“Ball Four,” 40 years and counting

Jim Bouton with his book, Ball FourWhen it was first published in 1970, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was  easily the most controversial sports book ever written. Reading it 40 years  later, the 371 page chronicle of Bouton’s 1969 Major League Baseball season now  comes off as a somewhat tame, but still, undeniably, great baseball book. The  contribution of Ball Four to sports literature is two-fold, as it not  only gives readers the first real behind-the-scene look at a major league  player’s day to day existence, but it also serves as an excellent recounting of  the Seattle Pilots one year as a major league franchise.

Jim Bouton was a hard throwing right-handed pitcher, who had come up in the  New York Yankee organization, and joined the big club in 1962. Playing with the  Yankees at the tail end of their 1947 to 1964 dynasty, Bouton enjoyed his share  of success, winning 21 games in 1963, and 18 games in 1964, in addition to a  pair of World Series wins. But in 1965, Bouton and the Yankees both began a  rapid decline. While Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford started to slow  down due to age and injuries, Bouton developed arm problems, and could only  manage nine victories over his final four seasons with the Yankees. At the  conclusion of the 1968 campaign, Bouton was sold to the Seattle Pilots, an  American League expansion team, who were to begin operations the following  Spring. It was sportswriter Leonard Shecter who convinced Bouton to keep a diary  of the 1969 campaign, offering to edit it into book form upon its  conclusion.

Bouton’s journal was revolutionary for its time. Rather than merely reliving  games, the manuscript focused on the day to day grind that is Major League  Baseball including the challenge of interacting with a group made up of many  different personalities. Examples of drinking, drug taking, womanizing, and  juvenile humor are found throughout the book, but Bouton also deals with his own  anxiety of being a marginal player on an expansion team, whose status as a major  leaguer was tenuous at best. Although Ball Four is mostly a narrative  of the 1969 season, Bouton sprinkled in some observations of his years with the  Yankees, profiling his legendary former teammate, Mickey Mantle. The book takes  a dramatic turn when Bouton is traded to the Houston Astros with only six weeks  remaining on the schedule.

Excerpts of Ball Four appeared in Look Magazine prior to  the book’s release, and it immediately caused a firestorm. Baseball’s  establishment was upset that Bouton had violated a time honored locker room code  that stated, “What you see here, what you say here, let it stay here.” Bouton  was also criticized for what was perceived as harsh treatment towards Mickey  Mantle. As the June, 1970 publication date neared, Major League Baseball  commissioner Bowie Kuhn publicly denounced the book as being “detrimental to  baseball,” and privately tried to force Bouton to sign a statement recanting his  book’s content. Bouton refused. In August of 1970, Jim Bouton was released by  the Astos, ending his big league career at the age of 31.

Despite the cold reception received from baseball’s inner circle, Ball  Four quickly gained an audience, who appreciated its humor, insight, and  frank description of a major league ballplayer’s life. Since the publication of Ball Four, baseball has had to deal with the Pete Rose gambling  scandal, the season ending 1994 player’s strike, and the more recent allegations  of steroid use. When compared to those issues, stories about baseball  players running around the roofs of hotels, hoping to spot women undressing,  seem to be from a different era. Bouton, now 71, always disclaimed the notion  that Ball Four was meant to be an attack on baseball, as those who have  read the book can easily tell that Jim Bouton loved the game, and would have  done anything stay in it.

Notes: Ball Four is the only sports book to make the New York  Public Library’s 1996 list of “Books of the Century.” In 1978, Jim Bouton made a  comeback, eventually making the roster of the Atlanta Braves. On September 14,  1978, Bouton won his first game in over eight years, and the last one of his  career, beating the San Francisco Giants 4-1.