One of my favorite sports quotes of all-time was written by former Major League pitcher turned author Jim Bouton: “You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out it was the other way around all along.”
He also wrote: “Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for too many men on the field?”
And: “It never hurts to apologize, especially if you don’t mean it.”
Bouton, maybe more than any other person, moved and influenced an entire generation as to how it perceived professional baseball and, really, every other pro sport. My generation.
He died at the age of 80 on Wednesday, transitioning to the great clubhouse in the sky, to whatever comes next. And I’ll forever be grateful for the courage and honesty it took for him to write his monumental book, “Ball Four,” a memoir that, as it was described at its publishing back in 1970, “tore the cover off of baseball.”
I read it when I was 14, and, although I’ve never gone back to re-read or study it, it changed my view of the so-called heroes that played and play sports at a high level. They were and are great at what they do — hitting and catching and throwing and shooting and rebounding and kicking a ball on a diamond, a field, a court, a pitch. But they are only human, with remarkable skills and contributions to be appreciated. In some ways and cases, though, they are ordinary, less than ordinary, not to be aggrandized or worshipped.
In his book, Bouton, who pitched for the Yankees over a notable stretch of his career, chronicled his one season with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, that team’s only year of existence, and later being traded to the Houston Astros. He included raucous, bawdy, sometimes obscene, sometimes hilarious anecdotes that revealed the actual inner workings of the game, of the famous and not-so-famous folks who played the game.
He told the story, for instance, of Mickey Mantle, a giant in baseball adored by millions back in that day, being called on to pinch hit while suffering from a massive hangover, the result of excessive drinking the night before. At first, Yankees manager Ralph Houk protected Mantle, recognizing his sorry condition and allowing him to, as Bouton said it later, “Sleep it off in the trainer’s room. We’ll put somebody else in center field.”
The game went into extra innings, and when Houk needed Mantle, he sent somebody to go wake the Mick up. “He comes out, put a bat in his hands,” Bouton said. “He walks up to home plate, takes one practice swing and hits the first pitch into the left field bleachers, a tremendous blast. Guys are going nuts. He comes over, crosses home plate. Actually, he missed home plate. We have to send him back for that. He comes over to the dugout, and he looks up in the stands, and he says, those people don’t know how tough that really was.”
When Mantle was asked later how he hit that home run, he said: “Well, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.”
Bouton’s book gave a glimpse of the rampant womanizing that went on among some major leaguers, and the profane joking, and the fighting, and the cheating, and the drug use, and the petty jealousies and backward thinking among certain players. It might be relatively tame when compared to more modern revelations about some athletes nowadays, but it was most controversial back then. Bouton also included passages about his own frailties and imperfections, his anxieties and self-doubt that often plagued him as his career fell into decline.
Until “Ball Four” came out, few outsiders, including the majority of fans, knew about such behaviors. They saw the game and its players solely as they were presented in a kind of indestructible, scrubbed-clean form. Fans fawned over the players. Sports reporters of the day often shielded those players from candid scrutiny.
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn subsequently called Bouton into his office, demanding that the pitcher renounce his own book. The commish wanted him to sign a statement claiming that much of what was included was fiction. Bouton would not acquiesce, refusing to change a word.
Players were mad at him, managers and executives and owners were angry. Even sports writers criticized him. Pete Rose thereafter famously yelled at Bouton when he saw him on the field, “F— you, Shakespeare.”
Prompted in part by the commotion, the book sold millions of copies and pointed an even hotter spotlight on, as Bouton described it, “the nonsense” that went on in and around the game. “Ball Four” since has been hailed as one of the best sports books ever written, and a book of note in any genre. Time placed it on the magazine’s list of the best 100 non-fiction books of all time.
What was missed by some were all the positives Bouton wrote about baseball in his book. The game is great, and nonsensical, as well. It’s both. It gripped Bouton, not the other way around. The book was gripping, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.
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