Storytime: Ball Four by Jim Bouton


(I’m testing out doing a regular book review of a baseball-themed book every week or so.  I’m sure I’m not the only book nerd out there, and perhaps I can convert a few who aren’t to become one.  Or at least share some interesting and worthwhile baseball reads.)

Baseball thrives on characters.  From the larger-than-life Babe Ruth, the quotable Yogi Berra, and even down to Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who would talk to the baseball on the mound en route to the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1976 to Turk Wendell’s teeth-brushing, baseline-leaping antics.  And don’t forget Manny being Manny.

Enter Jim Bouton.  While he didn’t exhibit many eccentric behaviors, he never really fit in.  A fireballer early in his career with the Yankees, Bouton began the 1969 season trying to catch on anywhere.  With his arm sore and worn from too many heaters, he had a theory he could make a big league club as a knuckleballer and wanted to chronicle the journey.  Thus, Ball Four was born.

Ball Four is structured like a journal, with Bouton making entries nearly every day, from long-winded rants about contract negotiations to one sentence non sequitors from teammates in the clubhouse. At the time, it was a rare look behind the scenes of baseball. Up to that point, the majority of memoirs were ghost-written, aimed at presenting an untarnished look at the game and its players. While Bouton didn’t really shock the world with some of his revelations, he still came under fire.

He covers this in the epilogue in a revised edition – baseball may like characters, but not deviants:

"“A famous rule of major league baseball is posted on every clubhouse wall: ‘What you say here, what you do here, let it stay here, when you leave here.’ I broke that rule, which makes me a deviant, sociologically speaking. Studies have shown that in order for rules to exist, deviant members must be punished by the group … the less status a deviant member has, the less tolerant the group will be toward him. (If Mickey Mantle had written Ball Four he would have gotten away with it.)"

What was so controversial? For one, Bouton mentioned a few times the use of “greenies” – amphetamines – in baseball. It was a claim that after publication, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asked Bouton to retract. Bouton refused. From then on, the word was out that ballplayers were using pills and “a lot of baseball players couldn’t function without them.” In this case, it wasn’t the fact that he was right, but that he revealed that got him in trouble.

Bouton’s accounts show a lot of differences between the game today and a generation ago. The approach to injuries has changed radically. In Bouton’s 1969, treatment for a sore arm was “don’t throw”. Players avoided the team doctor as much as possible. Also, in the case of teammate Steve Barber, who’s repeatedly in the training room for treatment, you say it doesn’t hurt. “Ballplayers learn after a while that you don’t tell anybody you have an injury if you can possibly avoid it, even a teammate. It might get back to the coaches, get spread around and be blown up out of all proportion.” Players were expected to tough it out, and many had to.

The shift has occurred because of money. In those days, Bouton would be negotiating for a $3,000 raise after a ten win season and barely getting it. This was in the time of the reserve clause, which tied a player to a team until the team agreed to give them up. Owners had all the power and paid salaries that today look absurd compared to the game we know. Back then, Bouton said “baseball people are so used to having their own way and not getting any argument that they just don’t think they can be unfair.” Bouton and other players had numerous battles with management about salaries, hoping to raise the minimum salary from $7,000 to $9-10,000 or doubled to $14,000. The irony, Bouton says, “is that if the owners hadn’t abused the players so badly, we wouldn’t have gone out and hired [executive director of MLBPA] Marvin Miller and the players wouldn’t be free agents today . . . most ballplayers had no idea what kind of money they could be making.”

With no bullpen roles like today and a fairly cheap crop of players out there, the onus was on the players themselves to perform well and earn playing time. A bad inning could send you to the back of the line and Bouton expressed frustration with periods of nine days with no work. As a knuckleballer, he could throw every day, and when things went well, Bouton’s stats for the 1969 season show a few stretches where he pitched in seven games over a period of seven or eight days. That’s unheard of today – but bullpens went five deep and rotations were usually four or maybe five starters deep. All told, as a reliever, Bouton threw 122.2 innings in 1969 in 73 appearances (and made two starts). He also added 11.1 innings in eight appearances in the minors that season. Just for reference’s sake, Roy Halladay led the majors in innings pitched in 2010 with 250.2. Matt Belisle led relievers with 92 IP in 76 appearances.

Different times.

Bouton’s writing style is fluid but not great. He’s clearly intelligent, witty, and insightful. He takes moments to speak on racism, war, politics and parenthood in between the stories of clubhouse pranks, late night carousing and pennant races. David and his wife Bobbie had adopted a Korean child named Kyong Jo, who asked why the kids called him King Jo or John Jo:

"“I explained that Kyong Jo was a Korean name and difficult for American children to pronounce. And i asked him if he would like to have an American name. This was something Bobbie and I had been talking about for some time. We didn’t want to change his name right away. It was difficult enough for him to make the adjustment to a new country and new parents without, at the same time, robbing him of the only familiar thing he had left, his name. So we called him Kyong Jo. But we thought he’d want to change it eventually, and now was the time.He said yes, he’d like an American name.‘How about David?’ I said.He thought about it for a moment, then said, ‘Yeah.’‘Okay, we’ll call you David. You’ll be David Kyong Jo Bouton.’‘Okay,’ he said.And he ran out the front door shouting to the neighborhood kids, ‘Hey everybody. I’m David. I’m David!‘"

Overall, Ball Four is a fun and humorous read. If you’ve ever seen a baseball movie and the antics that go on, the ribbing, the pranks, the “boys will be boys” mentality, it’s all here. I’m sure Bouton may have cleaned up a few aspects of what went on and what he’d seen. His was a baseball that wasn’t under constant scrutiny, and it’s interesting to see how teams and players were treated back then in the media. The same reverence and awe is still there to an extent, but in today’s sports landscape, we know players to be human, fallible. They aren’t always presented as paragons of virtue and cleanliness.

It’s a jolting contrast looking back. We’re a more cynical fanbase now, but we have reason to be. As Bouton says “if you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he’d take it” and as we know now, it’s pretty true. We’ve watched Brady Anderson’s inexplicable 50 homerun season with suspicion and a year when not one, but two players beat the single season home run mark that had stood for 37 years to that point and for another 34 years before that. And it’s not just performance enhancers – there are the stories of Steve Howe and others who used cocaine and hard drugs that have come to light, and players like Josh Hamilton who have faced those demons and come out better on the other side. Not to mention the late night drama that was Alex Rodriguez and Madonna.

In today’s sports market, Ball Four looks tame. Maybe there are a few off-color jokes and some questionable behavior (players would often engage in “beaver shooting” – I don’t think I need to explain the practice), but to that point, Bouton was the only one publicly mentioning anything like that. Now it’s all over.

In that way, Ball Four is also an interesting baseball relic, a look at how players carried themselves back then with relative anonymity and indifference towards image and marketability. Reflecting on his career, Bouton remarks “once in a while I take the family to a ballgame. It’s a strange feeling to sit there and watch from the stands. The game looks easier than it really is . . . And it all looks so much more serious than it really is. You can’t see any of the nonsense and the fun going on out there. When the manager goes out to talk to the pitcher it looks very scientific . . . which is another reason why I’m glad I wrote Ball Four. I don’t ever want to forget what they’re really saying.”

Jim Bouton’s career statistics:

10 Seasons62633.573041443461238.24921274357205200
162 Game Avg.9103.57462251188751966109789
NYY (7 yrs)55513.361971313241013.23781053315614205
HOU (2 yrs)485.0245721104.05864581471
ATL (1 yr)134.97550029.01642110129
SEP (1 yr)213.915710192.040123868395
AL (8 yrs)57523.402541323251105.24181173696294600
NL (3 yrs)5115.01501221133.074106691600

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/30/2010.

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