Remembering Ball Four


Source: TomDispatch.com

Photo by Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

 

In 1964, an 18-year-old New York Military Academy first baseman named Don Trump slammed a game-winning home run against Cornwall High School that perked the interest of scouts for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox. No question about it — the big kid was a professional prospect!

That same year, a 25-year-old New York Yankees pitcher named Jim Bouton, an All-Star the previous season, won two World Series games against the St. Louis Cardinals. Hall of Fame, here we come!

Neither of those hotshots fulfilled their baseball promise. Unpacking why not might just help us survive another day without baseball at a time when — thanks to that now grownup first-baseman — we really need the diversion. And it may remind us of what we’re missing.

As you may already have guessed, Don Trump was never really a pro prospect. That home run, in fact, would prove just a foretaste of his talent for hyping himself. It never happened. He made it up. In fact, his team didn’t even play Cornwall that year. Trump, who actually was his school’s team captain, has long claimed that he was the best athlete there, a boast rarely challenged because coaches and classmates tended to praise him once it became in their best interests to do so.

And what about that Yankee phenom, nicknamed “Bulldog” by his teammates (including legendary superstar Mickey Mantle) for his ferocious tenacity on the mound? Only six years after his World Series heroics, sportswriters would be furiously writing him off as a “journeyman” ballplayer, a “social leper” who had betrayed the game to produce a “tell-all” book written for him by a lefty journalist.

This year, Jim Bouton, who died in 2019 at age 80, will get more of the acclaim owed him as a revolutionary sports figure thanks to the publication of an excellent new biography and a forthcoming 50th anniversary Kindle edition of his memoir, Ball Four, arguably the best sports book of all time. In 1999, Ball Four was, in fact, selected by the New York Public Library as one of the “Books of the Century.”

 

Baseball Anthropology

Parts of Ball Four may now seem quaint. (Who would be shocked today to discover that ballplayers of that era actually cursed, popped amphetamines, or tried to peek at women through hotel windows?) In 1970, however, that book turned the national pastime on its head. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to have it banned or at least force Bouton to declare it “fiction.” Players who didn’t bother to read it nonetheless felt violated by it or were convinced that they should feel that way. Traditional sportswriters, whose status depended on the idea that they were the only conduit fans had to the true life of the locker-room, were infuriated. They had been exposed as faux insiders.

As former Wall Street Journal reporter (and sportswriter) Stefan Fatsis said, in retrospect, “I think you can argue that Ball Four completely reshaped journalism.”

No one who’s written about Bouton’s book, however, has caught its deeper spirit better than his widow, the psychologist Paula Kurman, in an introduction to that 50th anniversary edition. “Ball Four,” she wrote, “was an extraordinary study of a strange, isolated tribe — from inside the tribe — which any anthropologist would be proud to have authored. It was a universal fable, in which our hero sets out to seek his fortune, or the Holy Grail, and must do battle with those who try to stop him. It was a man from a macho world — openly talking about his feelings and insecurities. It was a kid calling out that the Emperor had no clothes on.”

For starters, it reshaped the perceptions that many sports fans then had of their heroes. It humanized them. Not surprisingly, the book spent months on the bestseller list, less for its mildly bawdy anecdotes than for the way it reinforced the passion of baseball fans for their game. Rigorously edited (but not written) by Leonard Shecter, a progressive, uncompromising veteran of the pre-Murdoch-era New York Post, Ball Four was a strange and unexpected valentine to what was still the national pastime then. (Today, it’s undoubtedly football, a tribute to American brutality.)

Bouton’s book proved to be the sweet revelation of a True Believer’s longing to get a tighter hold on a game that had entranced him as a young man, a hold as tight as the game had on him. Even now, it feels like a warm hug and helps explain why baseball is still America’s best game, a contest without a time limit or strategic violence, a sport that adds up to a true guild of disparate talents only capable of succeeding by working collectively (no matter the mix of workingmen, thugs, and poets on the field). Think of it as a sort of dream version of America.

As it happened, however, it was a glimpse into Mickey Mantle’s alcoholism that especially upset the establishment. As Bouton told Neal Conan of NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2012, Mantle showed up so hung over one day that the Yankee manager excused him from the game, telling him to sleep it off in the trainer’s room.

“Anyway, the game goes extra innings,” recalled Bouton. “We need a pinch-hitter in the 10th. Somebody went to wake up the Mick. He comes out, put a bat in his hands. He walks up to home plate, takes one practice swing and hits the first pitch into the left field bleachers, a tremendous blast.

“Guys are going nuts. He comes over, crosses home plate. Actually, he missed home plate. We have to send him back for that. He comes over to the dugout, and he looks up in the stands, and he says, those people don’t know how tough that really was. Then after the game, the sportswriter said, ‘Mick, how did you do that?’… And he said, ‘Well, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.’”

For Bouton, that anecdote was his almost fanboy way of showcasing the greatness of Mantle. But for the sports establishment, media and otherwise, it represented a loss of control, a peek into the deeper reality of the game and of the human beings that made it what it was. They were particularly upset at how Bouton exposed their greed, at how many now knew how little the owners paid all but a few of their players compared to their profits. The largest salary Bouton ever earned from the Yankees was $30,000 in 1965, the year after his World Series wins, and he had to refuse to sign his contract and hold out to get it. All of this would, of course, seem far less shocking in the world of 2020 with the billionaire first-baseman who specialized in bankruptcies in the White House and a country that, in the midst of a pandemic and the equivalent of the second Great Depression, managed to make its collective crew of billionaires $565 billion richer.

Most important, Bouton’s book laid bare the unfairness of baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to their owners in something like perpetuity. As Kevin Baxter pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, “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.”

He would also prove to be a rare sports activist outside the game. He marched for civil rights at a time when most athletes kept their political heads down. He participated in anti-apartheid demonstrations against South Africa’s white regime when most ballplayers didn’t know what the word meant. He was even a George McGovern delegate from New Jersey, his home state, at the 1972 Democratic convention.

The Knuckleballer

As a player, Bouton was an unusually friendly and accessible locker-room interviewee, even for sportswriters whose hostility to him was guaranteed to find its way into print. The most affronted and belligerent of these was the controversial, right-wing New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, who claimed that Bouton had violated the sanctity of the locker room (a transgression for which he gave only himself a pass). He was the one who described Bouton as a “social leper.” When the pitcher greeted him amiably afterward, Young blurted out, “I’m glad you didn’t take it personally” (though it couldn’t have been more personally meant). That became the title of Bouton’s sequel to Ball Four.

Overused by the Yankees, he would injure his arm in his fourth season and never regain the dominance of his early Bulldog days. In a major league career that lasted 10 seasons, he would play for three more teams, trying to develop and perfect a knuckleball, a difficult pitch to deliver, without notable success. He would then go on to a successful career as a TV sportscaster and then an entrepreneur and motivational speaker. He would jokingly describe himself as a “medium celebrity,” at about the time in the 1980s when Donald Trump first made it onto the B list of anyone who was anybody in New York City. It was a wonder they never met. His wife would later tell me that he “loathed Trump from the get-go,” but by the time he was angry enough to go on the attack, his verbal and literary skills had been dimmed by cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease.

As for me, while working at the New York Times and elsewhere, I interviewed and covered Trump for more than 35 years and Bouton for almost 60 — we eventually became friends — and I can’t tell you how creepy it seems to me to put both of them in the same sentence, no less compare them. Yet they did have something in common. They were both creatures, if not creations, of the media, highly accessible and always eminently quotable. They were both suffered by journalists who didn’t like them because they were guaranteed to draw attention and provide instant colorful copy (as the president still does daily). And both were misinterpreted early.

Trump’s ponderous, dour personal style made him seem serious, almost thoughtful, when being interviewed. While it was clear enough that he had no ideology beyond making money and making his own will prevail, he was regularly characterized as a cunning man and so it was easy enough to assume that he had a master plan of some sort. In those years (as now), he schemed endlessly to attract attention, going so far then as to pretend to be a publicist, peddling his employer, one Donald Trump, while on the phone with reporters.

Bouton, on the other hand, rarely fished for publicity. He did, however, have a bubbly personality and a willingness to talk to anyone about anything, a manner that obscured the very thing he had and Donald Trump lacked: a methodical, rational mind with a highly developed sense of justice. Looking back, Paula Kurman thinks that a media tendency to characterize him as a classic tilter at windmills was a way of diminishing the passionate pragmatism of his activism. His last major quest was an attempt to save an old ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which he saw as a way to preserve history, be a gift to a city — he lived near neighboring Great Barrington — and make money. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the American world of inequality and greed we now inhabit, he struck out.

As he revealed in Ball Four, Bouton was an acute social observer (even if he also had a certain sense of elitism), mocking the dress of various ballplayers, their sloppy chewing-tobacco habits, even the way some feigned brave limps. That he could be seen as a flake was the clearest proof of how conservative, insular, and blinkered most ballplayers and reporters who covered them were, and how hidebound baseball still is.

Dueling Balls

Otherwise occupied, Trump has been quiet on baseball since he called for the opening of the new season in mid-April at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic as part of his drive to restart the economy at any human cost. Even though he once played the sport, it may be too intricate, humane, slow moving, and collective for a man with as little patience as he has. It’s unlikely he’s up to speed either on the current strained negotiations between the sport’s Trumpian owners and the players for some kind of a truncated version of a 2020 season.

Whether baseball has a season or not this year, chalk up a victory for The Donald in this time of death, destruction, and protest, one that would have amused the former Yankees pitcher. The last time I checked, a signed Jim Bouton baseball cost $64.99, while one with Trump’s signature was going for $5,565.79 — only slightly less than the price for a document signed by the captain of the Titanic.

Robert Lipsyte, a TomDispatch regular, was a sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

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