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Ball Four

by Jim Bouton

Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which Major League Baseball viewed as akin to a bomb flung into their living room by a traitorous freak when it was published in 1970, has become respectable. It’s not just that The New York Public Library included Ball Four among their “Books of the Century” in 1996 — the only sports books so honored — or that one of Bouton’s old teams, the New York Yankees, invited Bouton back to an Old-Timers game after years of shunning him. It’s the book itself. Thirty-six years after it was published, 37 years after the events it portrays — a diary of the 1969 season by a middle-relief knuckleball specialist with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros — parts of the book feel almost quaint.

Players popped “greenies,” or amphetamines, to get an edge during games? Now they’ve got steroids and human growth hormones. Players held out for one or two thousand dollars? Now it’s millions. Management fined players for the length of their hair or sideburns? Now Johnny Damon’s long locks lead to endorsement deals. Players weren’t supposed to be political or come out against “the war”?

OK, some things have stayed the same.

Certain sections still scandalize. Yes, every man checks out good-looking women in the stands, but the term the ballplayers used (beaver-shooting), and the fact that one player actually drilled a hole in the back of a dugout to better see up women’s skirts, is just this side of pathetic. What’s Mickey Mantle doing hanging on a hotel rooftop beaver-shooting with the guys? Couldn’t he get any woman he wanted? “Hi, I’m Mickey Mantle.” Wouldn’t that be enough? Why peek at what you could have?

Bouton is also less of a rebel than we remember. Early on he writes, “I don’t like people to think terrible thoughts about me,” and for much of the 1969 season he’s basically just a guy trying to fit in. While he has his blow-ups, infamously lecturing the bullpen crew after a bad outing, and while he can’t help but go against the grain (reading is going against the grain in most clubhouses), he wants what most of us want: to be one of the guys. He obviously loves the camaraderie of a team even as he chafes under its conformity. He writes, “it remains most difficult to convey the quality of banter on the back of the bus,” then gives a perfect example of the type of earthy non sequitur he finds hilarious:

Greg Gossen: “Hey, does anybody here have any Aqua Velva?”
Fred Talbot: “No, but I gotta take a s--t, if that’ll help.”

There are sections that feel as loose and comfortable as infield practice. “That’s the old Rufus Goofus,” coach Frank Crosetti yells while hitting the ball around. Players mock-interview one another during the game — adding colorful language to clichéd commentary. When one Baltimore fan asks Bouton in the bullpen, “How do you pitch to Frank Robinson?” Bouton tells the truth. “Reluctantly,” he says.

All of which is to say: Bouton wasn’t out to “get” baseball. He’s just a guy with a low tolerance for stupidity. Thankfully, in the Seattle organization, he kept finding it.

To keep his knuckleball sharp Bouton needed to throw it often, yet Pilots management, particularly pitching coach Sal Maglie, aided by the passivity of manager Joe Schultz, tried to limit the number of times he threw. Throwing a lot went against baseball orthodoxy, so, even though it might help Bouton, and thus the team, they were against it. They were men of little imagination.

It’s the smallness of it all that bugs Bouton. Coaches are constantly questioning players for taking baseballs out of the ballbag. “What are you using them for?” they ask. The Yankee clubhouse manager refuses to stock orange juice because “If I get it, you guys just drink it up.” Bouton is interested in a new sports drink called Gatorade and buys several cases for the team but Pilots’ general manager Marvin Milkes won’t compensate him. Milkes launches his own investigation into this “Gatorade.” By book’s end, Bouton still hasn’t been reimbursed.

During the course of the year Seattle trades the future Rookie of the Year (Lou Piniella) and sends to the minors one of the best relief pitchers of the 1970s (Mike Marshall); they ultimately lose the franchise. My favorite example of managerial ineptitude involves coach Sal Maglie telling pitcher Darrel Brandon not to worry about Rod Carew leading off third base. “For crissakes, get the hitter,” he yells. “The runner isn’t going anywhere.” Of course Carew promptly steals home. (He tied an MLB record that year.) Afterward you think Maglie might apologize to his pitcher; instead he blames Brandon. “You know you’ve got to pitch in the stretch from that situation,” he says.

This is the beauty of Ball Four. Jim Bouton held a job most of us only dream about yet his story is ours: My boss is an idiot. Who can’t relate to that?

In the end this is probably what bothered the baseball establishment the most. Ball Four was the first warts-and-all account of Major League Baseball, an institution that thrived on its clean-cut image, but it was just one of many books from that era that revealed the reality behind the slick image of some of our most beloved institutions. Other examples include John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (Hollywood) and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men (the White House). The meta-message of all of these accounts is essentially the same: The people in charge don’t really know what they’re doing. That’s a message the people in charge don’t want to get out. That’s a message the rest of us, sadly, keep forgetting.

—originally published in The Grand Salami

© 2000 by Erik Lundegaard