He described “small men” unwilling to open their minds to new ideas; coaches and players alike.
Early in the season, Bouton found himself sent to Vancouver, the club’s triple-A farm club in the Pacific Coast League. This could have spelled disaster for the book if it had just been a diary of the minor leagues all year, but Bouton to his credit worked very hard, stayed positive, pitched well, and was called back up. While nobody will confuse Bouton with Rollie Fingers or the Bouton of 1963, he actually pitched quite well. His relative mastery of the knuckleball, a very difficult pitch to control, was impressive.
Even players who made fun of him eventually became friendly towards him, the result of close proximity for months on end. He made true and lasting friendships, speaking of how he spent more time with these men of the diamond than his own wife or children.
His descriptions of clubhouse preparations and after-the-game rituals, which included lavish banquet spreads and beer drinking, provided a vivid picture of what professional ball would be like for countless young men who one day would be doing just that, but the book’s popularity reflected the great affection of the American public for the game, and their desire to truly know what went on behind the scenes.
The players were true oppositionalists. The clubhouse man would prepare a delicious spread of post-game chicken and sides for the hungry guys after the game, only to have them complain – jokingly – about the “slop.”
Fans would sit in the stands, look into the dugout, see players joking and laughing, wondering what they were talking about. A good-time stewardess the night before. A few too many beers at the bar. Some inside scoop on the inner workings of the game. Here was something that told these tales out of school and did so brilliantly.
Ball Four memorialized forever little known players like Ray Oyler, John Donaldson, Steve Hovley, Gary Bell, and all the rest. While there may have been some hard feelings at the time because Bouton broke the unwritten rule of baseball omerta, these men discovered a second life for decades, identified by fans and younger players who felt they knew them from descriptions in the book.
After getting called back up to Seattle, Bouton pitched as well as he had in five years on a bad club. The season was approaching the “dog days” that mark the end of a losing season. In this regard the book was rather unique; most writers deem subject matter worthy of a book only if it describes a championship or great performance, not mediocrity. But things took a turn for the good when in August Bouton was traded to the Houston Astros. This was a great break on several levels.
1969 was the first season in which baseball divided into divisions, and the National League West pennant race was one of the greatest of all time, with the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros in a neck-and-neck battle for the title.
Suddenly, Bouton’s diary was of a stretch drive for the championship, one of the most exciting, on-going, daily bouts of pressure in all of sports. Each game is absolutely imperative; every pitch is examined. The crowds are huge, the media attention non-stop.
The Astros had been like the Pilots back in 1962, when they were a first-year expansion club. But after moving into the marvelous Astrodome, they had built their farm system and by 1969 were one of the best young teams in the game. They were fast, exciting, and filled with promise. Their pitching staff was off the charts; young hard throwing studs who struck out opposing hitters at a record-breaking pace.
The entire tenor of the book changed early in the Houston portion when Bouton described sitting in the bullpen watching a pitcher’s duel between Larry Dierker, a young ace with Hall of Fame ability, against Bob Gibson, a veteran ace whose Hall credentials were already secure. A large crowd was bolted to the action, every play make or break. The difference between this and the Seattle experience, which was mainly the Pilots losing in front of small crowds, stark.
For Bouton personally, the trade to Houston was confirmation of his own success as a knuckleball pitcher. A contending team like the Astros would never have dealt for an over-the-hill veteran, as Bouton had been just a year earlier, with so much on the line. Bouton responded by pitching well down the stretch, usually in key situations.
The Astros were incredibly cocky. Their youth played into that dynamic, but it was also a reaction to pressure. They were competing head-to-head against teams with some of the best players of all time – Gibson, Tom Seaver of the Mets, Hank Aaron of the Braves, Willie McCovey of the Giants, Johnny Bench of the Reds, Don Sutton of the Dodgers. They were unwilling to concede an inch.
Aside from the fire balling starting pitchers, the team featured the magnificent second baseman Joe Morgan. Morgan would go on to a Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati, but many first learned of him in Ball Four. Bouton’s descriptions of Morgan, as with Davis (who came to Houston with Bouton in the trade), were reflective of a new breed of black athlete.
The “old Willies” (Mays, McCovey, and Aaron, all from Alabama) were being replaced by young black players, many like Morgan from California, who were better educated and less affected by racism. Morgan was described as keenly intelligent, a baseball savant, and team leader.
Dierker’s curveball was called “the yellow hammer,” and the club felt the Astrodome, which they always prefaced descriptions of with a particularly sexual swear word, was a home field advantage like no other.
The team’s manager was Harry Walker, and this said much. Harry was an old school baseball man whose brother Dixie – they were from Pascagoula, Mississippi – was so racist he demanded a trade from Brooklyn rather than play with Jackie Robinson, a mere 22 years earlier. Harry was cut from the same cloth, yet here he was managing one of the most mixed-race teams in baseball. A white player, Curt Blefary, roomed with a hard-throwing black pitcher from L.A. named Don Wilson. This was rare at the time.
There is no indication in Bouton’s diary of a racist Walker or complaints from black players. The team in fact seemed to Bouton to be perhaps the most close-knit he had ever played for, and he felt he fit right in from the beginning.
The team also created an uproarious song called “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be an Astro.” It was based on the tune “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier,” and in a sign of the times (Vietnam) many had served (as had Bouton) or were in reserve units. The song, which was totally X-rated, made fun of Walker, as if he could say nothing about drinking, partying or womanizing because the team just won their games. Catcher Johnny Edwards was described in the song as drinking too much but would “be alright if we can keep him in his room at night.”
Edwards was the quintessential veteran who glued that team together. He had played on the 1961 Reds pennant winners and was traded to Houston only to make room for the incomparable Johnny Bench, but his leadership was key.
The Astros, probably because they were a more confident bunch than Seattle, were wisecrack specialists and nobody was immune. Bouton loved it, and considered jokes played on him to be a badge of honor.
Eventually the team faltered near the end and did not win, but they remained the best Houston club until division winners in the 1980s. The season now over, Bouton felt good about his performance, the club’s chances in 1970, and his own place on the team when the time came.
“The Yanks Are Coming, the Yanks Are Coming”
While all the baseball and hi-jinx and social commentary that Bouton described in Seattle and Houston made it a great book that would have done well for these reasons, what pushes it over the top was the New York connection.
Bouton had fought his way through the Yankees’ farm system as well as doing a stint in the Army, and against all odds found himself a member of the 1962 club. This was a team, a town and a time for the ages. New York was still a city of Frank Sinatra swank. Its bars and restaurants were welcome to all the players, who had carte blanche in Manhattan. Bouton said that women throughout baseball were beautiful, and the sex was plentiful and fun in this era prior to AIDS. But women in New York (along with Los Angeles, where the team attended “Johnny Grant pool parties” with models and actresses) were a notch better than anyplace else. In L.A., the Yankees could not hit Dean Chance, the Angels ace right-hander. Mantle and his mates were too hung over to catch up to him.
The team had just won World Series after World Series for four decades before Bouton arrived. The arrogance and confidence was exuded from the owner down to the batboy to the fans. Bouton, who disliked the team as a kid because of this very reason, was now one of them.
Throughout Ball Four, Bouton weaved stories of New York, the Yankees, and their glory days. This made it a “New York book” above all. First on the list was the great Mickey Mantle.
Mantle was a terrific teammate who despite his stature did not ”big league” rookies, making Bouton feel right at home. In Bouton’s first start, he walked seven and allowed seven hits but somehow tossed a complete game shutout. The team laid out a row of towels in the clubhouse leading to his locker, a baseball version of the “red carpet.” As Bouton entered, he saw the great Mantle lay down the last towel. He had arrived.
Bouton threw absolute heat, a miraculous late development from the high school kid who could not break a pane of glass with his fastball, but he was a tremendous stud, a clutch hurler, and fan favorite.
Bouton helped New York win the World Championship in 1962, and pitched brilliantly against Los Angeles in the 1963 World Series, and against St. Louis in the 1964 World Series.
These were some of Mantle’s greatest years, but it was Bouton who revealed two conflicting facts about the Mick. First, his injuries and physical ailments were astounding. He had to be wrapped from foot to neck in order to play. Every exertion hurt him. He was constantly under medical supervision.
But Mantle did not help himself because he drank to excess most nights, played the field with every New York model and bar girl he could find, and was in fact unable to play on occasion due to hangovers. Bouton described several such incidents. Once Mick sat the bench nursing a headache but the game went into extra innings. Ralph Houk, who idolized the man and felt he could do no wrong, asked him to pinch-hit. He responded with a tremendous game-winning blast. Bouton asked how he could even see the ball in such a state, and Mick just smiled and said, “I hit the one in the middle.”
On another occasion Mick and cohort Whitey Ford, a Hall of Fame pitcher who only had to play every four or five days, arrived late and drunk to an exhibition game at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, of all places. They stumbled through the center field fence after the game started. This time the manager got mad and forced Mick to play.
Ford and Mantle, while welcoming to rookies, played their share of tricks on them. Once in Detroit they invited young infielder Phil Linz to a restaurant called The Flame. Linz was excited, his first big night with Mick and Whitey. He had a cab take him to The Flame, which was a burnt out shell of a building likely destroyed in riots.
Bouton got back at Mick when he held a fishing tournament. Bouton bought a huge fish, bigger than the ones caught by all the others, and of course it was grey and just lay there while the others floundered about. But when Mick did not pay him the winner’ prize he just told Bouton, “That’s the risk of playing a game of chance.”
On another occasion, with New York leading 6-2 in the seventh inning, Bouton and a teammate went into the clubhouse and put talcum powder in Joe Pepitone’s blow dryer. Pepitone was the first player to use a blow dryer. As fate would have it, the team blew the lead and nary a pin drop could be heard in the losing clubhouse after the game when Pepitone emerged from the shower to blow dry his hair. Talcum powder covered him. The team laughed like crazy. Bouton said Pepitone “looked like an Italian George Washington.”
Bouton also recalled a famed incident during the 1964 pennant race with Chicago and Baltimore. Linz was playing the harmonica in the back of the bus after a loss. Manager Yogi Berra became irritated and called for him to stop. “What did he say?” Linz asked, and somebody replied, “Play it louder.”
Whereupon Berra went to the back of the bus and ripped the harmonica away from Linz. It was the kind of incident, Bouton wrote, that would cause most teams to fold, but the Yankees won something like 10 straight and 40 of 50 to capture the flag.
Once in Washington, D.C., Mantle led an expeditionary force of “peeping Tom” Yankees to the top floor of the Shoreham Hotel, where they all had a birds-eye view of a stewardess having sex with some guy.
At a game they once observed attractive girls in dresses sitting in the first row behind their dugout. They drilled holes so they could look up their skirts. This act was called “beaver hunting.”
Playing for the Yankees was considered such a privilege, the team did not feel duty bound to pay a player his real worth. The theory was that the player would make it up with World Series money at the end of the year, plus marketing opportunities available in New York. Yankee general manager Roy Hamey offered Bouton a contract, but the young pitcher fearfully returned it asking for higher pay.
“Now lookit son,” Hamey told him, “yer gonna sign this contract, and that’s all there’s gonna be.”
Bouton became a fan favorite and when he appeared in Yankee Stadium in a Seattle uniform was cheered lustfully by “my public.”
Perhaps what irritated Mantle and his teammates the most was Bouton describing Mickey sitting, stone-faced, looking out the window at hundreds of kids begging for his autograph. Mantle was very human and his faults later were well exposed, but never before Ball Four. He was beloved by teammates and everybody else, thought sacrosanct. Children adored him, perhaps beyond any other athlete . . . ever.
Mantle was blonde, blue-eyed, a homespun Oklahoman. Absent his injuries, he may have been the greatest athlete of all time. As a New York icon, none was greater, yet here was this left-wing nobody besmirching his image.
Eventually, Bouton’s arm became sore, just as the club sank into the second division very quickly in 1965. Mantle, Ford and the other superstars would never approach greatness again. It was a down time, and of course eventually Bouton was let loose so Seattle could select him in the expansion draft.
Rumors of Bouton’s book circulated around baseball in 1970, as Len Schecter edited it and submitted it to the publisher. Bouton indeed did make the Astros roster, but was not as effective as the previous season, while the club fell precipitously. Towards the season’s end, the book was published. There were excerpts and reviews describing the beer swilling, “greenies,” the “raunchiness,” Mantle’s personal faults, the pettiness of the game, racial disparities, and the like.
Bouton found himself on the outs, from the Astros and the game. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hauled him to his office in New York and demanded a retraction, which Bouton refused to do.
Players excoriated him. Mantle remained silent publicly but fumed in private. His teammates basically called Bouton a Communist and traitor. In some circles he was up there with Alger Hiss.
Wives of players all wanted to know about the groupies and “baseball Annies.” Nobody could really dispute the drinking, as the writers all saw it up close, but the amphetamine usage was hard to swallow, to use a pun.
Whatever problems the book caused were largely outweighed by the incredible benefits. Reviews of Ball Four compared it to Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth. Bouton, a literate man, enjoyed the novel and referenced it. Roth, a baseball fan, loved Ball Four.
Bouton became a multi-millionaire immediately. The book has continued to sell into multiple re-prints to this day. Bouton wrote books about the writing of the book, edited other books, and always kept his hand in. Everything he wrote sold well and continued to elevate Ball Four’s always-phenomenal sales.
Bouton was a sportscaster in New York and even starred in a TV version of Ball Four. Discussions about a staged theatrical of the book never came about, even though that, perhaps a kind of one-man show (baseball’s Mark Twain) may have done well and still could.
But Bouton had temptations. One can only guess at the women who threw themselves at him. He was good-looking and athletic. He eventually divorced.
Slowly, many of the players came around and forgave him or even admitted to enjoying it. Younger players seemed to have read it as a younger generation once read The Catcher in the Rye. Bouton was a regular with Johnny Carson, David Letterman and others.
Some seven yeas after retiring, he made a comeback pitching for an independent team in Portland, Oregon where he was a teammate of actor Kurt Russell, whose dad owned the club. This led to a brief return to the Major Leagues with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves. Bouton was cheered like crazy. Fans yelled quotes from his book at him on the field. He acknowledged all of it and loved every minute.
Eventually, Mickey Mantle met tragedy. First, Mick’s son died. Bouton wrote a note to the Mick, who called and left a nice message on his voicemail expressing that he was okay with Ball Four and bore no grudges. Mick also insisted he had nothing to do with the Yankees’ long failure to invite Bouton to old-timer’s games.
When Mantle came down with liver disease he freely admitted everything Bouton had written was true, and more, insisting he was a cautionary tale on how not to live. After Mantle died, Bouton lost his daughter, and his son wrote a heartfelt letter to the Yankees via the New York press expressing the desire that by-gones be by-gones, and please let Jim return for old-timer’s games.
The Yankees agreed and Bouton did come back to Yankee Stadium. The fans gave him a standing ovation and most of the players were nice to him, with a few exceptions.
Bouton died a year ago, but today Ball Four is 50 years old. It is a telling tale of the 1960s, in its own way being to sport what Hunter Thompson was to the counter-culture. Bouton managed to bridge the gap between the left and the right. He was described as one of those guys who felt America should occasionally lose a war, just to make things fair, but even these kinds of statements were not rendered with malice.
The New York Public Library rated it one of its Books of the Century. It must be referenced with favorable comparison to books by Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. It was a kind of “bible” to millions of baseball fanatics. It was a primer for decades of kids entering the pro ranks looking for something Bouton told them they would find. They found it.
Several players prominent in Ball Four went on to great fame. Lou Piniella briefly a member of the 1969 Pilots, went on to a spectacular career with the Royals and Yankees, then an equally spectacular managerial career with Cincinnati and the Chicago Cubs.
Mike Marshall, the kinesiology Ph.D. who advised Bouton but was rejected by “small minds,” basically had all of his theories validated when he went on to a magnificent career as an indestructible relief pitcher that never got tired. In 1974 Marshall set a big league record for games pitched and won the Cy Young award with the pennant-winning Dodgers.
Joe Morgan of the Astros was traded to Cincinnati in 1972, where he became a Hall of Famer with the Big Red Machine. Larry Dierker was spectacular but flamed out without reaching the Cooperstown level of greatness predicted of him, but was a successful manager and Astros broadcaster. Don Wilson was an excellent pitcher but got drunk with his car engine running, causing not just his death but also one of his kids when the carbon monoxide drifted into the house.
While Bouton found Harry Walker to be a good manager, Morgan and Jim Wynn later recalled him as racist, as his brother had been. The Seattle Pilots, after one year, moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.
Pat Jordan’s The Suitors of Spring and A False Spring can be compared to Ball Four. Jordan was a better pure writer and his stories were equaling compelling. Bouton’s tome launched other similar stories like The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle and Number One by Billy Martin. In some ways Jose Canseco’s Juiced owes itself to Ball Four. The media has stripped away the veneer of greatness from its heroes in all walks of life. A Mickey Mantle cannot exist anymore. David Halberstam’s October 1964 described the Yankees in Bouton’s last good year, and was written from the perspective of Bouton’s book and the evolution of race relations in sports the book said largely generated from that season.
But baseball people like Bob Costas will argue forever that Ball Four by Jim Bouton was the best baseball book, and probably the best sports book, ever published.
After all, he had his public
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored 30 books. He is a USC graduate, played professional baseball, attended law school, worked in politics, served in the Army, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.