Book Review: “Ball Four,” by Jim Bouton

"Ball Four," by Jim Bouton

Modern sports journalism owes everything – both good and bad – to Ball Four. Written by Jim Bouton, a World Series champion and 10-year major league pitcher, Ball Four covers his 1969 season, beginning with one-year expansion team the Seattle Pilots, then covering his brief stint with AAA Vancouver and following him to the Astros after a late-season trade.

Along the way, Bouton mixes hilarious stories and incidents from inside the clubhouse with opinions on drug use, race, salary rules and other baseball-related issues. Bouton writes with an honest, breezy, easy-going style that rips into himself as fearlessly as it does his teammates.

Ball Four was the first sports book to favor gossip, team relations and drama over statistics and strategy, and the fans have demanded that ever since. Every story now about players not getting along, conspiring to get a coach fired or getting drunk in the locker room – those stories only come out because Ball Four made them popular 50 years ago, making it a milestone in sports writing.

Red Sox fans are also sure to like Bouton’s experiments with the knuckleball. Ball Four gives the reader a look at the pitch’s earliest stages of evolution.

Jim Bouton: Pioneer

Both players and Major League Baseball widely criticized Bouton when Ball Four came out. The league has always tried to present its players as wholesome, moral, clean-cut, good ol’ American heroes. Bouton smashes that image to pieces, instead portraying baseball players as alcoholic, drug-abusing adulterers and voyeurs (or, as Bouton wonderfully calls them, “Beaver-shooters”).

And Bouton doesn’t hold his negative depictions to baseball’s no-names. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Ted Williams – Bouton lays into all of them as badly as he does his unimportant teammates on the one-and-done Pilots.

Of course, history proved Bouton right on most accounts. Mantle really was an alcoholic. Ford really cheated. Williams really was a loudmouthed, cantankerous jerk. Adultery really happens all the time.

Bouton showed great courage by being the first to reveal all this. He paid the price for his honesty, however, becoming a black sheep within the MLB and pitching just two more seasons. His utter dismissal and disrespect for GMs, managers, pitching coaches – though the Astros’ staff gets decent press – probably also had an effect.

But Bouton’s loss is the public’s gain: Ball Four entertains while simultaneously informing. And because the book violated baseball’s code of silence, the reader feels a little dirty while reading it… and likes it.

Still, Ball Four isn’t without its problems. The Pilots rarely use Bouton effectively, and he thinks no one on the staff ever speaks honestly with him. These sections border on paranoia, with a healthy dose of narcissism thrown in.

And as much as Bouton probably saw his salary negotiations with the Seattle and Houston GMs as combating a corrupt system (he calls it “climbing the golden stairs), Bouton sometimes comes off as just greedy.

Jim Bouton: Extinct

For all of the dirt Ball Four offers up, the book serves best as proof that baseball players were once smart, eloquent, witty, even socially liberal. The witty baseball player has now all but disappeared, replaced by the bland (Adrian Gonzalez), the idiotic (Johnny Damon, Jonathan Papelbon) and the insane (Milton Bradley).

Players like Bouton – unafraid to share a real opinion, speak honestly with the press or align themselves with a social movement – filled the majors 50 years ago, and baseball ruled back then. So hasn’t the loss of this personality type negatively impacted the sport?

For whatever reason, Bouton’s type of player seems to correlate with an era of rampant drug use. Many, many players used greenies, which is just a nice word for “speed.” Many players also used marijuana recreationally. Even though Bouton himself didn’t do – or at least doesn’t admit to doing – drugs, a more drug-tolerant scene gave rise to players like Bouton and Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

Baseball shouldn’t go back to the 1960s’ drug tolerance just because funnier athletes might arise – whether or not they should, kids still see professional athletes as behavioral models. But stripping baseball of its drugs has also stripped it of a once-vital part of its identity.

Ball Four reminds us that players like Bouton once existed. Baseball lost something when it purged itself of the drug scene that helped create characters like Bouton.

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