Getting to know Jim Bouton was better late than never

Getting to know Jim Bouton was better late than never

I picked up Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” at least a dozen times at the old book store in the mall.

Bouton’s book, which detailed his season with the 1969 expansion baseball team the Seattle Pilots, was released in 1970. It looked intriguing each time I poured through the sports and recreation section.

Every time I put it back down, electing to read something newer.

Years later I discovered the beauty of the audio book. My subscription to Audible.com lets me take books with me as I jog or walk my dogs.

I looked at “Ball Four” dozens of times on Audible, but it sat atop my “wish list” as I picked a different book time after time.

A couple of years ago, I finally gave Bouton a try. After listening to and loving Sparky Lyle’s book “Bronx Zoo,” I figured I was ready for “Ball Four.”

I selected “Ball Four: The Final Pitch.” It was Bouton’s last of several updates, published in 2000. The audio book is read by Bouton, and he sounds so much more like a gentle grandpa than the “Bulldog” who won 39 games for the Yankees in in 1963 and 1964.

The original part of the book is mixture of a diary and old stories. It goes day by day through spring training and the 1969 season as Bouton, who had lost his fastball, tries to make it back as a knuckleball pitcher.

Each page is filled words of pure genius. They dissect the world of baseball as it intertwined with race, religion, war, fake patriotism and social injustice during complex times. They are also funny.

Bouton writes as if he was an old man, but he turned 30 early in spring training of 1969. He was clearly wise well beyond his years.

While Bouton got his knuckler to dance during that season, the book basically ended his career. Baseball blackballed him for exposing some of the ills and genuine stupidity of those playing and running the perfect game.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was completely fictional.

Bouton, though, would have none of that, and it probably cost him close to 10 years of big league time for a guy who kept trying to comeback.

The pitcher wrote about the rampant use of amphetamines baseball. He also told a story of Mickey Mantel closing the bus window on kids who were looking for autographs.

He eloquently described how Seattle pitching coach Sal Maglie was a giant knucklehead who hindered his pitchers instead of helping. He wrote about the one-way contracts players were forced to sign, and he should forever be seen as a hero to the modern players who make millions to play the game.

The honesty of the book truly is as beautiful as it is courageous.

Here’s a line that points out the absurdity of baseball bosses worrying about how a player looks.

“A kid named Tom Byrd, who belongs to the Seattle organization and goes to school here, came over to work out with the club. And before the workout he was in the clubhouse shaving off his nice long sideburns. He got the word that Dewey Soriano, who is the president of the club, thought he would look better with shorter sideburns. Well, I think Dewey Soriano would look better if he lost weight.”

Here is what he wrote about the sudden obsession with the national anthem before games.

“A flag, after all, is still only a cloth symbol. You don’t show patriotism by showing blank-eyed love for a piece of cloth. And you can be deeply patriotic without covering your car with flag decals.”

Here is how Bouton summed up a weekend playing in Cleveland.

“If you’re gonna crash on a Cleveland flight, it would be better if it was an inbound flight.”

Hearing Bouton laugh at some of the stories decades later makes them that much better.

As great as the original book, the additions might be my favorite part. He called them “Ball Five,” “Ball Six,” and “Ball Seven.”

In those chapters, you hear about his divorce and how he met his second wife, whom he spent the last 42 years of his life with.

In the original book, Bouton introduces us to his daughter Laurie.

“’The Unsinkable Molly Brown was almost sunk last tonight. Unsinkable 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.”

In an update, Bouton stumbles and cries through the words as he tells of Laurie being killed in an automobile accident at the age of 31.

Walking and running while listening to “Ball Four” had me crying with laughter. Other times it just had me crying.

Bouton’s masterpiece is hands down my favorite book of all time. You do not have to be a baseball nut or even a sports fan to love the words and the author.

Listening to Bouton is like listening to someone I have known for my entire life.

I finished my first listening to the audio book in June of 2019, and I quickly put Bouton on top of my list of people I would like to meet. At the time, I did not know he was struggling with a brain disease, and he passed away on July 10 of that year.

Shortly before he died, the Library of Congress acquired the notes of Bouton’s book as it closed in on 50. He was too sick to realize how huge of an honor was being bestowed upon him.

For years, my Netflix queue included the documentary “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.”

When I was looking something to watch while running on the treadmill, I always thought about that movie. For years, though, I picked something else.

Last week, I finally pressed play on the movie, which details the Portland Mavericks of the 1970s.

Actor Bing Russell, the father of Kurt, bought the team that at the time was the only independent team in minor league baseball. The team thrived in the Class A-Short Season Northwest League.

The Mavericks drew huge and rowdy crowds that cheered on players chasing that unlikely and elusive dream of the ballplayer. Some were has-beens. Other were never-weres.

One of the players was a knuckleball pitcher trying to make it back to the bigs. His name was Jim Bouton, and he gave the filmmakers the title.

Like with the book, I cannot recommend the documentary highly enough.

If you decide to finally check out “Ball Four,” like I did, make sure to get the final edition. If you already read it, check out the audio book.

Late in the movie, you will hear a clip from Bouton describing the Mavericks, and you will know why I say that.

“Our motivation was simple,” Bouton said. “Revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college bonus babies owned by the Dodgers and Phillies.

“Will there ever be a Mav old-timers day, you ask. Nah. Too many players in the witness protection program. Wherever you guys are, I love you, man. You battered bastards of baseball.”

That movie and book make me kick myself for waiting so long to get to know a man whom I have never met but cannot help but love.

— Bill Foley, who has fuzzy cheeks but no bonus, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74



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