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That Final Ball

A few thoughts on the subject of Jim Bouton

Jim Bouton Releases ‘Ball Four: The Final Pitch’
Still tossing: Thirty years after the initial publication of his landmark book, Bouton was in Schaumburg to sign his updated edition.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

I’ll admit right up front that I knew nothing whatever of Jim Bouton the ballplayer until I came across Jim Bouton the writer. I was a toddler during his brief heyday with the New York Yankees. I was aware, of course, that such things as the Seattle Pilots existed during their brief heyday, but they were very far away from central Indiana, which was Cincinnati Reds country, with a little bit of Cubness thrown in here and there.

There was no internet. We could get one game a week on TV, and it featured whoever the network wanted to feature, and that was never the Seattle Pilots. No matter how powerful their signal might have been, there’s no way a Seattle Pilots radio broadcast was going to make it to Indiana. The local papers covered our Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and their parent club in those years, the Reds (an NL team, and for you young ‘uns, long, long before interleague play), and box scores. I can’t recall having ever looked up a Seattle Pilots box score.

So I had never heard of the guy who wrote this book my big sister read, furtively, then passed on to me, furtively (there were bad words and unseemly topics, you know) because I loved baseball and this was a book about baseball.

Except, of course, Ball Four was only kind of about baseball. Instead, it was mostly about what our heroes do when others politely pull the curtains and look discretely away. It was about discovering that the larger-than-life was really pretty much life-sized. Maybe even a little smaller sometimes. I’m not sure how many of you here younger than 50 can imagine what a shock this was.

It was 1973 and I was 12 when I read it, and like many kids before and since, I was a baseball addict. I played whenever I could get at least one other person with a mitt to join me, and when I couldn’t, I threw against a wall or, delight of delights, a pitch-back when those became a thing. This isn’t to say I ever became particularly good at it. I was the neighborhood fat kid, slow and awkward, but like John Kruk later, I was a ballplayer and a fairly good one up until a few other kids learned how to throw pitches that bent and curved and such. Despite my bulk, I was pretty nimble and quick in the field, but never could hit anything that wasn’t thrown straight. Discovering heavy metal, dope, and girls around that same time didn’t help matters much, either.

But my heroes were ballplayers, of course, and not having a big league team in my city was actually very freeing in a lot of ways. I had favorite players all over the country. Anybody on any team could be a favorite player because it wouldn’t betray anybody. So I loved Henry Aaron. I loved Harmon Killebrew. I loved Tony Oliva, and Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal and Hoyt Wilhelm and Ferguson Jenkins and Louis Aparicio and Frank Howard and Frank Robinson. (It should be noted that I didn’t love any Yankees because, even as a kid, piss on the Yankees.) I loved these guys, and any number of others. They were what I still dreamed of being, someday, you know, someday.

Until Jim Bouton changed all that. He did something no one had really ever done up to that time: He looked around himself and his world, the locker room, team bus, plane, hotels, the other guys who were part of it all, and then he wrote down what he saw. The way it happened, who it happened to, and how they behaved while it was happening, and after it was done happening. It was, at the time, shocking. It was also, at any time, wickedly funny, and touchingly human. Over the course of some 400-odd pages, all my heroes stepped down off of their plaster pedestals and into mud puddles. I started to type something else here, but it doesn’t really fit what I want to say, being both too crude and too simple-minded. Bouton didn’t soil my heroes, he turned them into human beings. He didn’t tarnish them, he simply cracked the marble and let the flesh peek out. And for me, at least, that made me love them even more.

Viewed from today’s tawdry world of commodified public confession, it’s hard to imagine what a bombshell Bouton dropped. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to force him to recant, claim he’d made it all up. Teammates current and former shunned him. He became a baseball pariah. The Yankees, with whom he’d had his greatest years, disowned him, refusing to acknowledge him, banning him from appearing at official functions and appearing in Old Timers games. This lasted for nearly 30 years. For all of them, Bouton had publicly aired dirty laundry. He’d mic’ed the confessional and played it over the PA system He’d violated the holy sanctity of the clubhouse. He showed the Saints in their underwear. Even many fans despised him for sullying the vestals, because this simply wasn’t done.

Of course for many others, like me, he peeled back the blindfold and let there be light. And there were enough of us that Ball Four became a bestseller and has never been out of print, with several updated editions published over the years. The most recent edition, subtitled The Final Pitch (now a bit ironically), came out in 2014. It’s available new on Amazon right now, for just less than 22 bucks. The point being that the book was, and is still, a success. The further point being that Bouton did more than write a baseball book. He wrote a book that, mostly unintentionally, examined America’s curious love affair with heroes. And, of course, it’s funny as hell. If you haven’t read it, you really should. If you haven’t read it in a while, you should read it again. For years, I read it every spring, around the time pitchers and catchers reported. I’ve probably read it a dozen times, but it’s been a while now, and I should pull it out and read it again, too.

Bouton’s other books are also pretty good, the ones I’ve read. I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally is the follow-up to, and about the fallout from, BF. It’s a lot of fun, too, if far more slight. I never read the novel he wrote with Eliot Asinof, Strike Zone, but Foul Ball, about his efforts at preserving a historic ballpark in Pittsfield, MA, is both funny and moving and a great celebration of the love of baseball. And I’m not going to delve into his brief acting career (costarring with Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye – a vastly underrated movie in which Bouton is actually pretty good, or the short-lived TV comedy based on Ball Four, which wasn’t very good and Bouton was not very good in) or his other life-long activities in promoting the love of baseball and its history. There are obits and Wikipedia for that.

Jim Bouton died on Wednesday, at the age of 80. He died at home. He’d been in declining health since suffering a couple of strokes in 2012. The cause of death was cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which Wikipedia tells me is “a form of angiopathy in which amyloid deposits form in the walls of the blood vessels of the central nervous system.” News reports tell me this is related in some way or another to dementia. I could look all of this up in greater detail, but the end result would be the same: The world is a poorer place today than it was a couple of days ago, when Jim Bouton was still in it, diminished or no.

However, I hope his death, which has been widely reported and mourned throughout the baseball world, will encourage the baseball world to consider Bouton for the Hall of Fame.

Not for his playing career, of course. He did have a couple of very, very good years. He went 21-7 in 1963, with an ERA of 2.53 and a bWAR of 4.8, and he followed it up in 1964 by going 18-13, 3.02 ERA, and 4.1 bWAR. Pretty solid years. Sadly, the rest of his career was somewhat less stellar, though nothing to be ashamed of. He was pretty fair in the World Series those two years, too, going 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA. Then he got hurt, struggled, came back as a knuckleballer reliever and Seattle Pilot, then Houston Astro and, many years later, very briefly an Atlanta Brave. Outside of those 1963 and 1964, Bouton has negative WAR for the rest of his career. So no, there’s no argument by which you could seriously posit him for the HoF as a player.

But what you could, and I will, argue is that he belongs in the Hall of Fame as a “Contributor.” It’s why writing about him on a White Sox site, a team he had no connection to whatever, is appropriate, and why it’s also appropriate for you to read about him here. While I wouldn’t suggest that his writing necessarily brought more fans to the game, I would certainly argue that Bouton’s writing influenced how every succeeding generation of fans, whether they know it or not, view the game and the grown-up little boys who play it, more than perhaps any other writer in the game’s history outside of, say, Bill James, and maybe him, too. At the very least, it must be acknowledged that every tell-all baseball (or any other sport or entertainment, for the matter) autobiography and memoir exists in Ball Four’s shadow.

For good and ill, everything that followed in baseball journalism has been influenced by Bouton’s little diary of the 1969 season. And if that’s not a Hall-worthy contribution, I don’t know what is.