SEATTLE – The thing about Jim Bouton that always amazed me – and warmed my heart – was the pure joy he derived from his masterpiece, “Ball Four.”
“I have lived with the book for so long now, and had so many conversations with people over the years, that the characters, my teammates, have become like members of my family,” Bouton told me in 2009 during one of several interviews I was privileged to have with him.
“I honestly have developed very loving feelings about every single one of them.”
Because of that book, which was transformational for me as a teenager and for millions of others who were given a shocking/hilarious/irreverent/authentic glimpse inside Major League Baseball baseball, the Seattle Pilots will live on forever. And so will Bouton, who died Wednesday at the age of 80.
The book ostensibly chronicled Bouton’s attempt to resurrect his career with the expansion 1969 Pilots at age 30, a sore-armed former Yankees fireballer who decided a knuckleball was his ticket back to the big-time.
But what made Bouton’s book stand out in 1970 when it was published and still resonate today, nearly 50 years later, is the eclectic cast of teammates that he brought to life. It was ribald, it was profane, and it was light years ahead of its time in portraying ballplayers as humans, flaws and all, rather than adhering to the idolatry that had prevailed to that point in sporting literature.
Bouton was correspondingly reviled around baseball for the curtain that he lifted on how ballplayers really acted off the field – pill-popping, skirt-chasing and boozing, for instance.
Particularly galling to many was his warts-and-all portrayal of the sainted Mickey Mantle, his former Yankee teammate. A typical outraged response was that of Pete Rose, who after the book’s publication screamed at Bouton from the Reds’ dugout, “(Bleep) you, Shakespeare!”
Bouton, relating the story at the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) convention in Seattle in 2006, said gleefully: “Which I thought was great. … I mean, a literary reference from Pete Rose.”
Of course, the realism is what made “Ball Four” such a revolutionary book – the only sports book included in the New York Public Library’s listing of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.
But it’s the hilarity that makes it endure. And Bouton never, ever lost his appreciation for the cast of characters that remain as memorable to baseball fans as the Corleones to Godfather aficionados.
I’m talking about Bouton’s chief protagonist, pitcher Fred Talbot, a crank who once leapt into a taxi that Bouton had been waiting for and yelled back as it pulled away, “Take the next cab, you communist.”
Bouton, of course, famously got the better of Talbot. He fooled him into thinking that he was going to receive a cash award from a fan who had received a hefty payout in a radio contest for the grand slam Talbot hit.
I’m talking about outfielder Steve Hovley, a high-minded intellectual with a keen sense of the ironic. “My hero – probably the most intellectually courageous person I’ve ever seen,“ Bouton would say. “For him to be his independent self in the wake of overwhelming peer pressure was astonishing.”
I’m talking about vividly idiosyncratic teammates like Jim Pagliaroni, Merrit Ranew, Gary Bell and countless others. And no one was more memorable than Joe Schultz, the lovable buffoon of a manager who used to implore his players to “pound the Budweiser.”
“These guys were characters out of a novel, and I’m so lucky I was on the Pilots, because I could have never written the exact same kind of book, or even close to it, with another type of team,” Bouton told me once.
As I said, Bouton loved all the characters in Ball Four. He’d often end up sputtering with laughter over the phone as he related and relived an anecdote from the book. But he really adored Schultz, who understood that the ragtag Pilots were destined for mediocrity and didn’t sweat it.
“The great thing about Joe,” Bouton said, “is he was the opposite of Vince Lombardi. Joe felt sorry for us. He told us not to feel bad; we just didn’t have the talent.”
The most memorable interview I had with Bouton occurred in 1998 when he detailed his long-sought reconciliation with the Yankees.
They had essentially disowned him after “Ball Four” was published in 1970, largely because of the Mantle revelations. But when Mantle’s son, Billy, died in 1991, Bouton sent him a heartfelt letter of condolence and wrote at the end, “I hope you’re feeling OK about ‘Ball Four.’ I didn’t intend to hurt anyone with that book, and I consider those some of the best memories of my life.”
Two weeks later, Bouton said, he received a message from Mantle on his answering machine. He recited it verbatim: “Hey, Jim, this is Mick. I’m OK about ‘Ball Four’ these days. Thanks for the letter. I want you to know I’m not the reason you’re not invited back for Old Timer’s Day. I never said that to anyone. Take it easy, bud.”
Fast forward to 1997, when Bouton’s 31-year-old daughter, Laurie, was killed in a car accident. One of Bouton’s sons, Michael, wrote a poignant first-person article in The New York Times imploring Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to bring him back. That led to Bouton’s return to Yankee Stadium in 1998 for the Old Timer’s Game.
“The beauty of that letter, the power of it, the sympathy it invoked, caused them to invite me back,” Bouton said in the interview.
Now Bouton is gone, leaving behind a 62-63 career record in 10 seasons with the Yankees, Pilots, Astros and Braves (with two of those wins coming in 57 games for the lone season of the Seattle Pilots in 1969).
But Bouton’s legacy is far deeper, richer and more enduring than that perfunctory recitation of statistics.
“Without ‘Ball Four,’ I’d just be a statistic in ‘The Baseball Encyclopedia’ that people look up,” he said. “The book changed my life.
“I never get tired of ‘Ball Four,’ ” he said another time. “Mainly because I know the book so intimately, just thinking about it makes me smile.”
I’m looking at my own dog-eared, original copy of “Ball Four” right now, and though immensely saddened by Bouton’s death, I’m smiling, too.
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