The paper jacket sleeve on the hardback copy of “Ball Four” I purchased in 1970 at Gateway Mall in St. Petersburg is crinkling and falling apart. Much like me.
It was 46 years ago as a high school senior that I first read Jim Bouton’s rollicking and revelatory book about life as a big-league baseball player. I picked it up again a few days ago and re-read it. And enjoyed it again.
No sports book like it had ever been written before 1970. Oh, I suppose an argument could be made for Jim Brosnan’s “The Long Season,” which was published in 1960. But that fine diary about the 1959 baseball season didn’t contain the bawdiness and irreverence of “Ball Four.”
Thousands of sports books published in the nearly half century since “Ball Four” have attempted capturing the insanity, the pettiness, the glories and the triumphs, defeats and exasperation of sports. I doubt if any written by an insider captured it all the way Bouton did describing the 1969 season and his life in baseball.
My copy of the book is a fifth printing from July 1970. A first edition in good condition could fetch $300, according to baumanrarebooks.com. My fifth edition is in so-so condition. A fifth edition recently sold for $3.99 on ebay.
I haven’t held on to and treasured this book as an investment. Hardly. It’s spot in a bookcase in my living room with other baseball books remains secure for sentimental reasons.
I still recall my first reading. If my copy was printed in July of 1970 I likely picked it up in that little bookstore in the mall sometime later in the summer or early in the fall. At the time I was a senior at Northeast High and on the baseball team and harboring vague thoughts of writing someday. I had no illusions about becoming a big-league ballplayer. I was clueless but not that clueless.
So I sat down on the lanai at the rear of our house on 83rd Avenue North on that long ago afternoon eager to read this book I had heard so much about. I recall reading roughly half of it one marathon session there on the lanai. I was mesmerized. Bouton had pulled back the curtain on big-league baseball.
Previous sports books tended to be of the, oh, gosh, gee willikers, coach, we got to win this game for dear Aunt Mabel and the Fighting Mammals of good ‘ol State University.
Not “Ball Four.” Bouton wrote contemptuously of ownership and management. He wrote that Mickey Mantle liked girls and beer. Gasp! Well, OK, maybe Mickey liked girls and beer too much. Bouton became a pariah in baseball for many years after the book’s publication.
But what many critics missed, I think, is that Bouton loved the game and was very fond of many of his teammates.
In 1970 when I first read “Ball Four” I was a high school senior. I’m now a senior citizen.
Yet, the book holds up well after all these years. As I read it this time I kept a yellow legal pad nearby to jot down notes and passages I’d like to quote in this blog post. I just counted 55 possible citations on that legal pad.
The quotes I considered using are funny, insightful, witty and even heart-warming. I can’t use them all because this blog post would run into many thousands of words. And then there might be some legal issue if I quoted huge chunks of “Ball Four” without permission.
I can’t recommend this book enough for sports fans and even non-fans. “Ball Four” is about more than sports. It’s about people and relationships and how organizations function.
You don’t believe my glowing assessment?
Ask the learned folks at the New York Public Library. When they compiled a list of the best books of the 20th century, “Ball Four” was the only sports book included.
Time magazine ranked it No. 67 on its list of the greatest non-fiction books of all-time. That’s all time! Of all non-fiction books! Of all topics!
Sports Illustrated pegs it the third best sports book ever, behind only A. J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science” at No. 1 and Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” at No. 2.
The reader is hooked with ”Ball Four’s” first sentence and remains hooked through the final, famous sentence, which I’ll quote later.
“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams,” Bouton begins his diary in the fall of 1968.
That’s before he spends most of the 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and the final few weeks with the Houston Astros.
Bouton rhapsodizes a bit in the introduction about the life of big-league ballplayers.
“I enjoy the fame of being a big-league ballplayer,” Bouton wrote. “I get a tremendous kick out of people wanting my autograph. In fact, I feel hurt if I go someplace where I think I should be recognized and no one asks me for it.”
Earlier in his career, Bouton had been a fireballing wunderkind with the Yankees. In 1963 he was 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA and was second in the American League in winning percentage (.750). The only pitcher in the league to win more games (24) that year was teammate and future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford.
By 1969, the blistering fastball was long gone. Bouton tried getting by with a knuckleball. And he was also busy taking notes and speaking into a tape recorder. He talked about players taking greenies, a pep pill they used to aid their performance. Bouton openly talked about philandering.
He reminisced about his days with the Yankees playing with colorful characters such as first baseman Joe Pepitone. Bouton wrote how Pepitone liked to “squirm” on the ground faking injuries to milk crowds for applause.
“After a while the fans got on him, though, and he needed at least a broken leg to move them,” Bouton wrote.
The book burst with good lines such as the one Bouton used to describe the atmosphere in Seattle’s clubhouse after a loss.
“. … you could cut the silence with a bologna sandwich,” Bouton wrote.
As a man who read books and visited art museums, Bouton was an outlier, a downright curiosity inside the game. He touched on that with this anecdote about a flight with the Pilots.
A player asked him if he liked to read.
“’Yeah,’ I said cleverly,” Bouton wrote.
The player then asked if reading made him smart. Bouton noted the player wasn’t being sarcastic.
Bouton’s reply; “Not really. But it makes people think I am.”
To fit in with his teammates, Bouton cut down on his reading and “got into card games on airplanes.”
But it didn’t sit well with Bouton, who was a professional athlete by job description but not mentality.
“Why should I yield to the jockos?” Bouton wrote of the dilemma between wanting to fit in while also wanting to be his own man.
In the early 1970s in the wake of “Ball Four’s” publication Bouton was pilloried wide and far for breaking a code about keeping secrets. Although he wrote about sexual escapades and drinking the book also contained nice human touches such as a paragraph on Whitey Ford.
“I think it should be known that when Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees he set up a table with a checkered tablecloth in the bullpen,” Bouton wrote. “On the table there was an empty wine bottle with a candle in it. Also hero sandwiches. Whitey Ford had style.”
No discussion of “Ball Four” is complete without mentioning Pilots manager Joe Schultz and his use of the language. Bouton noted that Schultz’s favorite expressions were “shitfuck” and “fuckshit” and every possible combination of the two words.
Although a wizened old baseball hand, Schultz could still get caught up in the excitement of games.
Bouton wrote about the manager jumping up and down in the dugout, clapping his hands and saying “Hurray for our team.”
Hurray for our team?
Yep. That’s what Bouton said that Schultz said. Among other things.
On April 12, 1969 Schultz told the team, “Okay, men, up and at ‘em. Get that old Budweiser.”
Ah, Budweiser, the beverage of champions.
Once when Schultz went to the mound to chat with a pitcher he told him, “Give him some low smoke and we’ll go and pound some Budweiser.”
Joe Schultz was a piece of work, a true original. Bouton once told his manager he needed a workout.
“If you need a workout go down to a whorehouse,” Schultz told his knuckleball reliever.
Schultz was clearly old-school baseball with all its stereotypes of anti-intellectual passion. Once on a flight Bouton noticed his manager reading a sports section. Bouton asked if he wanted to read the rest of the paper.
“Nah, I don’t read that,” Schultz told him.
Bouton noted, “There’s no comfort for Schultz in the front of a newspaper.”
After a game Schultz told his team, “”Attaway to stomp on ‘em, men. Pound that Budweiser into you and go get ‘em tomorrow.”
He then noticed pitcher John Gelnar drinking a Dr Pepper.
“For crissakes, Gelnar,” Schultz said, “you’ll never get them out drinking Dr Pepper.”
Oh, there’s so much more to share and this post is getting quite long but a famous Casey Stengel quote has to be included.
Seattle catcher Greg Goosen had started his career with the Mets, who were managed by Casey Stengel. Goosen told Bouton what Stengel had said about him.
“We got a kid here named Goosen, 20 years old,” Stengel said, “and in 10 years he’s got a chance to be 30.”
Some critics viewed Bouton as a malcontent because he dared to question why things were the way they were. But he knew he was blessed played baseball.
“There may be better ways to earn a living,” Bouton observed early in the 1969 season, “but I can’t think of one.”
Much later in the book he realized at times he took for granted the chance to play big-league baseball and just walk across the outfield grass.
“And now, sometimes, I forget to tingle,” Bouton wrote.
The ending of “Ball Four” may be the best-known ending of any sports book.
“You see,” Bouton wrote, “you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Jim Bouton is now 77. But to me he’ll always be the 30-year-old knuckleballer with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, the one I read about on the lanai of our St. Petersburg home all those years ago.