By John Thorn
I first met Jim Bouton, in April 2004. What brought us together at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, New Jersey was an ESPN mock trial of the New York Yankees and their spending habits. We were to be "expert witnesses" in this televised silliness—along with Mike Torrez, Goose Gossage, Mike Veeck, and others; attorney for the prosecution was Alan Dershowitz, for the defense Bruce Cutler. The jury decided that after all the Yankees were not bad for baseball, but only a mock sigh of relief was evidenced in Hackensack or in the Bronx. Before the proceedings commenced in earnest I had introduced myself to Jim timidly. I had known about him for a long time, of course—beginning with a memorable game played on Sunday, June 24, 1962. He was a rookie with the Yankees; I was a teenager stuck at the home of my parents' friends, with the TV my only friend. I turned on the Yankees game with Detroit and watched every pitch of what turned out to be a 22-inning New York victory, with Bouton throwing blanks for the final seven innings to claim the win when reserve outfielder Jack Reed hit the one and only home run of his big-league career.
Eyeing Jim in the makeshift "green room" of the courthouse, I was still that kid on the other side of the TV screen. What emboldened me to approach him was my knowledge of his ongoing efforts to bring baseball back to Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which had hosted baseball on this same spot since 1892.
"It might interest you, Jim," I offered, "that baseball was played in Pittsfield a full century earlier, and I have evidence of a prohibition against its play anywhere near a newly erected church. The actual document, I was told by the town clerk, survives."
This stunned him. It was a great way to promote Pittsfield and his campaign. We became fast friends. He and his colleagues went on to scour the town's archives and unearthed two manuscript copies of the "Pittsfield Prohibition" of 1791 and, barely a month after our conversation in Hackensack, we held a press conference. Because the ban placed baseball—asplayed by that name—in 18th-century America, the discovery turned out to be an international event.
A vintage baseball game followed at Wahconah Park on July 3, with nearly 5000 fans overflowing the confines of the park, and was televised live on ESPN. Jim pitched the last couple of innings for the Pittsfield Hillies, while Bill "Spaceman" Lee left his place at my side in the broadcast booth to pitch for the Hartford Senators.
A Vintage Base Ball Federation followed, with games in a number of locations for several years. I was involved in all of it, but for me the principal benefit of reviving the old ball game was the friendship with Jim that continues to this day. Though we get together with our wives regularly for dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I confess to being star-struck still—and not because Jim won twenty games for the Yankees a couple of times before I went off to college.
He is the man who wrote Ball Four.
I will not detail Jim's life here. His biography is wonderfully sketched by Mark Armour in an entry for SABR's Baseball Biography Project. Permit me to focus now on Ball Four: its landmark place in history; the revolution it inspired; and the importance of the impending sale at auction of its underlying notes, drafts, audiotapes, and related materials, whose very survival was largely unknown.
Jim was not the first baseball player to produce an autobiography, but he was one of the first to tell his own story without benefit of a ghost. Leonard Shecter, formerly a beat writer for the New York Post, shaped the tapes and the notes into a cohesive narrative, but Jim was the writer, as all those in baseball knew. (That's why Pete Rose called out from the dugout, when Jim pitched against the Cincinnati Reds in 1970, "Fuck you, Shakespeare.")
The game's first autobiography was King Kelly's Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Field (1888), wholly written by the Boston Globe's Jack Drohan. The first pitcher to "tell all" at book length was Christy Mathewson in Pitching in a Pinch (1912), but that book was ghostwritten too, by John Wheeler. In between, in 1900, came A Ball Player's Career, Being the Personal Experiences and Reminiscences of Adrian C. Anson, which the grand old man of baseball wrote himself. Many other ghosted memoirs followed, largely forgettable (an exception: Ted Williams's My Turn at Bat, written with John Underwood).
It was not until 1960 that another player emulated Anson by writing his own book. That was Jim Brosnan in The Long Season, highly readable and unprecedentedly frank, even though he pulled his punches in matters of sex and substance abuse. However, in the sure sign that the author largely got it right, Brosnan was viewed as a renegade and turncoat by those who believed that sportswriters were not journalists but friends whose discretion could be trusted. (This impression had long been reinforced by writers traveling, dining, and imbibing on the credit line of the club they covered.)
"I really enjoyed [Brosnan's book] tremendously," Bouton later recalled. "I remember when I was reading the book, the parts that excited me the most were whenever he would quote any of the players or coaches.... It was fascinating to me what the ballplayers actually said to each other during games, in the bullpens, or after games."
In 1968 Lenny Shecter, a freelance no longer working for the Post, wondered if the time was ripe for a truly honest baseball diary. He approached Bouton and was told, "Funny you should mention that. I've been keeping notes."
Bouton told ESPN in 2003: "The idea of Ball Four came to me after my first year in the minor leagues. I would spend all day long with a notebook in my pocket. I'd fill it with notes, sometimes the whole book in one day if it was a really good day. But then I'd run out of note paper and I'd write on whatever was available. If I was on an airplane I'd write on an air-sickness bag. If I was in the bullpen I'd write on a popcorn box, a peanut bag…. I was constantly writing. I was a writing maniac."
Even such ephemeral stragglers survive (Jim is a pack rat) and are included in the auction. Example: after pitching well in a minor league game, Bouton wrote on Holiday Inn stationery: "In the clubhouse afterward I told some of the guys to remember the date because they had witnessed an historic occasion. The resurrection of my knuckler!"
A further taste:
Manuscript # 3.617 pages. Xeroxed copy of manuscript sent to the publisher. Heavily edited by publisher - and with all edits restored by Shecter. (Note: This reveals that the publisher would have destroyed the character of the book by removing no fewer than 74 mentions of sex, drinking, amphetamines, foul language, locker room horseplay, and assorted nonsense.)
From beaver shooting to greenies, from game-day hangovers (Mickey Mantle) to surreptitious ball scuffing (Whitey Ford), Bouton lifted the veil that Brosnan had lightly dislodged. Ball Four followed the lone big-league season of the Seattle Pilots, an expansion franchise in 1969 to which Bouton was attached after several seasons of struggle in New York following an arm injury. He pitched effectively for Seattle, relying almost exclusively on the knuckleball that he had discarded upon entering professional baseball back in 1959.
When a pre-publication excerpt of his book appeared in Look magazine in the spring of 1970, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called Bouton, accompanied by MarvinMiller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, into his office. He insisted that the book's publication be halted—an impossibility—and then asked that Bouton apologize and recant parts of his work, perhaps shifting blame to Shecter. Jim refused.
After a half year of indifferent results with the Houston Astros in 1970, Bouton was shipped to Oklahoma City, for whom he pitched twice and then retired. Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues (to cite its full title at last) had become a bestseller and was his ticket to new ventures. He proceeded to lead an improvisational life, sportscasting for two New York City news stations; acting as a McGovern delegate at the 1972 Democratic convention; playingbad guy Terry Lennox in director Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long Goodbye, which also starred Elliott Gould.
He wrote other books, including I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, a response to the critics of Ball Four. Most importantly, in my view, he updated Ball Four in each of the next three decades. Ball Four Plus Ball Five (1981) covered his amazing comeback as a starter with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 after pitching semi-pro and minor-league ball. A 20th anniversary edition in 1990 contained a substantial epilogue, as did Ball Four: The Final Pitch (2000). Taken together, the three volumes provide a candid, sometimes heartbreaking extended memoir without parallel in American literature.
I think this was part of the reasoning behind the New York Public Library's selection of Ball Four as one of its Books of the Century, the only sports title. Bouton stands shoulder to shoulder with such world figures as Anton Chekov, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Ball Four," the editors noted, "was the first ripple of a tidal wave of 'tell-all' books that have become commonplace not only in sports, but also in politics, entertainment, and other realms of contemporary life."
Ball Four is a literary diary that changed the landscape of sports and journalism forever after. But it is a political work, too, and a milestone in the generational divide that characterized the 1960s. It is the product of a widespread rebellion against both authority and received wisdom. Put in theatrical terms, the players of the decade to come would no longer be meekly subordinate to the dictates of producers and directors; they would even rebel against the playwrights who would have them recite their lines as written. Put in baseball terms, perhaps, the inmates would rebel against the asylum: the owners who would constrain their salaries and the sportswriters who would regulate their narratives.
David Halberstam wrote at the time of the book's publication:
"He has written ... a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book ... a comparable insider's book about, say, the Congress of the United States, the Ford Motor Company, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be equally welcome .... As the book is deeply in the American vein, so is the reaction against it. The sportswriters are not judging the accuracy of the book, but Bouton's right to tell (that is, your right to read), which is, again, as American as apple pie or the White House press corps."
There was a time, a long time, when Jim had few friends in baseball or its allied industries. In recent years Jim constructs stone walls, makes clocks, and takes brush to canvas. All these years, he has been spurred by curiosity, energy, enthusiasm, and the courage of his convictions, yet still to this day, baseball is at the core. He throws baseballs against a wall in his backyard, and he pitched competitively against 35-year-olds in a vintage game as recently as 2013.
As Jim put it himself, in the closing line of Ball Four, the most famous in baseball literature: "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
"A book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book." - David Halberstam
The New York Public Library selected Ball Four as one of the "Books of the Century," an elite group that includes Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Frank Baurn'sThe Wizard of Oz, Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, to name just a few. The library states they "identified books that played defining roles in the past 100 years," assembling "this selection from the millions of 20th century books."
"Modestly and ingratiatingly, it is an authentic revolutionary manifesto." - George Frazier, Boston Globe
Like most great books, Ball Four is the story of exploration, discovery and revolution. An idealistic kid grows up reading wholesome, all-American sports books, pitches his way up to the big leagues, and finds himself on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel with teammates Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, drinking beer and looking in windows. The revolution began when Bouton wrote about this, and other shocking behavior that included the gross mistreatment of players by management. And it reached its peak,five years after the book came out, at the arbitration hearing that led to free agency in baseball. Bouton, the only former player called to testify, read passages from Ball Four, which was accepted as legal evidence because it was based on contemporaneous notes.
"To call it simply a 'tell-all book' is like describing The Grapes of Wrath as a book about harvesting peaches in California." - Jim Caple, sportswriter
Bouton had actually begun taking notes for a book in the summer of 1968, after the Yankees sold him to the soon-to-be expansion Seattle Pilots. That fall, friend and sportswriter Leonard Shecteroffered to edit the book, and helped get a contract with World Publishing. Bouton continued taking notes the following season with the Pilots and Astros, writing before, during and after games in the bullpens, buses, and bars. At the end of each day Bouton would expand on his notes into a tape recorder. In an editor's forward, Shecterwrote:
Bouton talked into his tape recorder for more than seven months. Our typist, Miss Elizabeth Rehm of Jamaica, N.Y., did Herculean work to keep up with the flood. There is nothing inarticulate about Jim Bouton. Before the season ended Miss Rehm had typed the equivalent of 1500 pages (about 450,000 words) of double spaced Bouton ... The hardest part of editing Bouton's 1500 pages was deciding what to leave out. There was so much that was so good, so incisive, so funny, that the choices were most difficult. In the end I managed to take it down to about 650 pages. The final cut, to about 520 manuscript pages, was made by both of us at the very last. We spent eighteen hours a day together for weeks, cutting, editing, correcting, polishing.
Beyond the book itself, the Ball Four manuscript collection is the documented story of a baseball life: through letters, scrapbooks, contracts and artifacts, Bouton evolves from high school pitcher to hopeful prospect, from Yankee rookie to Army Reservist, from twenty-game winner to sore armed has-been, from fastballer to knuckleballer, from the minors back to the majors, from ballplayer to political activist to author
Jim Bouton's personal Ball Four archive offers the sophisticated collector a unique opportunity to acquire a trove of manuscripts, correspondence, documents and artifacts, which span the critical moment in baseball history when the game moved from lifetime contracts to free agency. The collection also includes Bouton's comeback with the Atlanta Braves after seven years in television, all of which was documented in the 1980,1990, and 2000 updates to Ball Four.
The Ball Four collection includes but is not limited to:
• The complete hand written notes, audio tape transcripts, manuscripts,
drafts and revisions of the classic Ball Four, including all material not included
in the final published version of the book.
• The edited manuscript detailing the publisher's attempt to gut the book of every tough, revealing, or sexual passage.
• The letter from the publisher's lawyer identifying 42 instances of potential libel, and Bouton's final edits that addressed only 4 of them.
• The exchange of letters which show the near impossibility of trying to negotiate a fair salary in an industry where management held all the cards,
• The complete file of baseball contracts and administrative transfers.
• The exquisitely maintained scrapbooks which Bouton's mother kept to
record his entire career, from junior high school to the major leagues, including the furor that erupted when Ball Four was first published.
• The scrapbooks which trace Bouton's semi-pro baseball years, from 1971 to 1977, and his 1978 comeback with the Atlanta Braves after seven years as a television sportscaster, sitcom writer and actor.
There is nothing to equal the Ball Fourcollection anywhere else in the world. At no other time or place has an athlete had the combination of skills to produce it - the observation, the articulation, the humor, the intelligence and the access, not to mention the necessary habit of saving everything. All in excellent condition, the documents will provide a rich source of material for historians and devoted fans of the game for decades to come.
From the Ball Four Preface by Jim Bouton; updated in 2000.
There was a time, not too long ago, when school kids read Ball Four at night under the covers with a flashlight because their parents wouldn't allow it in the house. It was not your typical sports book about the importance of clean living and inspired coaching. I was called a Judas and a Benedict Arnold for having written it. The book was attacked in the media because among other things, it 'used four-letter words and destroyed heroes.' It was even banned in a few libraries because it was said to be 'bad for the youth of America.'
The kids, however, saw it differently. I know because they tell me about it whenever I lecture on college campuses. [These days I do motivational speaking to corporations and the 'kids' are often gray or bald or paunchy.] They come up and say it was nice to learn that ballplayers were human beings, but what they got from the book was moral support for a point of view. They claim that Ball Four gave them strength to be the underdog and made them feel less lonely as an outsider in their own lives. Or it helped them to stand up for themselves and see life with a sense of humor. Then they invariably share a funny story about a coach, a teacher, or a boss who reminds them of someone in the book ...
Sometimes when people compliment me about my book I wonder who they're talking about. A librarian compared Ball Four to the classic The Catcher in the Rye because she said I was an idealist like Holden Caulfield who 'viewed the world through jaundice colored glasses.' Teachers have thanked me for writing the only book their non-reading students would read. One mother said she wanted to build me a shrine for writing the only book her son ever finished.
The strangest part is that apparently there is something about the book which makes people feel I'm their friend.... Maybe they identify with me because we share the same perspective. One of my roommates, Steve Hovley, said I was the first fan to make it to the major leagues. Ball Four has the kind of stories an observant next door neighbor might come home and tell if he ever spent some time with a major league team. Whatever the reasons, it still overwhelms me to think that I wrote something which people remember ....The team owners [however] became furious and wanted to ban the book. The Commissioner, Bowie 'Ayatollah' Kuhn, called me in for a reprimand and announced that I had done the game 'a grave disservice.' Sportswriters called me names like 'traitor' and 'turncoat.' My favorite was 'social leper.' Dick Young of the Daily News thought that one up.
The ballplayers, most of whom hadn't read it, picked up the cue. The San Diego Padres burned the book and left the charred remains for me to find in the visitors' clubhouse. While I was on the mound trying to pitch, players on the opposing teams hollered obscenities at me. I can still remember Pete Rose, on the top step of the dugout screaming 'Fuck you, Shakespeare.'
All that hollering and screaming sure sold books.Ball Four went up to 500,000 in hardcover, 5 million in paperback, and got translated into Japanese. It's the largest selling sports book ever. I was so grateful I dedicated my second book, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, to my detractors. I don't think they appreciated the gesture ....
David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Vietnam, wrote a piece in Harper's that was less a review of Ball Four than a commentary on the journalism of our times.
He has written ... a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book ... a comparable insider's book about, say, the Congress of the United States, the Ford Motor Company, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be equally welcome ...
As the book is deeply in the American vein, so is the reaction against it. The sportswriters are not judging the accuracy of the book, but Bouton's right to tell (that is, your right to read), which is, again, as American as apple pie or the White House press corps. A reporter covers an institution, becomes associated with it, protective of it, and, most important, the arbiter of what is right to tell. He knows what's good for you to hear, what should remain at the press club bar. When someone goes beyond that, stakes out a new dimension of what is proper and significant, then it is the sportswriters and the Washington bureau chiefs who yell the loudest, because having played the game, having been tamed, when someone outflanks them, they must of necessity attack his intentions, his accuracy.
By establishing new boundaries, Ball Four changed sports reporting at least to the extent that, after the book, it was no longer possible to sell the milk and cookies image again ...
In 1969 I thought it would be a good idea to write a book and share the fun I'd had in baseball ... [and] to immortalize this colorful cast of characters. Particularly the Seattle Pilots players who seem to have been sent to that expansion team for the express purpose of being in Ball Four. It's as if somebody had said, 'This team's not going to win any games, but if someone writes a book it'll be a great ball club.'
What is the attraction of the Seattle Pilots? I think the fact that they existed for only one year has made them special. Unclaimed by town or franchise, the Pilots are like the Flying Dutchmen, doomed to sail aimlessly without a harbor.
Or, as the decades pass, more like Brigadoon, the enchanted village that comes alive every hundred years. The Pilots played just one magic summer, then disappeared, existing now only in the pages of a book.
Though he was occasionally brilliant on the mound during his 10-year major league career, particularly in the 1963 season with the Yankees, Jim Bouton's baseball legacy will always be his nonfiction book "Ball Four," providing the first real insider's view of life in Big League baseball. Bouton started his major league career in 1962 with the Yankees, where his tenacity and formidable fastball earned him the nickname "Bulldog." He also came to be known for his cap flying off his head at the completion of his delivery to the plate, as well as for his uniform number 56, a number usually assigned in spring training to players designated for the minor leagues. (Bouton later explained that he had been assigned the number in 1962 when he was promoted to the Yankees, and wanted to keep it as a reminder of how close he had come to not making the ball club. He wore number 56 throughout most of his major league career.) During his seven seasons with the Yankees Bouton was a member of the 1962 World Series championship team, appeared in the 1963 MLB All-Star Game, and won both of his starts in the 1964 World Series. Bouton's twenty-one victories in 1963 were second only to the great Whitey Ford among Yankee starters, and his 2.53 ERA the best in the rotation bar none.
In 1969 Bouton joined the Seattle Pilots. The expansion team provided the backdrop for the book Ball Four during the team's one and only season in operation. Bouton was traded to the Houston Astros late in the 1969 season. Midway through the 1970 season, Bouton retired from baseball to embark on a career in television and pursue other entrepreneurial endeavors.
Bouton launched his comeback bid with the Portland Mavericks of the Class A Northwest League in 1975, a team famously chronicled in the 2014 documentary film The Battered Bastards of Baseball. In 1978, Ted Turner signed Bouton to a contract with the Atlanta Braves. After a successful season with the Savannah Braves of the Class AA Southern League, he was called up to join Atlanta's rotation in September, and compiled a 1–3 record in five starts. His extraordinary return to the majors after an 8-year absence remains unprecedented. Jim Bouton's personal trove of memorabilia from his playing career, offered in accompaniment to the Ball Four manuscript archive includes the following;
• Numerous Bouton Game Worn Jerseys/Uniforms incl. 1967 Yankees home, 1968 Yankees road, 1975 Portland mavericks, 1978 Braves home and 1998 Yankees Old-Timers Day jersey.
• Game Used Bats incl. 1963 All-Star Game (2) and World Series models from1962, 1963 and 1964.
• Game Worn Caps incl. Yankees, Pilots, Astros and Braves.
• Game Worn Fielders Gloves (2) and Pairs of Spikes (2).
• Complete Set Of Game Used Baseballs From Each Of His 21 Wins During The 1963 Season Each With Game Notations.