Mark Madden: How Jim Bouton’s ‘Ball Four’ changed my life
When I was 10, I loved baseball.
Then, I read a particular book about baseball. This book didn’t affect how I felt about baseball. But it changed my life.
The book was “Ball Four.” Its author, Jim Bouton, died Wednesday at the age of 80.
There had never been a book like “Ball Four.” A diary of Bouton’s 1969 season, it was a total expose of baseball behind the scenes: Drinking. Amphetamines, a/k/a “greenies.” Groupies, a/k/a “Baseball Annies.” Adultery. Voyeurism via hotel window ledges, or holes drilled in the back of the dugout. Players being cheated financially. The effect on families. Mickey Mantle acting the jerk (and his alcoholism).
At the time, many thought “Ball Four” put baseball in a bad light. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn excoriated the book. Players felt Bouton betrayed baseball’s secret society. Media members got a free ride from the teams they covered, so they piled on. New York sportswriter Dick Young called Bouton a “social leper.”
But all “Ball Four” did was take the players down off their pedestals, where they never should have been in the first place. The book humanized MLB. “Ball Four” was all true, and remains a monument to the value of first-hand reporting.
Moving forward to what I wound up doing, “Ball Four” was invaluable to me.
“Ball Four” didn’t spoil baseball. It enhanced baseball.
Bouton was the ideal author for such a book.
He had been a 20-game winner and pitched in the World Series with the New York Yankees. But by 1969, Bouton was 30 and barely hanging on with the expansion Seattle Pilots. His arm was shot, and he had reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher. Bouton had a perfect, balanced perspective.
Bouton went on to write more books. “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally” recapped the reaction to “Ball Four” and was also brilliant. Bouton frequently updated “Ball Four,” publishing several revised editions.
Bouton was also a sportscaster in New York, one of the first in that profession to employ humor by way of not taking things so damn seriously. It’s no stretch to say Bouton made Keith Olbermann possible. In fact, Olbermann says that.
Bouton starred in a 1976 CBS sitcom inspired by (and named) “Ball Four.” It lasted five episodes. It was way too family-friendly.
Bouton was an investor in Big League Chew, shredded bubblegum that resembles chewing tobacco and is sold in a like pouch. Bouton (like all players of his era) had to fight ownership tooth and nail over piddling sums. He made $22,000 in 1969. If bubblegum got Bouton paid, huzzah.
Bouton reconciled with Mantle not long before Mantle died in 1995. He made up with the Yankees and got a huge ovation at Yankee Stadium’s Old-Timers’ Day in 1998. Few attending remembered Bouton, the pitcher. They cheered Bouton, the author.
I was fortunate to have Bouton on my radio program a few times.
Bouton was ever the militant. He bristled when I suggested a salary cap might help baseball: “Why should a player’s earning potential be limited? Why should the owners be protected from themselves?” Bouton was all about the players.
Bouton was a true revolutionary, but also a true baseball man.
Bouton and “Ball Four” helped make me what I am today. I’d like to think Jim would get a kick out of me saying that.