An Interview with Jim Bouton's (and Dick Allen's) Biographer

December 14, 2020

Dick Allen’s recent death reminded me that I conducted an interview with his biographer, Mitchell Nathanson, who also wrote the biography of Jim Bouton that I reviewed this spring—I never got around to writing up our interview, conducted via e-mail,  so here it is.

A preliminary note or two: I’ve been in touch with Mitch Nathanson the past few days to ask if the publisher of the 2013 Allen biography,  God Almighty Hisself: the Life and Legacy of Dick Allen, might consider issuing a new edition of that book, maybe with a new preface or foreword or postscript or something by Nathanson in light of recent events, including the Phillies retiring Allen’s number, the controversies about electing him to the Hall of Fame, and of course his death. So far, there is no interest, despite the fact that the Allen biography is, according to Nathanson, sold out on Amazon, which I would think would be an incentive for at least a new edition of the book—I’ll keep you posted, and I might just review the Allen book without a new edition, anyway, if I can get my hands on a copy. Here’s a link to some articles by Nathanson, a professor of sports law and frequent author on baseball-related legal issues, including a lively, detailed one he wrote about Allen’s return to the Phillies in 1975: https://works.bepress.com/mitchell_nathanson/

I was mainly interested, as I interviewed Nathanson, in how the biography came to be researched, written, edited, and published.  When I asked him if there were aspects of Jim Bouton’s life that he got conflicting information about, he said, "I received somewhat contradictory information regarding his broadcasting career, particularly his second stint at Channel 2 [New York City’s CBS station] in the late ‘70s.  Some people who worked with him said he didn’t prepare but others said he put a lot of time in on his taped segments and remarked on how they were surprised at how hard he worked on pieces that were only going to run a couple of minutes. Comparatively speaking, they said, he worked a lot harder than many other reporters in the newsroom."

This is one of the more difficult parts of writing a thoroughly researched biography: some sources will swear to events that other sources will deny. Since the biographer wasn’t there, how to reconcile conflicting narratives? Both can’t be true—or can they? "I was able to reconcile these seemingly conflicting portraits," Nathanson told me, "by realizing that there were elements of his job he found important so he dived in deep but others he thought were silly so he let those slide."

This reconciliation came about, I realized, because Nathanson understood Bouton’s essential nature: he not only wasn’t afraid to be seeming to contradict himself, he thrived on it. Bouton’s brand, if you will, was conflict: he positively enjoyed giving one impression of himself, as a hard-working novice journalist eager to out-hustle his peers, but blowing that image off on tasks he deemed unworthy of his effort. You or I might go to some length to merge these two images into one unified whole, but it was Bouton’s comfort zone to be misunderstood by anyone outside his skin.

"The problem," Nathanson went on to say, "as I learned from my interviews with the people at Channel 2 at the time, was that the news business was changing at that time and was becoming much more structured and rigid in terms of format.  Whereas in the early ‘70s it was ‘happy talk’ and everything was free and easy, by the end of the decade local news was becoming regimented.  Bouton could survive and even thrive in a more free-flowing structure but he struggled with regimentation of any sort, particularly here where he didn’t seem to really want to be a sportscaster anyway.  A guy like Sal Marchiano – a local news lifer – could adapt and adjust to nearly anything because this was his life.  But for Bouton it wasn’t.  He was just passing through; he found sportscasting fun and interesting but only so long as it was on his terms.  As soon as it wasn’t he lost interest in it as a whole and, for a time, just focused on those parts of his job that appealed to him.  That couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t."

I wondered how a biographer would keep pace with a mercurial figure like Bouton, who would perform one job or function with intensity and passion but then lose interest in that task, switch gears suddenly, sometimes only days after declaring his intensity and passion. Did Nathanson go into the project expecting Bouton to be one way, and get confused when he went another way? What kind of expectations did Nathanson bring into researching Bouton’s life?

"My method when it comes to research is that I’ll make a copy of anything I find that contains anything at all about my subject," Nathanson said. "I don’t care how miniscule or seemingly unimportant it might appear at the time.  After many, many, months of this I find that I start to see things falling into broad categories.  Once I start to recognize this I’m able to start to think about what goes in, what stays out, and what the structure of the book is going to be.  I think that if you go into it with a preconceived notion as to what’s important you’re going to miss a lot of the really interesting stuff on the margins that perhaps helps to explain your subject in ways you never could have anticipated.  In the end, the research dictated the structure and not vice-versa."

 

I mentioned that I had a friend (a BJOL subscriber, in fact, though almost completely silent in "Reader Posts" and "Hey Bill")  who had written for the sit-com version of "Ball Four," who has a lot of juicy stories about the weird history of that failed TV show—was there a lot of stuff Nathanson unearthed that never made its way into the book? Were certain things omitted, I wondered, because he felt they weren’t important, or for matters of taste, or because he hit blank walls or was tight on space?

"There was a lot there that didn’t make it into the book," Nathanson told me. " A lot of interesting tidbits (Pamela Adlon, of all people, has a connection to it, which is pretty neat) but which I left out because once I had settled on my large themes (which are different than the subject-matter categories I mentioned above) I decided what went in and what stayed out based on whether a particular piece of information contributed to a theme in some way – proved it, contradicted it, questioned it – or whether it was just a piece of information that might be interesting but didn’t add anything to the total picture."

I’d never heard of Pamela Adlon, so not much was lost there. Were there more themes or illustrative anecdotes he might have told about Bouton if he’d had more time to write the book, or did Nathanson get everything he wanted into the published version?

"If I had another year to work on the Bouton book I think it wouldn’t have changed it all that much.  I spent about four years on it and think I got it, whatever ‘it’ is.  There are always going to be more facts and stories and people are always going to come out of the woodwork but I’m not sure any thing or person was going to change the story in an important way.  Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know, so who knows.  But I’ve come across some additional information and people since the book came out and some of it was cool stuff but none of it would have changed the narrative."

 

He declined to share an example or two of this "cool stuff," which was too bad, but went into some detail when I asked him which sources were especially helpful to him, and which ones were not:

 

George Vecsey was great, as were Steve Jacobson and Larry Merchant.  And Ira Berkow had a lot of great stories; he knew everybody.  Neil Offen, who worked with Bouton on "I Managed…" was incredibly open as to how and why their relationship fell apart.  He was the one who opened that door for me.  After him I made it a point to press everybody else I spoke with to elaborate on what it was like to work with Bouton and whether there were any issues.  When I pressed, I found that oftentimes there were.  Also, on the professional front, was Rob Nelson (Big League Chew).  He was terrific and very open as to how the business started, who did what, and how and why they parted ways professionally.  He also provided incredible insight as to just what it was that made Jim Bouton Jim Bouton.

 

Jim’s brother Pete was also incredibly open and helpful, as were [Bouton spouses] Bobbie and Paula.  I have to say, pretty much everybody was open and happy to answer whatever questions I had.  The people in Bouton’s orbit were almost without fail good people, I found. 

 

 

As to the less helpful sources, he found a few good things to say about them as well:

 

There was somebody who I think was Bowie Kuhn’s spokesman for a time (I can’t recall his precise title at the moment).  He pretty much adopted the tone I’d have expected from Kuhn and he seemed to be still fighting old battles even though his boss is long gone.  That guy was interesting, if not very helpful.

 

Finally, Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs (where "Foul Ball" was supposed to be published) was interesting.  I don’t think he liked me very much and he certainly didn’t like Bouton but I have to say, he was very open, held no punches.  I appreciated that.  I’m not sure why he didn’t like me but, really, who cares.  I wasn’t there to be his friend. Maybe he saw me as a stand-in for Bouton even though I told him over and over that this was not an authorized biography. 

 

I often found, back in the days when I taught journalism, that being a source’s friend was the biggest obstacle (well, that, and illiteracy) to my fledgling journalists, who had a hard time accepting that their future work would be getting information from people who resented their very existence. My students needed, for understandable reasons, perhaps, to feel that their sources liked them, approved of them, wished them well, which was almost never the case, and less so the more experience they had had with journalists.  That wasn’t Nathanson’s experience, however, researching Bouton’s life, for the most part:

 

[N]early everybody I spoke to seemed happy to speak to me.  Even those people who may have had issues with him or whose time with him didn’t end on the best terms seemed to have a measure of affection for him and/or the time they spent together.  In the end, I concluded that if you worked or spent a fair amount of time with Jim Bouton you couldn’t help but look back upon it fondly, regardless.  I don’t think you can say that about too many people.

 

 

Had he known beforehand about aspects of Bouton’s life that weren’t as well-publicized as his MLB and broadcasting careers that he’d written books about? "I knew nothing of his artistic life beforehand," Nathanson told me. "That became a category as opposed to a theme.  As for his marital troubles, I didn’t know all that much about those either, although I was aware he was divorced and that Bobbie had written a book about it, so I figured things didn’t end well on that front."

Bouton: A Life is a portrait of a contrarian, a guy who resisted fitting into any culture he was nominally a part of, whether it be baseball, broadcasting, business, art, or public relations.  Did Nathanson understand this going into the project, or did he learn about it as the project developed?

The "outsider within" theme/category is something that really took shape as I was researching.  Yes, I know Dick Young called him a "social leper" but I wasn’t aware of how much he was an outsider his whole life.  But not a total outsider – he was a good-looking, all-American-type who would fit in anywhere, at least on first glance, so he was an insider, at least superficially.  So that was an interesting dynamic that I saw play out over and over again throughout his life.  As that theme repeated over and over, that became a category or a theme. 

 

This theme of Bouton as outsider and insider simultaneously was prominent in my review of the biography, and Nathanson connected with that observation, writing that he had

 

enjoyed the part about him being a company man in a company that had contempt for him. 

 

I’m actually working on another piece (a longer article) about how Bouton was an "outsider-within" and how that actually helped him see things that other players couldn’t.  He had one foot firmly within the inner circle but another foot outside of it and could see things from both perspectives.  This is how, I think, he was able to identify the absurdities within the game that those who were fully invested in it (think Pete Rose) just could never hope to see. 

 

On the other hand, he loved the game so he didn’t really identify with the protesters in the streets during that era who were for burning every institution to the ground.  This is also what made him so lonely, I believe.  He was shunned by both camps, each of which saw him as a hypocrite because he’d be with them on this issue but against them on that one.  As a result, he spent much of his career (and life) on an island. 

 

It’s also, I think, what makes "Ball Four" work as a document that helped to propel the Players Association to become more aggressive.  Yes, it was Marvin Miller who was in charge and Bouton was out of baseball by the end of July, 1970 but "Ball Four" woke a lot of players up as to the inequities within the game that, sure, they noticed but never thought so deeply about beforehand.  And it brought a lot of fans around to the players’ side – something that would have been unthinkable before the book was published.  Just like Bouton was able to get a fair amount of fans to see his mid-sixties contract holdouts from his perspective and at least not boo him the way they did DiMaggio in ’38, "Ball Four" showed fans the issues underlying the players’ pique with management from their perspective such that more fans were at least open to considering the idea that maybe the owners didn’t really have "the best interests of baseball" in mind with regard to everything they did. 

 

 

 

 

I will keep you posted on future developments, if any, on the Dick Allen biography and any future editions of it that become available. Nathanson enjoys delving into the mind and attitude of rebellious athletes, an area that is too often poorly understand by fans.

 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
My understanding is that "authorized biography" means that the book's author has been given complete access to the subject's files, his friends have been asked to cooperate fully with the author, and the subject has signed on, pre-emptively, to endorsing the book as a fully approved and complete study of him (or her). Often it suits neither the subject's interests nor the author's in deeming a book "authorized," though there are some advantages for both in doing so.
9:27 AM Dec 18th
 
steve161
DRM = Digital Rights Management. It's a technology that, in this case, would prevent your reading the text on any Kindle not owned by me.
8:10 PM Dec 17th
 
MarisFan61
I didn't know either....
4:03 PM Dec 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Curious, though: wot's "DRM'd"?
3:07 PM Dec 16th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. I looked through the professional reviews of the Bouton book that are cited on the Amazon page.
I was amused that the first noteworthy adjective in there is the one that jumped to my mind: astute.
(The first adverb is "crisply," which I also do get an impression of in this interview.)

But the main thing I wanted to note from that material is:
Unless those reviewers have it all wrong, or unless there's a much higher bar for "authorized biography" than what I imagine, he was being.....what to say, disingenuous? ....in saying here that the book was "not an authorized biography."
However, his main point in that part was that he wasn't particularly approaching the research with any pro-Bouton ax to grind -- and I don't doubt that.
3:15 AM Dec 16th
 
MarisFan61
Very nice article.
I hadn't read or gotten the book, but now I will.

Nathanson comes off here as an extremely astute observer.
3:04 AM Dec 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for kind words and the offer. I've found a copy.
9:55 PM Dec 15th
 
steve161
Excellent interview.

I enthusiastically recommend God Almighty Hisself. I'd send you a Kindle edition but it's probably DRM'd.
4:47 PM Dec 15th
 
Manushfan
I was so surprised to see Jim Bouton in The Long Goodbye. He wasn't terrible for what it's worth. It'd be interesting to read about all of That.
11:41 AM Dec 15th
 
MWeddell
Amazon lists another Dick Allen biography too, a 2017 book by Kashatus & Schmidt. Any recommendations regarding which Allen biography to read? I'm looking for a fair character assessment by someone familiar with the Bill James / Craig Wright articles written over the years. Beyond that, lively writing would be my next criteria.

The Nathanson bio is more recent and he seems like a nice guy from this interview, so I'd lean that way in the absence of other info.
5:56 PM Dec 14th
 
MWeddell
Oh, I meant his Dick Allen biography in that last comment
5:47 PM Dec 14th
 
MWeddell
At the moment, Amazon.com lists a paperback version of this book that is new, not used, for $21.07 (plus shipping presumably).
5:46 PM Dec 14th
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

Really interesting article. I wasn't going to read Nathanson's book, although I find Bouton interesting, but now I think I will. I like complex figures and that seems to be Bouton, although Ball Four itself-and his other books-gave me some really mixed feelings about him.

I read a lot of political biographies and I really try to avoid books that give either a totally positive or totally negative view of the subject, even though whom I really admire or dislike. (Well, Hitler would be an exception. I don't think there should be anything positive.)


1:29 PM Dec 14th
 
 
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