Jim Bouton, a pitcher of modest achievement but a celebrated iconoclast who left a lasting mark on baseball as the author of “Ball Four,” a raunchy, shrewd, irreverent — and best-selling — player’s diary that tainted the game’s wholesome image, died Wednesday at his home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. He was 80.
He died after a long struggle with vascular dementia, said his wife, Paula Kurman. Bouton had a stroke in 2012 and in 2017 revealed he had a brain disease called cerebral amyloid angiopathy.
When it was published in 1970, “Ball Four,” which reported on the selfishness, dopiness, childishness and mean-spiritedness of young men often lionized for playing a boy’s game exceptionally well, was viewed by many readers, approvingly or not, as a scandalous betrayal of the so-called sanctity of the locker room.
But the book, which was Bouton’s account of the 1969 baseball season, seven years after his big-league debut with the New York Yankees, had a larger narrative — namely his attempt, at age 30, to salvage a once-promising career by developing the game’s most peculiar and least predictable pitch: the knuckleball.
The pitch, which is optimally delivered with no spin, requires finesse, fingertip strength and a good deal of luck; without spin, the ball is subject to the air currents on the way to the plate, causing it to move erratically, making it difficult for the hitter (not to mention the catcher and the umpire) to track, and just as difficult for the pitcher to control.
In the book, the pitch becomes an apt metaphor for Bouton’s view of himself as an eccentric fellow in a baseball society of conservative go-alongs, stubbornly following his own path and yet dependent on the whimsy of outside forces.
In the 1969 season, Bouton played for an American League expansion team, the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers), who demoted him for a time to the minor league affiliate in Vancouver, British Columbia, and eventually traded him to the Houston Astros, then in the National League. The book, originally published with the subtitle “My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Major Leagues,” was, in many ways, a chronicle of the insecurities of an athlete, a one-time star, approaching the end of the line.
But for most readers Bouton’s personal predicament was overwhelmed by what he revealed about life in the major leagues.
In Bouton’s telling, players routinely cheated on their wives on road trips, devised intricate plans to peek under women’s skirts or spy on them through hotel windows, spoke in casual vulgarities, drank to excess and swallowed amphetamines as if they were M&Ms.
Mickey Mantle played hung over and was cruel to children seeking his autograph, he wrote. Carl Yastrzemski was a loafer. Whitey Ford illicitly scuffed or muddied the baseball, and his catcher, Elston Howard, helped him do it. Most coaches were knotheads who dispensed the obvious as wisdom when they were not contradicting themselves, and general managers were astonishingly miserly and dishonest in dealing with players over their contracts.
At the time, the reserve clause, a part of every contract that bound players nearly irrevocably to their teams, was still in effect; free agency, which multiplied the earning power of players by many orders of magnitude, was still in the future. Bouton signed a contract with Seattle for $22,000, and his account of the annual petty wrangling over three- and four-figure sums, discomforting at the time, seems incredible today when the major league minimum salary is $555,000 and players are earning an average of more than $4 million a year.
Overall, Bouton portrayed the game — its players, coaches, executives and most of the writers who covered them — as a world of amusing, foible-ridden, puerile conformity. Not surprisingly, the baseball establishment frowned on Bouton, his collaborating editor, Leonard Shecter, and the book.
The baseball commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, called Bouton in for a reprimand; some players shunned him for spilling the beans to players’ wives about what players did on road trips. (Bouton himself was no exception; his first wife, Bobbie, wrote her own book after their divorce.)
A few players, including Howard, claimed Bouton was a liar. And many of an older generation of sports writers felt Bouton had done irreparable damage to the game out of his own self-importance and desperation.
“Ball Four” was published during the 1970 season while Bouton was with the Houston Astros, but he was having a poor year, and after being demoted to the minors, he retired.
But Bouton was not kidding in “Ball Four” that it was miserable being unable to scratch the competitive itch. So he played semipro ball for several years, and, attempting an unlikely comeback, persevered through stints with minor league teams in Durango, Mexico; Knoxville, Tennessee; Savannah, Georgia; and Portland, Oregon, with the Mavericks.
Finally, in September 1978, Ted Turner, then the owner of a then-hapless team, the Atlanta Braves, brought Bouton to his big league roster, where, at age 39, eight years after his first retirement, he started five games and actually won one (he lost three others), pitching six innings and giving up no earned runs against the San Francisco Giants.
He finished his career (finally) with a record of 62-63 and a creditable cumulative ERA of 3.57. By then he had also proved the validity of the final line of “Ball Four,” perhaps the best-known and most resonant sentence in the book, an explanation of why he would put up with the frustration and lunacy he had written about, and a pithy encapsulation of the tug of sport on an athlete.
“You see,” he wrote, “you spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”