Jim Bouton

The extraordinary thing about Jim Bouton for me was not the influence he had on me as a baseball fan, writer and indeed human being, but that he had a similar effect on so many other baseball fans with whom I have become good friends. The single most important indicator of whether or not I will really connect with another baseball person is whether they have read and appreciated Bouton’s seminal book Ball Four. My sons are now young men, but when they were boys of about 12 years old, I did not make them read Ball Four. However, I did make it clear that if they wanted to continue to be fed and housed, they should read the book. They did and they loved it too.

The power of Ball Four lies not just in the stories and truths it tells, but in the way Bouton lets the reader inside his head. Reading Ball Four brings the reader much closer to the experience of being a baseball player than anything that had been written before.. Bouton wrote about his struggles to make the team, fear of being cut, impact his career choice had on his family life, financial concerns-remember in 1969 most ballplayers were middle class-, and complex feelings towards his teammates. The truth is that if you have not read the book, you should stop reading baseball blogs online and pretty much everything else, and treat yourself to one of the funniest, most real, important and profound books you will ever encounter.

Jim Bouton shuffled off his mortal coil yesterday at the age of 80. Baseball and America have lost an iconoclast in the almost literal sense of the word because Bouton sought to destroy the hero worship paradigm that dominated America’s understanding of sports for much of the twentieth century. Ball Four was the first sports journal to reveal the immaturity of the ballplayers, the pettiness of the owners and to remind us that baseball is a very strange business. In doing that, he made the game more real, profound and interesting for millions of fans. Many of those fans have never read any of Bouton’s works, or may just be learning about him this week, but if you have ever read a tell all sports memoir, learned of some goofy, sleazy or drunken behavior of a ballplayer, it is in part because of the ground Bouton broke in 1969-the year he chronicled in Ball Four. For his efforts, Bouton was virtually run out of the game, attacked by the baseball establishment and blacklisted.

Bouton, who won fewer than 70 games and pitched fewer than 1,250 innings in the big leagues, has become one of the most influential baseball players of the twentieth century. Few players have had such a profound impact on how Americans understand, care about and discuss baseball as Bouton did. While this is true on a broad level, Bouton also became something of a patron saint for the irreverent, contrary or paradigm subverting fan. Fans who loved baseball, but who chafed at the hierarchical structures and conventionality that dominated the game for many years were drawn to Bouton who clearly shared both their passion for the game and their irreverence. As a young and now middle aged fan who was and remains unhealthily obsessed with baseball, and probably too irreverent and too much of a smart aleck for his own good, Bouton meant a lot to me. I am sure I am not alone among kindred baseball spirits.

Bouton’s passion for baseball was enduring. After being released by the Astros midway through the 1970 season, a few months after his book was published, Bouton spent a few years trying to make a career in media, working on a television show based on Ball Four and even serving as a delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic convention. 

Through all of this Bouton refused to give up his dreams of playing big league baseball again. In 1975, when he was 36 years old, he pitched five games for the Portland Mavericks, and unaffiliated minor league team, but after that still held on to the goal of pitching in the big leagues again. Amazingly, in 1978, after not appearing in a big league game in eight years, he started five games for the Atlanta Braves. His last big moment came on September 14th, 1978 when his knuckleball was working and he held the Giants to one unearned run in six innings.

Bouton’s big league baseball career was unusual, almost Zelig like, because he was a star pitcher for the last great Yankees teams of the Mantle-Ford-Berra era, a member of the Seattle Pilots, a team that only existed for one year, and, of all things, an Atlanta Brave when that team was pretty terrible. One way to appreciate this is through a great baseball trivia question. Who is the only player who was teammates, at one point in his career, with players who won consecutive MVP awards in four different decades. The answer, of course, is Jim Bouton. He was a teammate of Mickey Mantle after he was the MVP in 1956 and 1957, of Roger Maris just after he did the same in 1960 and 1961, of Joe Morgan in 1969 and 1970 before he was MVP in 1975 and 1976 and with Dale Murphy in 1978 before he won the award in 1982 and 1983. 

After Ball Four, Bouton wrote several other books, some of which, notably I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally are very good, Gradually, but never completely, MLB softened its feelings towards Bouton and to let him back into the game. In his last years he fought valiantly against dementia related afflictions, a fight the man who was known as Bulldog because of his tenacity and drive on the ballfields finally lost. The Bulldog will be missed by many, but we know that baseball feels more fun, interesting and indeed human because of his work and career.