Jim Bouton, author of the groundbreaking baseball book ‘Ball Four,’ dies at 80
Jim Bouton, a major league pitcher who rose to great heights as part of a New York Yankees dynasty but made a name for himself by writing the first tell-all sports book, “Ball Four,” died Wednesday at age 80.
Bouton died at his home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts after a long battle with vascular dementia, according to his wife, Paula Kurman. Bouton suffered a stroke in 2012, and in ’17 announced he had a brain disease known as cerebral amyloid angiopathy.
When Bouton, a former All-Star and World Series hero, published “Ball Four” in 1970, its revelations shocked fans, angered players and upset MLB’s commissioner.
Bouton’s book was based on a diary he kept during the 1969 season when he was trying to hang on as a past-his-prime, aging knuckleball pitcher with the expansion Seattle Pilots. But it told a larger, licentious backstage story with flashbacks to unsavory incidents involving some of baseball’s biggest names.
Bouton described players such as Mickey Mantle drinking to excess and then hitting with a hangover, the great pitcher Whitey Ford violating the rules by doctoring baseballs with the help of catcher Elston Howard, players routinely cheating on their wives on road trips and gathering on hotel rooftops to spy on women, and his and other players’ excessive use of amphetamines known as “greenies.”
Bouton was not the first player to keep and publish a diary. In 1960, Jim Brosnan published “The Long Season” about his year pitching for St. Louis and Cincinnati. But it was nothing like Bouton’s candid, insider’s look at a world unseen by adoring fans.
“I was in my early- to mid-20s when I first read it, and I was astounded back then,” said veteran Pittsburgh sportscaster Stan Savran, who hosts a daily sports talk show on ESPN Pittsburgh radio.
“I’ve read ‘Ball Four’ twice and maybe a third time. I think it’s the most important, most significant piece of sports journalism ever written because it slapped the fan base into reality. And I was a part of that as I was just starting out in the business.”
“It affected me profoundly as a fan the way I look at players. People had these grandiose ideas that ballplayers were all like the boys next door and they were people to be admired because they had athletic gifts that made them sort of superior, on a pedestal. This book gave us a strong dose of reality.”
However, half a century ago, the baseball establishment was not ready for reality.
Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn said “Ball Four” was “detrimental to baseball” and tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying it was a complete work of fiction.
Bouton, who was pitching for Houston in the National League when the book came out, was ostracized by many players, especially ones he had written about. There are accounts of Pete Rose yelling from the dugout as Bouton was pitching, “(Expletive) you, Shakespeare!”
Former All-Star pitcher Steve Blass was pitching for the Pirates that season and remembers players reacting strongly to the book.
“I thought the book was realistic, so I didn’t rail against it when I was asked about it. But some people did, that we should keep this club very exclusive and not let anybody know what kind of people that the ballplayers are and that (Bouton) has betrayed the players,” Blass said.
Blass said, in looking back, the prurient details contained in “Ball Four” were bound to come out.
“I didn’t think it had to be quite as graphic as it was, because it was the first step in that direction. I think maybe we could have eased into it a little bit more.”
Bouton pitched in Pittsburgh twice during that controversy shrouded 1970 season, a 3-1 loss to the Pirates on April 20 at Forbes Field, in which he was the losing pitcher, and an 11-0 defeat at Three Rivers Stadium on July 24 in which he had a no decision.
But “Ball Four” was an overwhelming success, an instant best-seller that has stood the test of time.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].