Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dave Mondy on Jim Bouton

"Pitchers and catchers report," I read last week -- so I readied the relic and began the ritual.

Yes, every year at the start of Spring Training, I read Jim Bouton's Ball Four, and no -- as I hear the sound of browsers breezing past -- this isn't going to be another intellectual's paean to "America's Game."

In fact, this is one of the great things about Ball Four:  It wasn't trying to be great, few pretensions of profundity -- it was just the diary of a witty non-star navigating a single, insignificant season.  Nonetheless, it's considered one of the greatest sports books of all time, or as David Halberstam proclaimed on jacket copy, "A book... so deep it is by no means a sports book" (though I'd suggest a sports book can be as deep as any other).

It is, for example, the only sports book selected for the New York Library's Greatest Books of the Century, sidling in conspicuously right behind Catch-22 and In Cold Blood.  I imagine Ball Four looking around awkwardly, adjusting its cup and reflexively spitting tobacco, amidst such august company; I love the juxtaposition of its subhead, My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues, and that of its predecessor, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.  But the gravitas gap between the two isn't as yawning as it might seem -- both books were similarly genre-altering.

It'd be a lie, though, to say I initially sought out Ball Four for literary merit; I borrowed it from a friend in the middle of a S.A.D.-inducing Minnesota winter.  Cracking the cover in February, I was immediately pulled in, and by the time I finished the book, it was early April; Ball Four both reminded me of, and delivered me to, warmer weather.

There's no excuse for the ritual now that I live in Arizona -- except to say that S.A.D. can still happen in sunny climes, but no one is going to feel sorry for you.  One must self-medicate privately, be it with books or booze or both.  Or baseball.

. . .

When initially released, Ball Four was noted more as a cultural event, a scandalous expose ala Smoking Gun or TMZ, than as capital-L Literature.

Jim Bouton had been a bionic-armed fireballer for The Yankees in their Golden Age, winning 21 games in 1963, eventually conquering numerous World Series; he hurled the ball so hard his hat would fly off his head as he finished a pitch.  Phenom. Then, after three seasons, he blew out his arm – forfeiting fastball and career trajectory.

He muddled about in many middling leagues, and by 1969 was trying to make a comeback as a knuckleballer (considered an embarrassing gimmick of a pitch) for The Seattle Pilots, an embarrassing expansion team that lasted for one embarrassment of a season.  But Bouton, always known as outspoken and intelligent, was asked by journalist Leonard Schecter to keep a record of his year.

The single season of anecdotes – casually iconoclastic, carefully culled by Schecter – became the book. Then exploded. 

Some classify American sports writing as pre-Ball Four (respectful reportage if not outright hagiography) and post-Ball Four (mythos slip, and the public sees The Truth).  Both seem overly extreme, but so were the results for Bouton.  The book launched/ruined his career.

. . .
Much of the scandal surrounded Mickey Mantle – the man who wore, yes, the mantle of America’s Sports Hero.  He already held the image of being the boy-who-never-grew-up; the back of his baseball card contained such info as:  
Bats: Switch       Throws: Right        Drinks: Excessively.

Ha ha, we get it, what a lovable character – but in Ball Four, the public saw Mantle actually

1.)   “beaver shooting,”  a baseball term for sexually spying on women.  In Ball Four, pro players race around beneath bleachers as the national anthem distracts nubile fans, the boys of summer looking up for glimpses of You Know.  Also, there is a memorable scene where Mantle leads a group of Yankees around the top of the Shoreham Hotel, scouting for stewardesses before half-closed blinds.

2.)   hung over.  “I remember one time [Mickey Mantle]'d been injured and didn't expect to play, and I guess he got himself smashed. The next day he looked hung over out of his mind and was sent up to pinch-hit. He could hardly see. So he staggered up to the plate and hit a tremendous drive to left field for a home run. When he came back into the dugout, everybody shook his hand and leaped all over him, and all the time he was getting a standing ovation from the crowd. He squinted out at the stands and said, ‘Those people don't know how tough that really was.’ ”

The public’s shock now seems shocking.  Compared to modern sports scandals like the Cowboys' “White House” or Vikings' “Love Boat” – mountains of cocaine and prostitutes flown in from companies which exclusively service pro players – Mantle's indiscretions seem almost cute, Rockwell Americana.  A man paid to play a child’s game was a bit of a Peeping Tom and boozer?  The clutching of pearls – why?

But it was a big deal. Celebrity indiscretions may now seem routine, and were routine then, as well -- but reporting of them?  Ball Four’s release blackballed Bouton from baseball; players hated him for telling private tales, violating a clubhouse omerta; owners found Bouton bad for business; commissioner Bowie Kuhn called the book “detrimental to baseball” and demanded Bouton sign a statement declaring the book a work of fiction.

A curious thing to consider within the current "truth in nonfiction" debate.

Anyhow, Bouton refused, effectively ending his relationship with baseball while simultaneously launching a long career as media personality/raconteur.  Bouton had become an irrevelevant inning-eater in baseball pre-Ball Four, then went on to achieve a fame greater than many mega-stars post-, so his castigation could almost come across as karmic gain.

But what denouncers didn’t understand, and what makes the book still endure, was: Bouton loved baseball.

One of the great regrets of his life was that Mickey Mantle refused to ever converse with him again.  And Bouton was never invited to Yankees Old-Timers Day, a hallowed tradition.  Even with all the notoriety brought about by Ball Four, Bouton attempted a comeback years later, a too-old man throwing his ridiculous pitch that he still couldn’t master, just for one more chance to play the game; it was that love that was lost and was lost and you know you’re a fool to pursue and pursue, but what can you do?  Lost amidst the ‘scandalous’ revelations about Mantle was that, overall, the book brushed an endearing portrait of the man. And more importantly, The Game.

A MASH note would have been boring, but so, too, a hatchet job.  Instead, Bouton told the total truth about his inamorata; as any part of a romantic pair could attest, this is noble – and oft disastrous.

. . .

Nothing is so good that some Super Fan can’t ruin it for you with zealotry.

I worry my over-reverence wrecks the most entertaining aspect of Ball Four -- it infuses the reader with the day-to-day experience of being a ballplayer (if that ballplayer were effortlessly hilarious and profound).

Here’s Bouton, saying things we wish ballplayers would say about:

  • God: “The philosophy is that religion is why an athlete is good at what he does. ‘My faith in God is what made me come back.’ Or ‘I knew Jesus was in my corner.’  Since no one ever has an article saying, ‘God didn’t help me’ or ‘It’s my muscles, not Jesus,’ kids pretty soon get the idea that Jesus helps all athletes… So I’ve been tempted sometimes to say into a microphone that I feel I won tonight because I don’t believe in God, just for the sake of balance, to let the kids know that belief in a deity or ‘Pitching for the Master’ is not one of the criteria for major-league success.”
  • Infidelity: “A young girl asked one of the guys in the bullpen if he was married. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but I’m not a fanatic about it.’ ”
  • Positive Thinking: “When I pitched in the World Series in ’63 and ’64 I won two out of three games and the only thought that went through my mind before and during the game was, ‘Please don’t let me embarrass myself out there.’  No thought of winning or losing.  If you told me beforehand that I would lose the game but it would be close and I wouldn’t be embarrassed, I might well have settled for that.  I was terrified of being humiliated on national television in front of all my friends. Now, that’s certainly not positive thinking, and yet I was able to win ballgames.  Maybe there is a power to negative thinking.”
  • Teammates: “It’s difficult to form close relationships in baseball. Players are friendly during the season and they pal around on the road. But they’re not really friends. Part of the reason is that there’s little point in forming a close relationship. Next week one of you could be gone [traded or sent down]. Hell, both of you could be gone. So no matter how you try, you find yourself holding back a little, keeping people at arm’s length. It must be like that in war too.”
But I needn't have cherry-picked.  Every page contains something that stops the reader short. 
I will now open the book at random and transcribe the best paragraph…  April 26: “When I called my wife after my third save there was a gathering of Vancouver Mounties outside the phone booth.  So on the bus today I was asked if I always call home after a save or win and I said yes, I did.  And Greg Goossen said, ‘Big deal.  It means about three phone calls a year.' "

. . .

An analog blog.

That’s the basic structure of the book – the section breaks are dates, singular entries spanning Nov. 15 to Oct. 2 – but it never feels "bloggy" in the pejorative sense.  It has all the advantages, entirely real slices of the day-to-day, without the drawbacks: the mundane rarely reads as myopic.

Ball Four combines two elements that currently seem antipodal: rigorous journalistic editing and shoot-from-the-hip journaling.  

Bouton recorded his thoughts via paper scrap and audio tape – which were then transcribed by “Miss Elisabeth Rehm of Jamaica, NY.”  If Ball Four feels overlooked of late (did I mention that Time once listed it as one of the 100 greatest nonfiction works of all time?), Rehm really lacks acclaim.  Certainly Shecter, the editor, got short shrift.  He took over 1,500 pages of text and turned them into an unassuming 398. Then died three years later, before the big plaudits, but after major sports writers like Dick Young decried Shecter as a "social leper."

Could Ball Four's construction be a useful model -- a way to keep the allure of the diary, while avoiding what George Saunders warned about, when I overheard him after an interview at The Fitzgerald Theater:  Explaining why he didn't blog, he said something to the effect of, It doesn't seem like the problem with current writing is that there isn't enough of it.

Yes!  And yet, and yet...
  . . . 

The journal, allowed to steep for a year, then edited by an outsider, can catch amazing moments -- like this era-encapsulating gem (I should note that he was one of the more socially progressive players in the game):
"When I was a kid I loved to go to Giants games in the Polo Grounds.  And a thing happened there that popped into my mind today.  There was a ball hit into the stands and a whole bunch of kids ran after it.  I spotted it first, under a seat, and grabbed for it.  Just as I did, a Negro kid also snatched at it.  My hand reached it a split second before his, though, and I got a pretty good grip on it.  But he grabbed the ball real hard and pulled it right out of my hand.  No complaint, he took it fair and square.  I thought about it afterward, about what made him able to grab that ball out of my hand.  I decided it had to do with the way we were brought up -- me in a comfortable suburb, him probably in a ghetto.  I decided that while I wanted the baseball, he had to have it."

Also, I wonder if this passage was the inspiration for the Best Baseball Writing Ever (sorry, Bouton, you're in second place), which is Don DeLillo's novella Pafko at the Wall, which later became the prologue for a little pamphlet called Underworld.  

A highly similar event, which occurs at the Polo Grounds, forms a core plot line.  If you haven't read Pakfo, I recommend it every bit as much as Ball Four.  Treat yourself to some totally transporting prose, with the added benefit of being able to:
  • A.) claim credit for reading Underworld, without working your way through the full doorstop.
  • B.) ingest an ending passage every bit as beautiful as the close of The Great Gatsby.
. . .

I was only being a bit hyperbolic at the open, pretending Ball Four to be a religious relic.
I have an original copy.  It was given to a man as a Christmas present, and that man later died in his forties.  The book was then given to his young son, and that son ended up reading it ritualistically at the start of each baseball season.  I am not that son.

Rather, that son, my closest friend, lent me the book.  Note: lent, not gave.  I'm no thief, though my foible is equally unforgivable when borrowing books: I am forgetful and disorganized.

After three years, I realized this particular sin of oversight was damning, even by my lazy standard, and I called and confessed.  Keep the book, he said.  He's not passive-aggressive -- the opposite, actually. Though thoroughly/modernly in touch with his emotions, he's admirably unsentimental, and already has many mementos.

Maudlin displays, for him, would be a far greater crime than petty theft, which is why I must ask forgiveness for a vice I'm about to indulge (which, as any Catholic could tell you, means no forgiveness at all).  It's not that the posting of this inscription is so striking:

Oddly, it's this, in the crease of the following page -- which I only noticed for the first time two hours ago:

A person buys a book as a gift, then decides to scribble a quick inscription; they start on one page, then opt instead for the previous.  No big deal.  And yet.

Listen, I'm not getting misty here; I've already co-opted a ritual and book, so co-opting a calamity would be strike three.  My copy of Ball Four should cause no crocodile tears, and though I feel an odd guilt, it's tempered by knowing my friend's mother is even tougher than he (apple/tree trajectory, etc.).

But I must admit, after an unintentional defense of blogs, I equally esteem the book, this book, as physical object.  Believe me, I don't want to seem old-timey (he says, after using the verb esteem).  I'm in my mid-thirties, which means nothing more than a desire to seem not in my mid-thirties -- but goddamn:

Sometimes marginalia can cause as much time travel as the text.

. . . 

Bouton treats his tape from Mickey Mantle like a religious relic.

It turned out that Mantle's boozing wasn't cute -- it was a lifelong problem.  Only after going to the Betty Ford Clinic late in life did he finally get clean.  And right as he left the clinic, he learned his son had died -- died from addictions modeled by the father.  Many observers assumed this would plunge "The Mick" back into boozing, but instead, Mickey Mantle lived his last remaining year sober; some would say this was every bit as heroic as any of his home runs, and I don't know if that is hyperbolic or not.  

"In the final year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and hero," said Bob Costas, at Mantle's funeral.  "The first, he often was not.  The second, he always will be."

. . .

Bouton, who first expressed that distinction, however inchoate, wasn't invited to speak at the funeral; but far from being bitter, he just seemed to miss the man as a friend.  Bouton's own actions, pre-eulogy, didn't come out until much later, prompted by interview:  

"When Mickey's son Billy died, I wrote him to say how badly I felt, how I remembered Billy running around the locker room in spring training, and how awful it must be to lose a child.  I never expected Mickey to respond. He's pretty shy. But about 10 days later, Mickey leaves a message on my machine: 'Hi, Jim, this is Mick. I got your note and I appreciate it. Also, I want you to know I'm OK about 'Ball Four.' One more thing; I want you to know I'm not the reason you're not invited to Old-Timers Day. I never said none of that. Take it easy, bud.' "

Thirty-five years after Bouton’s book, the two were reconciled – even though they never spoke directly, and even though the Yankees continued to shun Bouton.  It was enough.  “I still have the tape,” Bouton said. 

The tape is locked away, to be willed to his sons upon his demise.
 . . . 

Two years after Bouton wrote the message to Mantle, Bouton's daughter Laurie died in a car crash at the age of 31. 

In Ball Four, Bouton had written, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown is what we call Laurie, our youngest.  She's only three, but a tough little broad.  This spring alone, for example, she's been bitten by a dog, hit in the head by a flying can of peas and had nine stitches sewed into her pretty little head. Nothing puts her down." But in his eulogy, related in The New York Times, he didn't highlight toughness; he talked of how she wanted to be a nurse, with dreams of putting flowers in patients' room and throwing open curtains to bring sun into people's lives: "But that dream ended," he said, "when she discovered in nurse's school she had to dissect a frog, and she couldn't bring herself to do it.  And a dead frog at that." He smiled and then began to cry.

. . .

After the the funeral, one of Bouton's sons, Michael, wrote an open letter in The New York Times to George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees.  After explicating familial grief and his father's reconciliation with Mantle, Michael laid out a point-by-point argument for Jim Bouton's inclusion in The Old-Timer's Game, noting what it would mean for the family.  Micheal Bouton was a philosophy student, and, as Jim would later note, "it took a philosophy student to writer that letter."

Steinbrenner reluctantly relented on the ban.

So, in 1998, Bouton took the field again, and family and fans cheered.  A hat had been specially fitted for him, so that it would fall off Bouton's head post-pitch, just like in the old days. Bouton appeared genuinely happy, though the event bittersweet -- but it's hard to describe his timbre, as he said into the microphone, "This is for Laurie."

. . . 

If I were to admit that transcribing such words as these makes me misty, I would note that it only happened when re-writing the words of others, never when composing my own, which would be weird/right; for a blog like this, I might also note that this is interesting -- and perhaps implies something about how nonfiction narrative traffics in the exact same effects as fictions and drama.  The same sort of suspension of disbelief, and protagonist empathy, is required.  To care.  I might imply, even, that the enjoyment of sports in general also operates similarly -- that the enjoyment of a great game and a great movie and a great novel is somewhat the same experience.  Say I watch Hamlet (a good version); one would hope that I know I am not the melancholy Dane, nor am I related to him in any way.  One would also hope/assume I know I'm not the protagonist when when reading a novel or, say, Ball Four.  So why do I get sad when Hamlet (in a good version) dies, or Gatsby dies, or Bouton loses everything? Yes, these are all very different expressions -- but for a reader?  We're maybe more sympathetic/crass than assumed. I'm not saying these situations are the same, just similar.  

And if I were to write those things, I would bring up something else:  A recent scientific study of European soccer (football) fans revealed a greatly diminished testosterone level for those of the losing team, tested as they left the stadium.  "How pathetic," was the sentiment amongst a few I knew -- and I had to agree; the sadness of losing sports fan is silly -- I know! -- it is every bit as silly as the sadness resulting from novels/plays/etc.  "Jocks versus Nerds" is an embarrassing dynamic to believe in for anyone over the age of 17, and yes, I was the latter, I'd yell.

. . . 

And hear Bouton...

"... you're much better off in athletics if you do things instinctively.  I suppose that's what they mean when they say baseball isn't a thinking man's game.  If you tend to think about it, you tend to do things mechanically rather than naturally."

"I've always felt there were three kinds of athletes.  First, there's the guy who does everything instinctively and does it right in the first place.  I think Willie Mays is that kind guy, and so was Mickey Mantle... these guys can't articulate what they're doing, they just know what to do and go out and do it."

"Second, there's the athlete who's intelligent.  If they're pitchers they try to figure out the mechanics of rotations and the aerodynamics of the curve ball... Jay Hook comes to mind.  He was a pitcher with an engineering degree... He had all the tools... But he was always too involved with the mechanics of pitching.  Ballplayers often say, 'Quit thinking, you're hurting the club.'  I really believe you can think too much in this game, and Hook always did."

"The third kind is the one who is intelligent enough to know that baseball is basically an instinctive game.  I like to think that's me."

He might suggest sermonizing is silly; if one doesn't know how to end, and lauding a long work has turned into loggorhea, just use the author's own words.

. . .

Bouton talks at the end about major leaguers, now stuck in the minors, clinging on way too long to their dreams -- they're full of odd hopes in inferior games -- and wonders if he could ever be so foolish.  And admits: Yes.  "You spend most of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all along." 


  1. Great post. I stole Ball Four from my grandfather in 1970 and completely devoured the book. I must have read it 20 times that year. I was 12 and really into the baseball card thing. I had cards of just about everyone that Bouton mentioned in the book, which made it even more fun.

    This is no joke, but the book really affected my outlook on things. I grew up in a very structured family. My parents and brother were not out of the box thinkers at all, and still aren't (yes, Dad and Mom are still alive at 85 and 81). Ball Four showed me that "adults" (Bouton is 19 years older than me) weren't uptight structured individuals, and it was ok to NOT to be programmed.

    My interest in baseball took off even more after reading Ball Four. Just like Bouton described some famous person in "I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally" saying, I would get inside the heads of the players when they were pitching or batting. I'd go to A's games at the Coliseum and think, what is Joel Horlen (1972 A's pitcher) thinking right now? If I have a bad outing, will I be cut? It made the game that much more interesting.

    A couple of nitpicks. The Seattle Pilots season was 1969, not 1970. Bouton's big year was 1963 when he pitched in the World Series, not 1962. He was on the Yankees for the 1962 WS, but didn't pitch. Also, Dick Young called Bouton a "social leper", not Leonard Shecter.

    Again, excellent post. I ran across this post as I was researching Bobbie Bouton and Nancy Marshall's 1983 book, ''Home Games: Two Baseball Wives Speak Out''. I suspect Jim Bouton won't fare well in the book and I've put off reading it for 20 years. I ordered it off Amazon. Should be interesting.


    1. Wow. I thought I had a good Ball Four origin story... but your story is absolutely great. Not to get maudlin, but I really love stories showing how particular books --especially those that arrive at important times-- really can mean so much in people's lives.

      Thanks for the notes: I corrected the dates above, and I intended to express that Young called Shecter a social leper (I believe Young accused both Bouton and Shecter), so I made it a little clearer.

      I didn't know about Home Games, but it sounds like it provides essential perspective to the Bouton/Ball Four story... and for that matter, I should probably read Bouton's I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, too. But strangely, I don't want to know much more than I already do (which is probably bad form for a writer), because I just like the ritual of reading the book, and the bubble it affords... Speaking of which, it's almost time for Spring Training!

  2. "I suspect Jim Bouton won't fare well in the book and I've put off reading it for 20 years. I ordered it off Amazon."

    I just read the Bobbi Bouton-Nancy Marshall book. And indeed, Bouton comes off as a total jerk. A bad husband, and a not very good father when it comes to daughter Laurie who later died tragically.

    I have no doubt that Bouton merely revealed the truth about what baseball players were really like. But I have always wondered, what if it had been Bobby Richardson revealing the same things but doing it in a judgmental moralistic context? If someone like a Richardson had exposed these things for the sake of how ballplayers should clean up their act better, I think the writers who praised "Ball Four"and made it a classic would have made such an author a far bigger pariah. Bouton on the other hand, like Bill Lee later, had the benefit of sharing the far-Left political views of the writers (I'm sure they loved that diss at players who thank God for giving them the skills and talents to be a major league player) and as such was going to get a favorable treatment that other players can never count on (just ask Tim Tebow).