Ball Four: Remembering Baseball's Joys and Disappointments
Jim Bouton said, "You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out it was the other way around all the time."
The author of that quote, from Ball Four, perhaps the most controversial baseball book ever written, set baseball ablaze in 1970 with the revelations of players boozing, brawling, and womanizing. Fans, players, and sportswriters were in abject horror over the whistleblower Bouton outing teammates' and rival ballplayers' behavior off the field.
The author shares his diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. He was coming back from a sore arm, relying on a pitch, the knuckleball, that is difficult to control. Only an odd lot of pitchers have been successful throwing it on the major-league level. To baseball historians, it is also a significant record of the only season the Pilots existed in the American League. The franchise would rebrand itself and move to Milwaukee for the 1970 season, become the Brewers, and change leagues.
But it is Bouton's stories of MLB's immortals like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams that drove the baseball world apoplectic and rankled the fans, media, and baseball industry — and his book becoming a national bestseller in 1970.
Like the knuckleball he tossed, Bouton was an oddball, an outlier in baseball. He wasn't an especially gifted athlete but was college-educated and thought more about life after baseball than his teammates. He enjoyed talking to the press while others saw the media as pests, even though the sports journalists kept most of the players' indiscretions and wild behavior hidden from the public. Bouton seemed to prefer solitude reading or the company of just two or three teammates rather than drinking and partying with the entire team or with the infamous "Baseball Annies."
Players felt he had committed treason because his anecdotes ratted out their own, even though Bouton spent a good part of the tome describing his attempts, despite being an outsider, to fit into the jock culture of locker-room banter and shenanigans. Fans felt betrayed; they discovered that their baseball card heroes were no longer indestructible, but imperfect human beings. Bouton revealed the true hardships, complexities , and harsh realities of a career constructed from the dreams of playing a simple child's game.
Soldiers have it worse. Much worse. No argument.
But the life of a journeyman pitcher managing to hang on to his career literally by his fingernails while being a responsible father and husband was tough. And those pressures were felt by his wife and children. Weeks away from the people he is sacrificing the most for can take their toll on a player. Constant travel, hotel beds, restaurant food, late nights.
It can be a glamorous life. But it gets old quickly. For most of them, especially the ones clinging like Bouton, baseball is a business-cold, hard, competitive, harsh reality. Just like any other job.
Bouton details the dark sides of baseball. In sports, if the organization doesn't want you, doesn't know what to do with you, or needs you for a transaction, it can trade you to another team, in a completely different city under the auspices of an organization with a completely different mindset. Bouton's career was in "elevator stage," constantly being called up and down from the minors to the majors, waived by one team on one coast only to be signed by another team on the opposite side of the nation.
The book also masterfully shares with the reader the funny, competitive, bureaucratic (yes, even MLB has a swamp), and romantic sides of baseball.
Funny? Ever gotten a "hot foot"? Or seen a teammate innocently hit by a baseball in the wrong place? Or listened to Yogi Berra's logic?
Competitive: Manager Jimmy Dugan reminds his female players in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in baseball." MLB is a corporate, capitalistic enterprise, and only the best survive. It is cruel, cold, with little compassion and few baseball fans to settle for second best.
Bureaucratic : Metrics, analytics, and physics today have replaced much of yesterday's "swamp thinkers." Stat nerds will eventually multiply, as in any bureaucracy. But Bouton's tête-à-têtes with the coaches, managers, and general managers that occurred on the field; in the dugout; or in the front offices of the Yankees, Pilots, and Astros are some of the funniest dialogues because of their inane, frivolous, and petty discussions that would be seen on the best sitcoms. Though slanted Bouton's way ,the debates demonstrate the universal absurdity that infects all institutions, even baseball.
Romantic: Despite all the trials, trips, and tribulations Bouton endures with Seattle and Houston, he still keeps his sense of humor; perspective; and respect for life, family, and American culture. He is disappointed by the sport but not the game. He makes the reader painfully aware that he sacrifices much for the game he loves and that this element, great talent, and indefatigable drive are the necessary components to succeed.
He mixes his baseball philosophy with great belly-busting stories about the people in baseball. For every bit of chiding and every critique Bouton offers, he nonetheless sees good in all the of them. He realizes, for example, that his own preconceived notions about a player with a pronounced drawl makes him prejudiced: when he comes to know him, Bouton realizes that it is the writer who has shown bias toward the Southerner .
Politically, Bouton offers personal stances that the reader may disagree with. But Bouton shows no contempt toward an opposite opinion.
In fact, on a bumpy plane ride , Bouton, agnostic, does a mea culpa when he apologizes to a player who prays during the turbulent trip. The player, raised with a simple, innocent religious philosophy, calls out the pitcher for satirizing his prayer. Bouton, when confronted by his enormous teammate, realizes he stepped over the line. Maybe he didn't want to get flattened, but he is contrite, not sanctimonious toward people who invoke God for help.
Racism still influenced the game, but Bouton communicated the idea that the players, at that time, were self-policing and addressing the issues. In subtle and overt ways, the ballplayers were undergoing individual epiphanies. When Seattle traded Bouton to the Astros for the final month of season , the relief pitcher observed how all of the players, black, white, and Hispanic, sincerely enjoyed one another's company. The derogatory jokes that would ignite a riotous debate on the talk shows today are regarded as harmless barbs to cut tension and relieve stress during a sizzling pennant race. Rather than elevate and exploit situations that don't exist, Bouton remarks how the Astros players decided on their own to integrate as roommates on road trips. It was strictly voluntarily. No virtue-signaling here.
Baseball is uniquely embedded in our society. Even if you're not a fan, you are still influenced by the game's language, traditions, history, and culture. And Bouton states that it is worth keeping, cultivating, and nurturing because it is a good thing for America. It is ironic that Bouton passed away in the year Ball Four celebrates the 50th anniversary of its release.