No site dedicated to reviewing sports biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs would be complete without a review of Ball Four. I grew up loving baseball and could recite the starting lineups for every team in the National League. I would play imaginary games in my backyard, taking on the role of everyone who played for my beloved Phillies. Unfortunately, my imagination was much better than my actual abilities, and I never made it past Little League. It was around this time that Ball Four was published, and my view of baseball players was about to change.
Considered by many to be one of the best sports book of all time, Ball Four was written in 1970 by Jim Bouton. The book is a diary of his 1969 season, spent with the Seattle Pilots and then the Houston Astros, after a late-season trade. In addition, Bouton also provides a recap of much of his career throughout the book. The twentieth-anniversary edition also includes two updates. The first, entitled Ball Five, offers a brief summary of what took place in the 10 years after Ball Four was published (most notably Bouton’s successful comeback with the Atlanta Braves). The second update, published in 1990, provides an update to what has been happening in Bouton’s life, as well as the lives of many of the people he had written about in the original Ball Four, during the intervening years.
Ball Four was one of the first sports books to offer an honest, insider’s look at the game of baseball. Bouton did not hold anything back, openly discussing the rampant use of drugs and alcohol, the amount of womanizing that took place, and the general antics that took place on and off the field. He also chronicles the problems he had with his coaches and his teammates, and the anxiety he felt while pitching for Seattle as he tried to feel like a contributing member of the team.
Bouton started his career in 1962 with the New York Yankees and enjoyed some early success. He was a member of the 1962 Yankees World Series championship team, although he did not pitch in that series. He was named to the All-Star team in 1963 and pitched in both the 1963 and 1964 World Series. However, perhaps because of pitching too many innings, Bouton’s arm became sore, and he was relegated to bullpen duty. He was then sold to the Seattle Angles, a minor league team, in 1968, which then became the Seattle Pilots of the American League in 1969. It was in November 1968 that Bouton begins his diary.
There are many notable characters throughout the book, including coaches, players, and baseball executives. While reading the original book again for the first time in 40 plus years, many of the stories came back to me and made me laugh once again. I also found it ironic that I happened to be reading this in the summer of 2012 when R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets is getting a great deal of publicity because of his success with using a knuckleball. This was the pitch that Bouton was committed to at this point in his career, despite the lack of encouragement from his coaches and his teammates to use such a pitch.
Bouton recounts one incident when John Gelnar was on the mound, with a couple of men on base, and the manager, Joe Schultz comes out to the mound for a visit. Melnar asks Joe if he has any pitching advice for him, and Joe’s response was “Give him some low smoke and we’ll go in and pound some Budweiser.” As it turns out, that was the manager’s advice in many situations throughout the book. I was also amazed at the more carefree attitude of the athletes back then (as well as the much lower salaries – Bouton’s contract in 1968 was for $22,000). Bouton tells the story of when he was taken out of a game during the second inning, and a few minutes later got into a confrontation with his teammates and a coach in the bullpen. His coach finally tells him to go take a shower, and while in the clubhouse, he drinks a few beers while the game is still in progress. While I have no idea if this still happens today, my sense is that if it does, it is much rarer than it was back then.
When reading this as a thirteen-year-old, I especially liked the humor found in the phrase “Ding Dong”, which is the phrase used when the catcher gets hit in the cup with a baseball. Somehow, it’s still funny 40 years later.
It was also interesting reading the book now, and recognizing many of the names that are now almost mythical in stature (Mays, Mantle, Berra, Ford) but were contemporaries back then, as well as mention of some names who would become famous later, such as Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, and Reggie Jackson. There is also mention of Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner of baseball at the time. Later, in his 10-year followup to Ball Four, Bouton recounts how Kuhn tried to get Bouton to publicly acknowledge that he had made a terrible mistake and that the book was a bunch of lies. When Bouton refused to do so, Kuhn then asked Bouton to promise that he would never reveal what went on at that meeting…
What I particularly liked about reading the updated version of the book is finding out what happened to all the characters from Ball Four. Bouton retired from the Astros in 1970, and this was followed by a career as a sportscaster, created and starred in a sitcom based on Ball Four. Then, in 1977, at the age of 37, Bouton decided to try and make a comeback. His first attempt was with the White Sox AA farm team and then later with the AAA farm team of the Atlanta Braves. His dream was realized in September of 1978 when the Braves called him up to the Big Leagues. He pitched well in a few games and then decided to call it quits. Bouton is also a serial inventor, his most successful product being Big League Chew, a gum that is sold in pouches like chewing tobacco. Bouton eventually sold the product to Wrigley.
For many years after the publication of Ball Four, Bouton was effectively banned from attending many official baseball functions, perhaps most notably the annual Old-Timers’ Game with the Yankees. Allegedly, it was because Mickey Mantle claimed he would never play in such a game if Bouton were invited. Mantle later denied the allegation. (Mantle’s legendary drinking habits were clearly noted in Ball Four). However, in 1998, Bouton’s son Michael wrote an open letter to the New York Yankees which was published by the New York Times. In the letter, he describes the anguish his father had suffered when his daughter Laurie, Michael’s sister, died the previous year. Facing public pressure, the Yankees invited Bouton to that summer’s Old Timers’ Game and received a standing ovation. He has been a regular fixture since.
I highly recommend Ball Four, and not just for sports fans. It has been selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time, and the only sports-themed book to make the New York Public Libraries 1996 list of Books of the Century. If you’ve already read the book, but it’s been a few decades, I can attest to the fact that it’s just as funny as ever, and you will enjoy the updates at the end.
Update: When I clicked on the above Wikipedia link I discovered that Bouton passed away just about a month ago. RIP, Jim.