Before Jim Bouton came along, sports journalism was quite a different creature.
Most of the writing and reporting was observational, the byproduct of what a writer or broadcaster peripherally witnessed or heard during a game, with harmless quotes from players, managers and front office people supplementing stories.
That all changed in 1970 when Bouton, a Major League pitcher at the time, wrote “Ball Four,” an intimate look at the inner workings of the game while with the 1969 Seattle Pilots of the American League.
It was a tell-all account stocked with stories of former and current teammates with the kind of intimate detail no one had ever written before. And the book hit baseball straight on like a 16-pound Ebonite.
Bouton died Wednesday at age 80. He fought a brain disease linked to dementia and was in hospice care. Bouton had two strokes in 2012.
“Ball Four” brought baseball players to life, exposed their strengths and weaknesses, delved into their personalities, uncovered traits and behaviors that often cast them in less than favorable lights.
It told stories of carousing and drinking, of infidelity and boorish behavior. Mickey Mantle, with whom Bouton played with on the New York Yankees, was a particular target. Bouton said he often cheated on his life and signed autographs for children while hung over from a heavy night of drinking.
As you can image, the book did not sit well and Bouton’s career was basically circumvented by executives who black-balled him and former friends and teammates who refused to speak to him.
Before he wrote the book, Bouton was a pretty good pitcher during his early years in the 1960s with Yankees teams that won American League pennants.
His delivery was violent enough to make his hat for off this head after almost evert pitch. And yet he was 21-8 with six shutouts in 1963 and 18-13 with four shutouts in 1964. He was a staple in their postseason rotations as the Yankees lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals in those two World Series. But he won two games in the seven-game series against the Cardinals.
Things began to go downhill in 1965. He injured his arm and was 4-15 in a terrible season for the Yankees and he struggled for the next few years after turning to the knuckleball in hopes of resurrecting his career.
He spent the 1969 season with the expansion Pilots and Houston Astros, quietly collecting information in a diary for his book. The Pilots sent him briefly to Triple-A before trading him. He career finally ended in 197 with the Atlanta Brave with a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA.
After his playing days were over, Bouton worked as a sportscaster in New York City. He also authored other book, appeared in a CBS sitcom called “Ball Four” and basically invented “Big League Chew,” a bubble gum product designed to replicate the tobacco chewing experience.
In its obituary of Bouton, the New York Times shared the opinion or renown author Roger Angell to “Ball Four.”
“A rare view of a highly complex public profession seen from the innermost inside, along with an even more rewarding inside view of an ironic and courageous mind. And, very likely, the funniest book of the year.”
Bouton’s contemporaries accused him of lying, said he fabricated stories for his own benefit. They said he wrote the book only to alibi for his failing career. He even pissed off the sports writing establishment which felt he had no right to say what he did.
“I feel sorry for Jim Bouton,” Hall of Famer Dick Young wrote in The New York Daily News. “He is a social leper. His collaborator on the book, Leonard Shecter, is a social leper. People like this, embittered people, sit down in their time of deepest rejection and write. They write, oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and it makes them feel much better.”
Bouton accepted the criticism in good humor, crediting all the attention he received for turning the book into a best-seller. He even wrote another book – “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally” – a satiric look at the fallout from the book, personally and professionally.
According to The Times, Sports Illustrated in 2002 placed “Ball Four” at No. 3 on its list of the top 100 sports books of all time. In 1995, the New York Public Library included it as the only sports book among 159 titles in its exhibit “Books of the Century.”