Known as ‘The Bulldog,’ former New York Yankee Jim Bouton pissed off The Establishment with his tell-all book Ball Four, and went on to a career as anchorman, TV and film personality. Now, nearly 80, he is still gripped by the national pastime.
I was pitching batting practice to a Little Leaguer last month when a well-meaning father asked me what I was writing about next. When I said, “Jim Bouton,” I heard “Who?” That single word stopped me mid-wind-up and left me staring at the ground wondering how that question could be possible. I resorted to describing Bouton as a New York Yankee, a former sportscaster, and the writer of “Ball Four,” the 1970 tell-all book about life in baseball’s Major Leagues. That didn’t feel right; it was like saying Pablo Picasso was an artist, Alexander Calder made mobiles or that David Bowie made music. Jim Bouton pissed people off in a big way: he revealed what no one knew about baseball players and baseball owners and he challenged what America values as important. – Benito Vila
It’s 1974; I’m a sixth-grader. I’m nervous; Mr. Koons introduces my oral report on unassigned reading and I launch into telling the story of a Major League Baseball player who’s written a book that’s gotten him banned from the game. The player is Jim Bouton and the book is Ball Four. What I’ve understood from the book is that life in the pros is anything but peanuts and Crackerjacks; there’s a lot of drinking, drugs and girl-chasing. In fact, I go on, players like to look for “beaver” during games. There’s suddenly a lot of rustling in the classroom and Mr. Koons gets wide-eyed.
I say that’s what Major Leaguers call girls–“beaver”–and launch into Bouton’s story of Mickey Mantle with his Yankee teammates on a Washington hotel rooftop at 2:30 in the morning looking into windows for “a beaver shot” and go on about the Detroit pitchers having binoculars and a telescope in their bullpen for the same purpose. I also go on about the “greenies” (amphetamines) Bouton says players often take. By the time I’m done, Mr. Koons is more than ready for me to sit down and no one ever gets to do an oral report on their outside reading again.
While my twelve-year-old self had no insight into the subtleties of the stories Bouton told–it all seemed like irreverent fun to me–reviewers of the day were all over the book. Some wanted it to be banned, with famed New York Daily News sports reporter Dick Young calling Bouton out as “a social leper” and then Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn crying the book was “detrimental to baseball”. Others, though, saw Ball Four for what it was–an honest look at the game and at society itself–with Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times describing the more revealing passages as “a natural outgrowth of a game in which 25 young, insecure, undereducated men of narrow skills keep circling the country to play before fans… who use [the players] as symbols for their own fantasies.”
In 2000, Bouton wrote, “The overreaction to Ball Four boiled down to this: People simply were not used to reading the truth about professional sports. What made [the owners] so angry was not the locker room stories but the revelations about how difficult it was to make a living in baseball…it showed for the first time, exactly how owners abused and manipulated players by taking advantage of their one-way contract.” [Editor: Until 1975, baseball’s “reserve clause” kept players bound to their teams; Bouton’s testimony in a 1974 arbitration case–where he read passages from his book–played a role in creating the “free agency” that now exists in professional sports].
“After Ball Four sports journalists could no longer sell the milk and cookies image again”
Ball Four determinedly challenged long-accepted societal norms. Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam described Ball Four as “by no means a sports book”, and added it was as welcome as an exposé on Congress, The Ford Motor Company or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, iconic American institutions that no one then had ever thought to question. In his Harper’s review of the book, Halberstam suggests Bouton’s work “stakes out a new dimension of what is proper and significant” and compares the scathing reaction to Ball Four to the verbal debris heaped on investigative reporter Sy Hersh when he revealed the government cover-up of the My Lai Massacre [a slaughter of nearly 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians by the United States Army in 1969].
After Ball Four, as Bouton modestly puts it, “sports journalists could no longer sell the milk and cookies image again”. That became true in other journalistic realms as well, especially when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post further revealed the need to more actively question “the Establishment”, when their investigation of the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex led them deep into the Nixon White House. That reporting, too, was dismissed, as “lies”, “heresy” and “sacrilege”, by the same conservative mindset that vehemently assured Bouton would never play the game again.
I moved to New York in 1975, in eighth grade, turning on the television one day to find Bouton at the WCBS sports desk. Here was that same funny storyteller reading sports results and describing what was important about the games of the day. Bouton was calm, steady and knowledgeable, nothing like the renegade maniac I’d heard described on the NBC Baseball Game of The Week. Clearly, it occurred to me, NBC’s announcers Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, both former New York Yankee employees, had issues with Bouton, their former colleague.
As it happened, Bouton had been sent back to the minor leagues halfway through the 1970 baseball season just after the release of Ball Four. Legend has it the baseball establishment wanted Bouton out of the game, but, in truth, he wasn’t pitching as well as he had in 1969 and was allowing too many base runners to help the Houston Astros win ballgames. Also, Bouton was being widely booed for the book; in fact, when facing the Cincinnati Reds, he had Pete Rose—baseball’s all-time hits leader who is ineligible for the Hall of Fame for gambling on games while in uniform—yelling, “Fuck you, Shakespeare!” from the opposing dugout on nearly every pitch.
Soon after the demotion to the minors, Bouton retired and was offered a sports broadcasting role at WABC-New York, later moving on to WCBS-New York for more money at the end of his contract, a professional experience denied him as a major leaguer. Nicknamed “Bulldog” by his original 1962 Yankee teammates for his intense approach to each pitch and to each at-bat, Bouton brought that same determined spirit to his broadcasting work, helping WABC’s Eyewitness News and then WCBS News to reach the top of the New York market’s ratings.
But, despite that financial and professional success, which included a handful of film and television roles, Bouton wasn’t done with baseball.
Bouton’s biggest role was as Terry Lennox in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye:
In his “retirement”, Bouton continued playing in adult leagues in suburban New Jersey whenever he could, and in 1975 Bouton took a two-week hiatus from his day job to join the Single-A [the lowest level of pro baseball] Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League. Then 36 years old, Bouton made five starts for the Mavericks, facing fresh-out-of-college and long-time journeyman competition; he pitched deep into each game, logging 41 innings of work and posting a 4-1 won-loss record [with a 2.20 ERA].
At the conclusion of Ball Four, Bouton wrote, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” That could be said of anyone and their passions, and it continued to hold true for Bouton. In 1977, at age 38, he put his broadcast career on hold and made a full-fledged baseball comeback, signing with the Chicago White Sox and pitching Single-A and Double-A ball that summer, going 5-7 in 17 starts; Bouton took a midsummer sojourn to Durango of the Mexican League when he was struggling to get outs in the States and was released by the White Sox.
Bouton overcame the long odds of a full comeback to the major leagues the next summer, signing with the Atlanta Braves in May 1978 and recording an 11-9 mark in 21 starts at the Braves’ Double-A Savannah team. In September 1978, Bouton was called-up to “the bigs” again and started five games for Atlanta, pitching well in three of them. He beat the San Francisco Giants 4-1 on September 14th, pitching six innings of one-run baseball for his first major-league win since 1970. After a 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on September 24th, Reds manager Sparky Anderson was quoted as saying, “We didn’t even hit the ball hard off of him, and got two runs we shouldn’t have gotten.” In the brief three-week return, Bouton finished with 1-3 record and a 4.91 ERA, retiring again after the season “for good”.
Bouton credits that final retirement to a new realization of his self-worth, a realization that came off the ball field in a new relationship. As Bouton puts it, “A magic lady had this strange idea that I was somebody special. This was a view of me I wasn’t used to. In spite of the public recognition I had received, I privately held a different view–one I had always had–which was that I was not quite good enough no matter what I did and anything I had achieved was somehow a lucky accident.”
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.”
In his 1980 Ball Five, a ten-years-later addendum to his original Ball Four, Bouton continued that thought, writing, “A negative self-image is hard to shake in a world which confirms that image by reflecting back what we feel about ourselves. What’s more, when you’ve lived with something all your life you can’t see it easily. Comedian Buddy Hackett tells a funny story about how he didn’t know what heartburn was until one day he didn’t have it. He had just joined the army and for the first time in his life he wasn’t eating his mother’s cooking. When he woke up the next morning he was terrified. He ran into the infirmary hollering, ‘Help me; I’m dying. The fire went out.’ Which just goes to show you what you can get used to. And it also shows that new feelings, even if they’re an improvement on old ones, can be scary.”
I’m not exactly sure how it came to be that Bouton was on “my” ball field, but there he was. I came off from coaching a middle-school-age summer team when he walked over and introduced himself, saying he was in town for a short time, still pitching in a league, and asking if he could come to a practice and maybe pitch. I thought to myself, “Either I made practice seem like a lot of fun, or I’ve done something very, very wrong.”
Now, it’s 2009. Baseball-wise, Bouton is still very much “in the game”, not only as a senior player, but also as the commissioner of a vintage-baseball federation of teams competing by nineteenth-century “base ball” rules. He’s also a creator of Big League Chew, a shredded bubblegum in a tobacco-style pouch, which he and fellow pitcher Rob Nelson dreamed up in a Portland Maverick bullpen while they were drowning bugs in tobacco juice. Introduced in 1980, the gum was an immediate top-seller, earning a health and safety award from Collegiate Baseball Magazine for being an alternative to chewing tobacco [Big League Chew is the only bubble gum ever honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame].
So that’s how I introduced Bouton to my summer team: as a former New York Yankee and the creator of Big League Chew; that was the short bio I thought the kids could relate to best. And, at age 70, Bouton came out to pitch, throwing dancing “knucklers” that bounced off my glove more than once, and bearing down on 13 and 14-year-old batters but letting them get their hits when the time came [The majority of those young players went on to win championships on their high school team in 2012, 2013 and 2014].
There was a “rain delay” that afternoon, a passing shower that led us to seek shelter in the Mashashimuet Park [Sag Harbor, New York] grandstand. There, with the kids listening, I asked Bouton about his making his way to the big leagues. He recalled not being a good ballplayer growing up–that he didn’t attract the attention of scouts until he was in college, and that two good outings in a college summer ball tournament led the New York Yankees to sign him. That seemed to encourage the kids a lot. Bouton went on to describe his first spring training in 1962, when trying to make the Yankees as a starter, he had to face a Milwaukee Brave line-up featuring all-stars Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Joe Adcock. He said he was nervous knowing those guys were coming up, but then he remembered he’d gotten them out countless times in his backyard and went right after them, striking out all three. He talked a little from there about visualizing success, about being process-oriented more than results-oriented; soon the kids eyes began to glaze over, but then the sun came out and we all went back to the field–hustling, chatting, hollering and playing the game as hard as we could–it’s what we were meant to do that day.
I always hoped he’d come around again, but I never saw Bouton after that practice. An article in The New York Times last summer revealed that he had had a stroke in 2012 which left him physically able and full-bodied but had stolen his language skills, forcing Bouton to relearn all aspects of speech, including reading and writing.
When I called to see if there was any chance he could speak for himself in this piece, his wife Paula said that “Jim” could no longer communicate without tremendous effort and that that effort has become increasingly excruciating for him. It’s a bitter irony that a man who expressed himself so well could be left speechless; Bouton’s way is to combine intelligence, humor and determination to overcome laziness, intolerance and shortsightedness–whether those biases were intellectual or physical; racial or economic; perceived slights or a full-blown resentments.
Who is Jim Bouton? He’s an artist, rebel, raconteur, baseball legend, reporter, performer, writer and humanist. He’s a man who took the time to let us know how interesting we are collectively by talking about the odd things we do as individuals; Bouton points out that as a society, and as individuals, we put up with a lot of bullshit that doesn’t serve us–whether it comes from our co-workers, our bosses, or ourselves–concluding, “the pettiness and stupidity were exasperating, sometimes damaging.”
Who is Jim Bouton? He’s an artist, rebel, raconteur, baseball legend, reporter, performer, writer and humanist.
Bouton’s Ball Four is a solid read, even nearly fifty years later. Bouton’s honest thoughts about himself make it timeless: a rant on his optimism–“Each year I’m certain I’m going to be great again”–followed pages later by, “I could be kidding myself…Maybe I just think I can do it. Maybe everybody who doesn’t make it and who gets shunted to the minors feels exactly the way I do.” When Bouton writes: “I like to be an underdog. I’ve always been the guy who never was the big phenom but that came out on top unexpectedly…The truth is the underdog role is fun to play, and easy, because there’s no pressure. You’ve got nothing to lose”, it reveals as much about his inner make-up as it does about why we cheer underdogs.
As you might expect, as of last summer, Bouton was still throwing twice a week, firing pitches into a concrete block strike zone. Could he possibly have one more comeback in him?
Bouton on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, talking about playing in the minor leagues:
The Netflix movie on the Portland Mavericks–The Battered Bastards of Baseball