Thursday, July 11, 2019

RIP, Jim Bouton

I return to the blog ahead of schedule to acknowledge the profound debt my baseball fandom owes to Jim Bouton and Ball Four.

Bouton died Wednesday, age 80. Ball Four, his diary book of the 1969 season, lives on.

Bouton was a significant pitcher at the end of the 1950-60s Yankee dynasty, a max-effort power pitcher who won 18 games in in 1963 and 21 in 1964. The Yankees lost both World Series; Bouton himself lost his only Series start in '63 but won twice in '64 against the Cardinals.

But in 1965 his fortunes, and those of the Yankees, collapsed. He sustained an arm injury that essentially robbed him of his fastball. By 1969 he was hanging on a knuckleballer -- and was part of the collection of has-beens and never-weres assembled to be the expansion Seattle Pilots.

"Ball Four" was published the next year. Crafted by New York newspaper man Leonard Shecter out of Bouton's notes and tape-recorded musings, the book was a sensation -- a then-unheard of glimpse of ballplayers as flawed men crawling around on hotel roofs trying to peek into windows. Bouton's commentary on former teammate Mickey Mantle outraged almost everybody in baseball at the time, but it holds up pretty well a half-century after Mantle's 1969 retirement.

Indeed, the book itself holds up well. When I first read it in 1970, almost every name in the book was relevant to a fan. Forty-nine years later, many of the names and issues are obscure -- but many are not. Bouton and Shecter wrote in a time of turmoil in and out of the game, and Ball Four is an outstanding foundation for understanding where the game was then.

Bouton includes a great deal of commentary on the rise of the players union and its then-relatively new executive director, Marvin Miller -- this virtually on the eve of the Curt Flood case and five years before the arbitration ruling that created free agency. The use of amphetamines  -- "greenies" -- is described as routine.

And all this is in the context of a fallen star trying to regain his stature with a new pitch, an athlete with concerns outside the arena, a teammate at once uncomfortable with and participating in the unruly behavior, a parent and husband gone too much from his family. Bowie Kuhn, then the commissioner of baseball, thought this depiction of reality damaged the sport by disillusioning its fans.

For this bookish boy, it did the opposite. I can't imagine my baseball fandom without Ball Four as a foundation piece. It came at the right time for me.

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