July 12, 2019 | News | No Comments
On Sunday, September 10, 1978, Jim Bouton took the mound for the Atlanta Braves against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bouton was thirty-nine years old and hadn’t pitched in the majors in eight seasons. He was, by that point, more famous as the author of the best-selling memoir “Ball Four,” which tracks Bouton’s season knuckleballing for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, than he was as a player; his start for the Braves was mostly seen as a publicity stunt arranged by the team’s young owner, Ted Turner. Bouton retired the first three batters in order and ran to the dugout in jubilation. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it the next day, he “raised his arms over his head and waved them in victory as Richard Nixon did.” When he went back to the mound, he returned to Earth, allowing six runs over the next four innings—his knuckleball, which he’d developed a decade earlier, in a previous attempt to revive his career, and which he’d nicknamed “superknuck,” amused more Dodgers than it baffled. His teammates, meanwhile, were less amused. “I don’t think he should be too pleased with today,” one of them said afterward.
It was a typical response to Bouton, who died on Wednesday, at the age of eighty. In the nineteen-sixties, during the heydey of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford, he had success as a hard-throwing righty with the New York Yankees. But after the publication of the brutally honest and uproariously funny “Ball Four,” in 1970, he came to be seen, by many establishment types, as a kind of traitor to his profession. (For years afterward, he was not invited by the Yankees to their old-timers’ games—though the organization did bring him back to the Bronx, in 1998, following the death of his daughter.) The newspaper columnist Dick Young called him a “social leper.” Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball, said that he’d “done the game a grave disservice.” Bouton later wrote that Kuhn, whom he nicknamed Ayatollah, tried to get him to sign a document recanting the stories about corousing, adultery, drug use, and contract disputes from the book. Bouton preferred the term “deviant” to describe himself, and he argued that, in this capacity, he’d done baseball a great service—making the sport relatable to fans by telling truths that other, better players couldn’t risk telling, and shouldering whatever blame followed.
Of course, not everyone was bothered by “Ball Four.” It sold well, and not only because of the gossip it shared about stars like Mantle. Many reviewers hailed it as groundbreaking. Time has bolstered its reputation, and, indeed, “Ball Four,” is great in all the ways that people now say it is: unadorned, ironic, bitterly funny, and yet also notably tender toward the men who play baseball, and the various doubts and insecurities and futilities that chase them. It has been picked up by successive generations who grew up amid a certain tone about baseball that “Ball Four” helped create—one that takes the piss out of the myths and grandeurs of the game without ever quite forsaking them. You don’t get “Bull Durham” or “Major League” or “Moneyball” without it.
Bouton did a lot of other things, besides. He helped invent Big League Chew bubble gum. He was a TV sports reporter, a preservationist, a 1972 Democratic Convention delegate for George McGovern, and an actor. (He is great-looking, tan, and mean in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” from 1973, in which he takes a bullet like a pro.) He seemed to get along best with people who saw baseball the way he did, as a spectacle and a performance, the whole notion of a professional enterprise of balls and bats a grand and wonderful lark. When player salaries began to reach impressive heights, Bouton wrote, “My position is that while the players don’t deserve all that money, the owners don’t deserve it even more.” He was drawn to guys like Bill Veeck, a franchise owner with the mind of a showman, who gave Bouton a minor-league contract during his later, wandering years. And he was a natural fit for Ted Turner, who, in the late seventies, as an enterprising owner of a team with terrible attendance, thought it perfectly fine to bring Bouton back to the majors for a news-making last hurrah.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Bouton’s brief resurrection with the Braves as a gimmick. Although “Ball Four” seemed to show Bouton breaking faith with baseball, the truth was that, despite his diminishing skills, he was reluctant to leave the game behind. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked him. My favorite ballplayers are the guys who refuse to leave peaceably. Think of Rickey Henderson, who, at the age of forty-six, already a Hall of Famer, played with the gusto of a prospect for the San Diego Surf Dogs of the Golden Baseball League. Or Satchel Paige, who had to wait until his forties for the major leagues to integrate and give him his rightful chance—and then refused to walk away, pitching his final three innings, for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of fifty-eight. Like them, Bouton kept going, throwing junk balls through the nineteen-seventies in the minor-league anonymity of Teaneck, Knoxville, Portland, and Durango. His shot with the Braves in ’78 only came after a hot summer of toiling for Double-A Savannah, riding the bus and staying in lousy motels, for a thousand bucks a month.
Later, Bouton lamented that his return to the majors had been met with derision or silence. Leave it to Major League Baseball to miss a good story when it sees one. Kuhn told the players that the best way for them to promote baseball was to keep quiet and never say anything to “knock the game,” as Bouton put it. He broke that rule, and though his status as a pariah involved a little bit of mythmaking on his part, it would be years until he was fully brought back into the fold. Baseball has had few evangelists as committed as Bouton, however unorthodox he was. The current M.L.B. commissioner, Rob Manfred, has criticized top players for not drawing more attention to themselves. What he seems to be looking for—as if such a thing were regularly at hand rather than singular—is some of that exuberant Bouton spirit.
Bouton started four more games for the Braves in the fall of 1978, winning one and generally making a fair show of himself. As it had in his old Yankees days, his cap would pop off his head as he bent over during his exaggerated follow-through—a little picture of youth superimposed onto an aging ballplayer. “A two-year odyssey through the minor leagues by a 39-year-old man who finally makes it, may be one of the best testimonials baseball has ever had,” he wrote, in a postscript to a later edition of “Ball Four.” As ever with Bouton, what some people mistook for a goof had been another expression of true love.
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