Jim Bouton (1939-2019)
Thursday, July 11 2019 @ 11:04 AM EDT
Contributed by: Magpie
Jim Bouton's playing career was not without accomplishment.
As a 23 year old rookie, he was a member of the last Yankees World Series winner before the Great Fall, the sale to CBS, and the Years in the Wilderness. He became a fixture in the Bombers' rotation the next season, and he went 21-7, 2.53 and pitched in the All-Star Game. A larger audience saw him in the third game of the World Series that fall and was immediately struck by the sight of a young pitcher who threw so hard and so violently that his cap regularly flew off his head. They called him "Bulldog," naturally. In his World Series debut, he gave up a first inning run on an RBI single to Tommy Davis but that was all Bouton would allow on the day. It as also all Don Drysdale would need as the Dodgers won 1-0 en route to their shocking sweep of the defending champs. Bouton was back in the World Series again in 1964, having gone 18-13 during the season. He got the win in Game Three when Mickey Mantle hit a walk-off homer against the ancient knuckleballer Barney Schultz, and he won again with the Yankees facing elimination in Game 6. He was 25 years old with a lifetime mark of 46-27 3.03 (plus 2-1, 1.48 in the post-season) - and that was when his arm fell off. He spent two more seasons with the Yankees, mostly as a starter, trying to find out where his fastball had gone and if it was ever coming back. It wasn't. By 1967, the Yankees had pretty much given up on him - he spent most of 1967 in Syracuse and in mid-1968 he was sold to a team that didn't exist, but would begin play the following year. The Seattle Pilots. Which is where the legend begins.
By now, Bouton had given up on his fastball and was trying to reinvent himself with a knuckleball. For more than half a century now, baseball men have always seen knuckle balls as a necessary evil at best, and a blight and contagion upon all that's holy the rest of the time. Bouton made the team out of spring training, but was roughed up in his second appearance and immediately dispatched to AAA Vancouver. He was back in the majors by the end of April, and the rest of his season was generally a harrowing, up-and-down battle just to... hang in there, by his finger tips. He'd pitch well in stretches, and then he'd take the mound on days when his knuckleball simply refused to move and get his brains beat in. He got one chance to start, but was beaten up by the Twins. In August, he was traded to the Houston Astros, who were in a pennant race for the first time in their history. The Astros gave him a start almost immediately and Bouton took a 2-1 lead into the ninth. But the Pirates tied it, and scored two unearned runs in the tenth to win it (a wild pitch and a passed ball figure in the scoring in both innings - and that's why baseball folks hate the knuckleball.) The Astros would climb to within two games of the division lead, but faded badly (6-16) over the final three weeks to finish with what would be their customary 81-81 record. Bouton had impressed his new employers, who were looking forward to bringing him back in 1970.
It turned out he'd been taking notes.
Ball Four was published in June 1970. It is one of the most important sports books ever written. Much of it seems mild now - what, professional athletes like to drink and chase women? They took drugs to get through the daily grind? Gosh. But people didn't talk about those things, not then, the same way they didn't talk about John Kennedy's sex life. Bouton blew the lid off the vast Conspiracy of Silence and nothing was ever the same, in sports and, I would suggest, in society as well. Because it's one thing if doctors and pilots and politicians are leading lives that don't match the public perception of them - but when baseball players are doing likewise - well, that represents something far more disturbing. It made Bouton persona non grata in every major league clubhouse. The Astros released him in August and no one in major league baseball wanted anything to do with him. He wrote a sequel, tried his hand at acting and broadcasting, and in 1977 got serious about a comeback. He actually made it back to the big leagues, for Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves in 1978, at age 39. He made five September starts, three of them were pretty good, and he recorded his last major league win by a 2-1 score against Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.
Ball Four is more than just an important book, of course. It's really, really good. Jim Brosnan had caught some of the sheer drudgery that goes into the major league life, but Bouton was even more of a fringe player than Brosnan, he was a shrewder observer of the game and people, and he was writing at an interesting moment in the history of the game and the country. And mostly, he was wildly, wildly funny. Everyone who knows the book and loves it (but I repeat myself there, don't I?) can reel off half a dozen anecdotes that still make one laugh out loud, all these years later. If by some chance, you haven't read it yet - oh my goodness. Do not delay. Start today. No games today anyway.
Do it for the old Bulldog.