Book review: Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

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Book review: Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

More than 40 years after it was first published, Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” his diary of his 1969 season with two major league teams, remains eminently readable and entertaining. And still potent enough to make a baseball fan squirm.

This version, published by Bouton himself in 2000, includes the original book, edited by Leonard Shecter, plus epilogues from 1981 (the “Ball Five” chapter), 1990 (“Ball Six”) and 2000 (“Ball Seven”).

The 1981 epilogue is fun because Bouton reports on what happened to his teammates on the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros — many of whom were distinctive characters in “Ball Four” — since the book’s publication. Only four of the 70 or more players who were on the Seattle and Houston rosters during the 1969 season were still playing in 1981.

It is also fun because Bouton tells what had happened to him, particularly how the book turned him into a pariah, denigrated by baseball authorities and many of the players. He acts surprised that a good number of his teammates were less than pleased with the book, but I’m not sure what he expected.

Most of them didn’t know he was going to write about the season and about them — certainly, in the brash, unvarished way he did. And particularly about such things as beaver-shooting (trying to look up the skirts or into the hotel windows of attractive women), amphetamine-taking (popping greenies) and frequent crudeness.

A few months after “Ball Four” was published in June, 1970, Bouton was sent to the minors by the Astros. Rather than go, the pitcher retired. Yet, in 1977, he launched a comeback, and, after a year and a half in the minors, was back with the Atlanta Braves, going 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA.

Bouton’s nickname in baseball was Bulldog, and “Ball Four” and the epilogues show why he got the moniker.

Indeed, as he’s portrayed in his own writing, Bouton comes across as someone who is intellectually curious, has a funny take on life, sees the world through the prism of his own needs and desires and often makes himself more than a bit of a pain in the ass, especially to authority figures but also to teammates (such as the catchers he constantly nagged to catch his knuckleball before games and in the bullpen during games).

It was the 60s, after all, when he wrote his book, and Bouton exhibits a lot of the anti-Establishment fervor of that era. Yet, what also comes across is how against the grain his shtick was in big league baseball.

There’s not much in the second epilogue, but “Ball Seven” is poignant as it counterposes the tragic death of Bouton’s young adult daughter Laurie in a car accident with his later invitation to Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium after decades of being annually overlooked.

Still, it’s “Ball Four” that’s still the draw for any reader or baseball fan.

For instance:

• March 27: “We were doing windsprints and Gary Bell was having a terrible time because of certain local poisonous fluids he’d encountered the night before. We decided that Eddie O’Brien would let him off if he got a note from his bartender.”
• May 10: “At the [team] meeting, which lasted about twenty minutes, there were complaints about the beds in some of the hotels, the lack of a roof over the bench in the bullpen, the bare cement floor in the clubhouse and the absence of a watercooler in the clubhouse. Imagine having to take our greenies with beer.”
• May 20: “Marty Pattin, [nicknamed] Donald Duck (his great routine is where he has Donald reaching orgasm) pitched a strong game tonight. In the eighth he gave up a home run to Mike Epstein after walking Frank Howard and we lost 6-5. Marty did not do the Donald Duck tonight.”
• June 15: “A stew can come under the heading of class stuff, or table pussy, in comparison with some of the other creatures who are camp-followers or celebrity-fuckers, called Baseball Annies. It is permissible, in the scheme of things, to promise a Baseball Annie dinner and a show in return for certain quick services for a pair of roommates. And it is just as permissible, in the morality of the locker room, to refuse to pay off.”
• August 20: “Talbot said, ‘Hey, Bouton, no notes during the player-representative meeting.’ I started jotting down some notes anyway in the hope that someone would confiscate them: ‘One bunch of carrots, loaf of bread, half-dozen eggs.’ No one tried. Foiled again.”
• September 15: “McFadden [a black pitcher] said he frequently runs into [white] players who are friendly, pat-on-the-back types but who, as soon as they’re in a group of white players, will start throwing ‘n’s’ around. ‘N’ is black code for ‘nigger.’ ”

That selection gives an idea of why the book remains so readable and entertaining.

And why, as a baseball fan, I squirmed fairly often while reading the book.

I really don’t think today’s ball players — most in their 20s like Bouton’s teammates four decades ago — are going to be all that much different from those depicted in the pages of “Ball Four.”

Richer, for sure. Less likely to let themselves be quotes in a tell-all book? Sure.

But less crude? I don’t know.

Patrick T. Reardon
9.19.11

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