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.