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BOUTON: a book review

May 11, 2020

BOUTON: The Life of a Baseball Original, by Mitchell Nathanson. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 2020. $34.95



Jim Bouton was an athlete. He was a world-class athlete, the best of the best, and he was a winner.

Those simple statements of fact, as true as the dampness of the Pacific Ocean, need to be said because he’s too often remembered as a funny guy, an iconoclast, a witty writer, and a marginal pitcher on a terrible team who got benched, sent down to the minor leagues, and traded for THE Dooley Womack in the season he’s known for best, all of which are also true statements of fact. But above all, and primarily, he was a spectacularly successful World’s Champion, the last Yankee pitcher (as he liked to say, accurately from 1965 to 1977) to win a World Series game—in fact (as he always liked to add in a final twist of the knife) he was "the last two Yankee pitchers to win a Series game."

Because of his fame as the author of Ball Four, his very nature as an athlete most of all tends to get subsumed into those lesser identities, but as Mitchell Nathanson’s new biography brings out, his primary identification was "competitor," and his athletic talents  allowed him to compete, and to win, at the very highest level. He and his first wife would assemble gigantic jigsaw puzzles together but when he would leave the house, he’d always take with him a piece of the puzzle so she couldn’t get the satisfaction of completing it without him—and he liked his first wife.

He just needed to win at everything he ever did, which is probably what made Ball Four so appealing—it told the story of a man who desperately, obsessively, needed to win after his physical ability to do so had left him flat. Specifically, after a bicep muscle in his throwing arm had gotten blown out while all the other characteristics of a major league pitcher remained: the control, the conditioning, the know-how, the fielding ability, the memory, and the secondary and tertiary pitches. It was just Bouton’s fastball that had quit him when that bicep popped, as muscles have popped on generations of pitchers before and after Bouton, and he needed that fastball to survive. Ball Four tells the story of a survivor deprived of all sustenance and hope, and what his final stages of a big-league career were like. He was nicknamed "The Bulldog" while he was still a Yankees’ star in 1963 and 1964, but it’s his post-Yankees career that really shows his stubborn dedication to competitive athletics.

What he did in order to live on past his death as a star pitcher, as we know from having read the book, was to transform from a pitcher into a storyteller. Bouton was a man of many talents, all of them competitive in nature. When his athletic skills proved insufficient, his business skills, his communication skills, his artistic skills, moved in to pick up the slack, but he never once had the thought, "Oh, well, my fanatically competitive days are drawing to a close."

Ball Four always struck me, above all else, as a great tale of revenge.  The way baseball was structured, it took terrible, vicious advantage of its players, in a systematic and heartless way that most players just accepted as wholesome and inevitable. Rarely, once or twice per team per year, players might hold out for a while before capitulating to their team’s take-it-or-leave-it "offer," but they would suffer vilification in the press and wind up with the same damned salary anyway, give or take a few hundred bucks. Bouton, like very few other 1960s stars, accepted no such thing, at least no longer than he had to. When his career was winding down (some would say "was effectively over") and he started taking notes to write his book, Bouton recognized that he owed baseball nothing. That is, he owed organized, corporatized, official Major League Baseball nothing, but owed the game of baseball everything, and he could serve that obligation best by being truthful in the writing of his book. (Which, incidentally, was no little thing—it takes genuine skill to compose, and then sit down and set to paper and then revise over and over the sentence, paragraphs, chapters of any book, for months and months of effort. Most athletes lack the kind of single-minded dedication required to write a book, lack just the sheer energy and discipline involved, but those were Bouton’s two strongest suits. Being perceptive and clever didn’t hurt, either.)

MLB tried to intimidate Bouton with the understanding that they didn’t want Ball Four written in the first place, and though he knew how dependent his career was on MLB’s approval, he refused to heed that implied threat. Then they tried to threaten him emotionally with the withdrawal of his teammates’ approval, which the teammates and other players signed onto: the "sanctity of the locker room" was a sacred principle, but it was mostly used to cover up scandals, large and small, that it suited MLB to keep tightly covered. Bouton thought about it, and said "Nah."  He refused to accept his lifelong silence as a fair trade-off for covering up ballplayers’ drunkenness, their infidelities, their racism, their ignorance, their clannishness, their front-running, their selfishness, their laziness, their lying, their greed, and every other character flaw that they displayed as often as they changed uniforms behind closed doors.

When Bouton was engaged in comically (and tragically) unilateral salary negotiations with the Yankees as their biggest young pitching star, and getting his ass kicked, his pitching coach (whom he revered) was Johnny Sain, who told him not to be afraid of climbing those golden stairs. In other words, you deserve the raise you’re asking for, and more, and the iron is hot right now, so take advantage of that hot iron as best as you possibly can. Of course, Sain and Bouton realized that they had no advantage in salary negotiations at all, and they were squabbling over pennies, but the lesson Bouton drew from the whole sordid and demoralizing exercise was to take his advantage over MLB whenever he would find it, which he did when MLB tried to get him not to write, and then not to publish, and then not to profit by, Ball Four. "Oh, you want something from me now?" was his attitude. "Interesting. Let me see how far I can stick this baseball up your ass. Bend over and spread ‘em, Bowie Kuhn."

A lesser man than Bouton would have backed off at some point. He would have said, "Hey, my teammates are really hating on me—wow! I can’t take this" and "The Commissioner scolded me—maybe my writing is a more selfish, harmful act than I’d thought" or "I need a job, and this isn’t helping teams see me as a good guy—maybe I should wait until I’ve long retired from the game, by which time I’ll probably have forgotten most of my material, and people will accuse me of misremembering my facts."  But Jim Bouton had more guts than that. He acknowledged that he had more guts than brains, and his gutsy response to being told to back off was to shove straight ahead.

He also had brains, of course, and he used those brains in the wide variety of tasks he took on, before, during, and after his baseball career. When he got a job as a sportscaster in New York City after he stopped (or interrupted) his MLB career, he was told, "You got three minutes, and here’s three minutes worth of sport scores to read when the red light comes on." Bouton refused to read sports scores—or rather, when his TV bosses insisted that he read the scores, that’s literally what he did: "Three to two, and six to four, and two-nothing. In basketball tonight, it was 113 to 109, 101 to 98, and in a surprise upset, 106 to 103." That’s right---he read the scores, but omitted the teams involved, making the point that no one cared about the scores, they could get that crap elsewhere, and he had far better uses of those three minutes than reading numbers off a teleprompter. According to Nathanson, the producers had to rig up an early version of a "crawl" graphic, so that the sports scores would appear on a display alongside Bouton’s face, giving the gamblers and sports junkies their fix while he waxed and waned about the subjects he wanted to talk about, mainly athletes, pro and amateur, who had done interesting or worthy deeds.

As with many of his accomplishments innovating baseball, Bouton’s irreverent attitude in TV (and in book publishing, and the numerous entrepreneurial ventures he explored in the final fifty years of his life) was probably inevitable. His squabbles over sports scores, like his salary disputes or floutings of the Commissioner’s authority, didn’t in themselves revolutionize the way business was conducted, but they were a natural outgrowth of Bouton’s personality that encouraged others to do likewise, and to do more. Obviously Curt Flood and Andy Messerschmidt and Catfish Hunter overturned baseball’s salary structure more concretely than Jim Bouton did, but Bouton introduced the idea that maybe everything wasn’t all sweetness and light in the way that baseball was run. If Marvin Miller was the Jesus Christ of MLB salary negotiations, then Bouton was his John the Baptist.

Bouton was a fun guy, and his career was filled with joyous moments, but he doesn’t emerge from Nathanson’s account as a happy fellow overall. Does a bulldog seem happy to you? Maybe they enjoy themselves, but they do too much growling and barking and guarding their turf for me to think of them projecting pure happiness. Bouton was driven. When lawyers would advise him that he couldn’t do things in the way he wanted, he’d tell them "Yes, I can." Most of us take the business advice we pay our lawyers to give us, at least most of the time, and pick our spots to tell them, "No, I won’t do it that way"—Bouton was built upside down. His first response to being told "No" was to say "I’m doing it anyway," and he failed a lot. But a surprising number of times, his stubbornness proved useful, and he accepted losing as the cost of winning, much as he might have as a starting pitcher on the Yankees. You lose some, and some very badly, but you go out there four days later with the conviction that you’re going to win this time.

It all depends on how you define "winning." For Bouton, to compete was to win. Fighting a battle was sheer pleasure for him—I think most of us would be glad to avoid battles wherever possible, and take it easy and enjoy our lives, but Bouton had a warrior’s mentality that wouldn’t let him rest any longer than he needed to. He made a late-career comeback (late baseball career, that is) with the Braves in 1978 that often gets dismissed as some sort of publicity stunt or ego-trip or embarrassing spectacle. He did, after all, pitch in five September games for a very bad Atlanta ballclub that was far out of the pennant race, and he emerged from these five games (the 300th through 304th, and last, of his career) with a 1-3 Won-Lost record and 4.97 E.R.A., so that’s a bad job right? Old, decrepit egomaniac humiliating himself and degrading his pitching career (he retired in 1971 with a winning record, but that 1-3 made him 62-63 lifetime) by stepping on a big-league mound after seven seasons of retirement?

Not to Bouton, and not to me. Winning a single big-league game at any age is an accomplishment that many, many professional pitchers never get close to doing. And these weren’t September games against bad teams with no hope of a pennant. His final big-league victory was against a second-place San Francisco Giant team with two weeks left to make a desperate push past the first-place Dodgers, with some pretty good hitters in the lineup—Bill Madlock led off for the Giants, and Darrell Evans batted cleanup.  Bouton didn’t allow an earned run in six innings, and gave the Giants only three hits.

And that might not have been his best start of the five. His next one, on September 19th, against the Astros, was a no-decision, but Bouton pitched 7 innings that time and gave up only two runs on five hits. He left the game for a pinch-hitter in the 8th with the score tied 2-2, and the Braves scored a run (off Joaquin Andujar) in the 9th to win it 3-2.  His next game was even better, though he took the loss:  in 8 full innings, he again gave up 2 runs on five hits, and this game was against the Big Red Machine, by now in second place, still featuring Rose, Griffey, and Foster in the starting lineup. The Braves couldn’t score for Bouton at all, but this was another strong performance by anyone. Bouton’s game scores in these three games were 61, 55, 63.

This was a gutty performance, that very few men would even have the courage to attempt, much less to do that well three time out of five. (His first and his last start were disastrous.) I like to remember that this brief stint in MLB in 1978 also had the virtue of making Bouton the last member of the 1964 AL champions to play in the majors. (Mike Hegan, his 21-year-old teammate on the 1964 Yankees, and on the 1969 Seattle Pilots, had retired the year before.) He’d outlasted every single one of those bastards who had vilified him, snubbed him, cursed him, ignored him, and maligned him for writing his book.

There is every chance that, had he chosen to go on playing for the Braves (whose egomaniac owner, Ted Turner, enjoyed the publicity of giving a guy his own age a roster spot), he might have had even better seasons long into his 40s, as his fellow knuckleballer Phil Niekro would show, but Bouton felt he’d proven his point sufficiently. If Ball Four had somehow become instantly and universally beloved upon publication (and it’s hard to imagine a planet on which that is possible), if Mickey Mantle had said, "Good old Jim, he nailed me there, but good!",  if Ellie Howard had opined "Fantastic insight! And every word is true!", Bouton would have missed out on the motivation he got to persevere in his post-baseball career, and that career would never have included the 1978 Braves’ coda. Opposition made him thrive.

As Nathanson’s subtitle says, he was "a baseball original." There was no one quite like Jim Bouton, because if you grouped him with anyone, he would immediately do something to break out of that grouping, which is mostly a good thing but of course originality carries with it dangers and downsides. The good side showed in things like him and his first wife adopting a Korean mixed-race child when almost no one was doing that, just because it seemed like the right thing to do, for the child and for the Boutons, though the actual process of Kyong-Jo Bouton (later "David Bouton") fitting into the family was far more strained and painful in Nathanson’s telling than the sweet, wry, gentler rendering it received in Ball Four. And when he mentioned his own determination in pursuing his pitching career, his willingness to live anywhere, to tolerate discomfort and abuse and extreme job-insecurity in order to continue his baseball career, Bouton didn’t fully describe the extent of the pain his wife and children endured to make his pursuit possible. That marriage broke up, around the time of his comeback with the Braves, and his children mostly sided with their mother.

His broken friendships, mainly with his teammates, come across clearly in Ball Four, mostly as a sign of his independence and his integrity, but as Nathanson shows in later life, in his post-baseball business dealings, he had a lot of broken friendships too—partners who sued him, or stopped speaking to him, or never wanted to do business with him again. This happened over and over, in unrelated ventures like restoring Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park, or creating a Vintage Base Ball Federation that conflicted sharply with the Vintage Base Ball Association, or starting Big League Chew, a wildly profitable bubble-gum enterprise that Bouton insisted on taking in a whole different direction from his partner (soon to be ex-partner, much to Bouton’s disadvantage).  Maybe that’s just in the nature of business in general, but Bouton seemed to think that if someone wasn’t angry at him, he was doing something wrong.

As with any biography, Nathanson’s tells a somewhat wider story than Bouton’s alone. To tell it right—and he tells it magnificently—Nathanson has to give the context of the very large and rapidly changing culture of New York City’s sportswriters in the 1960s, for example, a complicated culture and one that Nathanson provides the history and practices of. The career of Dick Young, the man who stuck the label of "social leper" on Bouton, is the most central to that wider context, since Young belonged to neither warring faction: he wasn’t an old, established booster of the teams he covered (not in the early 1960s, anyway) nor was he a young, ambitious "Chipmunk" who placed a good story way above good relations with the team’s players and management.  Young resembled Bouton in a lot of ways: he was fiercely independent of his own peer group, and he was extremely competent at what he did, so he forced that peer group to accept him as one of their own.

Later on, by the late 1960s, Young got old, and cranky, and conservative, but in Bouton’s good years, Young was the best of a great group of writers covering New York baseball. I was a voracious consumer of the tabloid coverage of baseball at the time—my parents got the Daily News delivered only during the summer months when we vacationed in the Catskills, and Young’s column was the highlight of my reading. I probably learned more about writing, and journalism, and being a smart-ass, from Dick Young than I ever did in any writing seminar I took in graduate school, though the chipmunks also showed me what could be done in the tight confines of a 500-word story. Larry Merchant, Phil Pepe, and Bouton’s Ball Four editor Leonard Shecter, above all, were writing fresh, incisive, daring stuff constantly, and I only wished I could have appreciated how rare that kind of bold sportswriting was. I was spoiled by having the sharpest writers giving me multiple lessons every day, and Nathanson puts into the broader landscape of Bouton’s career their role in presenting that career.

In a good biography, and this is a great one, almost every chapter will present possibilities for expansion into a book itself. I would love to read a whole book on Bouton’s minor league career, and the changing Yankee ethos that he and his teammates would bring to New York City, or an entire work closely studying Bouton’s fight against General Electric’s corruption of local government in the Berkshires. (Well, actually, Bouton wrote –and published--that one himself, Foul Ball, about the walls he banged up against acquiring the rights to Wahconah Park.) Bouton, like Bouton, leaves you smiling and satisfied, yet clamoring for more.




COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf

Still hasn't read the book.
5:23 AM May 18th
p.s. I should have said, pitched a book to my agent.
1:34 AM May 17th
re: your last paragraph, a long time I ago I pitched a book about Bouton covering just the 1970s. He didn't go for it.
1:32 AM May 17th
Marc Schneider

Thanks for the story about Maris.

I agree that Bouton's book about managers is very good.
8:16 PM May 14th
I met Bouton years ago. I told him he was one of my childhood heroes. He said "you don't look old enough to remember me with the Yankees." I said, "No, because of the book." He looked disappointed.
10:10 AM May 14th
Rex - On August 30, 1969 Bouton wrote “It seems like every time I try to throw a slider my elbow feels like an alligator is biting it.”

Marc - Maris posted a derogatory clipping about Bouton on the bulletin board. He denied it to Bouton. Later Bouton was standing around with Maris and said he wished he knew who the gutless person was who posted the article. Maris said “Don’t call me gutless.”

I liked the book but it certainly was biased. The villains were those who harmed his career. The heroes were the hopeful one. It’s no coincidence that no villains were on the Astros.

Bouton edited a good book on managers, “I Managed Good, But Boy Did We Play Bad.”

6:11 PM May 13th
Marc Schneider
Bouton was an egomaniac who always put himself first. He doesn't deserve a full-length biography.

So was Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. So were lots of people who you want to read about. I don't see why being an egomaniac disqualifies someone from being interesting to read about.

7:56 PM May 12th
Bouton bores me. Always has, not changing.

7:32 PM May 12th
Steven Goldleaf
Nathanson makes a pretty fair case for Shecter as editor--he's often credited with writing more of Ball Four than he did, mainly because people couldn't quite accept that Bouton could be so articulate all by his lonesome. But as his handwritten notes show, he did most of the writing, Shecter did most of the organizing.

5:40 PM May 12th
I'm not sure if you're giving Leonard Shecter too little credit for his contribution by describing him as an editor. He worked from transcriptions of tape recorded narration, like many another ghost writer. I'm pretty sure you are giving too little credit to Jim Brosnan, who wrote The Long Season and Pennant Race all by himself. And as much as I like Ball Four, I like the first of Brosnan's books even better.

And I have to say that I don't quite recognize Ball Four in this sentence: "He refused to accept his lifelong silence as a fair trade-off for covering up ballplayers’ drunkenness, their infidelities, their racism, their ignorance, their clannishness, their front-running, their selfishness, their laziness, their lying, their greed, and every other character flaw that they displayed as often as they changed uniforms behind closed doors."

Granted that Dick Young and Bowie Kuhn reacted that way to it, but I say they overreacted. It described foibles; it wasn't Hollywood Confidential. To me, Bouton was the inevitable successor to Brosnan, except Brosnan laughed at himself more.

Despite the foregoing, I appreciate the review and have already downloaded the book to my Kindle.
4:50 PM May 12th
Fireball Wenz
I met Bouton in the Berkshires many years ago and he was very friendly. But his book on his Pittsfield dealings makes it pretty clear that he could be a very hard guy to work with. He sees everything in black and white, and once allies are soon enemies. He's we all are.
12:51 PM May 12th
This was wonderful. Thank you so much for writing it and I look forward to the biography.
11:37 AM May 12th
Steven Goldleaf
I've been meaning to write an essay, perhaps suitable for BJOL now that Bouton's disloyalty to his teammates has come up, on the subject of loyalty, specifically conflicting loyalties. He felt a loyalty to his teammates, certainly at first, but also a loyalty to his own family (in salary battles), and a loyalty to the game of baseball (as opposed to MLB), and a loyalty to members of his union (which many players did not feel) etc. How we resolve all these conflicts is an interesting subject.
11:07 AM May 12th
One small quibble. You state that after his bicep injury, Bouton still had all his pitches except his fastball. But I remember that in Ball Four, he said that when he tried to throw a slider, "it feels like an alligator is biting on my elbow." I can't find my copy of the book right now, but I'm pretty sure that's an exact quote.

10:42 AM May 12th
Bouton was an egomaniac who always put himself first. He doesn't deserve a full-length biography.
10:11 AM May 12th
Marc Schneider
Stephen, you write great reviews and I end up buying the damn book! Thanks.

Bouton has always been interesting to me in a number of ways. He is often referred to as a "middling" pitcher, but, in fact, he was really good until he hurt his arm. He might have ended up as a great pitcher and I wonder how or if that might have affected his view of baseball or whether he would even have written Ball Four. His career shows how baseball ini those days misused pitchers. I suspect that, today, a guy that had that much success early would have been cared for much better. Look at Stephen Strasburg as an example; the Nats shut him down for the playoffs after he had reached his innings limit after TJ surgery. They were vilified for that and you know damn well no team would have done that in Bouton's day. The teams didn't have that much invested in the players so they could just say the hell with them.

At the same time, I've always had mixed feelings about Ball Four. Stephen describes it as sort of revenge and I think that's true and I don't think he was always fair, especially to people that didn't share his politics-which, in those days, was probably most of baseball. Later in his life, he acknowledged being unfair to Elston Howard, who he criticized in the book for not being militant enough on racial issues. One thing I never understood, though, was his attitude toward Roger Maris. He came up the year after Maris broke Ruth's record and, by all accounts, went through hell. But Bouton really seemed to have an animus toward Maris and it wasn't clear to me why. It's easier to see about Mantle although I never thought he really disliked Mantle; in fact, he talked about Mantle putting down a carpet of towels after Bouton's first win.

The other thing, too, is that while Bouton claimed that he didn't put a lot of the really bad stuff in the book, he did make most of the players (other than Mike Marshall and Steve Hovely) look pretty bad. And, frankly, I don't know how I would feel if, for example, a friend from college wrote a book with all the stuff I had said to friends. I can sort of understand the notion that he violated a trust. People always say stuff to friends that they wouldn't want made public. And I think he made no effort to understand the coaches and others who didn't think like he did; Sal Maglie, for example. In my view, he had heroes and villians and the villians were invariably villainous.

I've always been surprised that people never mention that Ball Four was not Bouton's only book. I thought that "I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally", which was about the reaction to Ball Four, was a really good book.
8:19 AM May 12th
Terrific review, Steven, thank you.
9:43 PM May 11th
Mitchell Nathanson said to pass along that he appreciated the review.

7:54 PM May 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Somehow, I managed to write this review without mentioning the word "knuckleball," the concept of "beaver-shooting," the name "Robert Altman," or any picky errors of fact or punctuation that Mitchell Nathanson committed in the course of this biography. Let me know if you'd like any of these oversights to be rectified.
5:42 PM May 11th
When Bouton beat the Giants in 1978 some of them said he pitched like a little leaguer. Sparky Anderson showed class and said Bouton pitched well. He earlier criticized Bouton’s call-up.

In 1970 Sport Magazine ran an article where other players said Bouton misrepresented events. Fred Talbott said Bouton made up a story.
5:42 PM May 11th
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