Jim Bouton’s ‘Ball Four’ is still going on strong
Jim Bouton, once an All-Star pitcher with the New York Yankees, doesn’t visit major league clubhouses very often these days. But when he does, he says the same scenario invariably unfolds.
“There will be one or two old coaches sitting in the corner. I can see them glaring at me,” Bouton said. “But the younger players come to over to me. ‘Hey, I read your book in high school. I said that’s what I want to be. I want to be a major league baseball player. You made me stick with it.’ ”
Forty years after the release of Bouton’s “Ball Four,” his behind-the-scenes diary of a season pitching in the big leagues, the book still resonates. And not just with curmudgeonly coaches and enthusiastic ballplayers.
“Without that book, I’d probably be a surgeon like my dad,” said David Kipen who while in grade school was so smitten by Bouton’s prose that he went on to become director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. “He hijacked my life.”
Hijacked the national pastime as well because “Ball Four” changed the game and the way we follow it, helping to usher in free agency by exposing the pernicious practices of club owners while simultaneously exposing the widespread use of amphetamines in the clubhouse and the wild after-hours carousing of some of baseball’s biggest stars.
That’s why the New York Public Library rated it the best sports book of the 20th Century. And it’s why the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary will mark the book’s 40th anniversary Saturday at the Burbank Central Library with two panel discussions featuring the author.
Bouton is just as surprised as anyone else that people are still talking about him and his book four decades after it was written. He was looking more for laughs than a legacy when he started keeping a diary of his final full season in the majors in 1969 as a knuckleballing reliever with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros.
“The motive for doing this was not to make money or write something that was going to last a long time,” Bouton, who wrote the book with sportswriter Leonard Shecter, said by phone from his home in Massachusetts. “Basically, I just wanted to share the fun of baseball.”
And that included the high jinks both in and out of the clubhouse, material that hadbeen kept hidden from public view. That earned Bouton the ire of former teammates though many of the things he wrote would be considered tame by today’s standard.
“It was very true. And it was funny,” said filmmaker Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”), who was a minor league infielder in the Baltimore organization when “Ball Four” was released. “It shines light on sports from a different angle. Baseball is about the guys that play it and it’s about all the things that happen in between the big plays. It’s a working-class game.
“It’s approached with great romance and poetry and lyricism by outsiders and writers. And if you play the game, there’s no myth or poetry. You’re just trying to improve your statistics. You’re trying to meet a woman in a bar. Those are the things that drive you. And I think ‘Ball Four’ got at that somehow.”
It also got at the injustice of baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to the team that signed them in a kind of indentured servitude. “Ball Four,” fortuitously for the players union, came out the same year that St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause by refusing to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, setting off a legal battle that eventually led to free agency.
Bouton played a part in that, too, when he was called to read passages from his book in front of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who eventually ruled in the player’s favor.
“That was tremendously powerful,” Kipen said. “You can make the case that Bouton did just as much as Flood did to overturn the reserve clause.”
You can also make the case that, by continuing to be relevant 40 years after it was written, “Ball Four” has done far more to define Bouton’s career than his 21-win season, his two victories in the 1964 World Series or his Quixotic comeback effort with the Atlanta Braves in 1978.
And that legacy shows no signs of fading. At 71, Bouton is working a stage adaptation of the book — the working title is “Ball Four: The Musical” — around trips to the basement, where he throws knuckleballs at a strike zone painted on a wall.
“My feeling has always been that the only way to portray ‘Ball Four,’ the characters and everything, is with a Broadway musical,” Bouton said. “Anything goes in a musical. And you can be gross and profane and bawdy.
“The stage. I think that’s where it belongs.”
“Ball Four Turns Forty,” which will include two panel discussions as well as the world premiere of the documentary “The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History,” will take place at the Burbank Central Library on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Information: https://www.baseballreliquary.org.