Jim Bouton, pitcher and ‘Ball Four’ author, dies

July 11th, 2019

His words, both spoken and written, got him in trouble almost from the day he set foot in a Major League clubhouse at the age of 23. But those words, especially the written ones, also made him famous beyond what would be expected of a fireballing young right-hander who blew out his arm and ended up with all of 62 big league victories.

wasn't called Bulldog for nothing. He held his ground and played his part in the changing culture of the 1960s, challenging the established, old-school hierarchy that included not only management types but many of his famous Yankees teammates. He talked about politics and religion in clubhouses and bullpens and spoke openly with reporters. He won 21 games in a season. He won two World Series games. He hurt his arm and fell into obscurity.

Then he wrote a book. And what a book it was.

Bouton -- pitcher, famous author, entrepreneur, television sportscaster, actor, inventor, situation-comedy writer, public speaker, champion of old ballparks and vintage baseball, and last but not least, pariah -- died of a brain disease linked to dementia on Wednesday at his home in western Massachusetts. He was 80 and is survived by, among others, his wife, Paula Kurman, and his sons, Michael and David.

The words "ball four" are anathema to the ears of pitchers, but they turned out to be music to those of James Alan Bouton, a product of New York and Chicago born on March 8, 1939, in Newark, N.J.

"Ball Four" was the title of his book -- his first book, mind you -- that turned the baseball world on its ear in the summer of 1970. The irreverent diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros featured tales of players' antics and adolescent behavior, sexual activities, sexually tasteless jokes, drunken horseplay, contract squabbles with management in the era before free agency, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs -- yes, even way back then -- that enraged the baseball establishment.

So too did his stories about Mickey Mantle's drinking habits and off-field behavior.

"I wrote some about Mickey's drinking and carousing," Bouton told The Wall Street Journal in 2010, "things that everyone in baseball knew about but that were never discussed in public. The funny thing is that most of what I said about Mickey was mild compared to what he and Whitey Ford and other players later admitted in their own books. If I had a hand in opening up discussion of what a professional athlete's life is really like, I'm proud of that.

"Really, what I felt I did was capture lightning in a bottle. Most of those guys, like my old Seattle manager Joe Schultz, were great talkers, great storytellers. I thought I made them more accessible, more human to fans."

Jim Bouton signing copies of "Ball Four" in Seattle in 2006. (AP)

All of it led to charges that Bouton had violated the so-called sanctity of the clubhouse. But it delighted readers, who for the first time were able to see the realities of professional sports, through stories that were vastly different from the flowery, hero-worshiping tales of the many previous decades. They bought "Ball Four" by the millions and made it a best-seller. Decades later it is still regarded to be one of the best sports books ever, and one of the most influential books in modern history. The most-recent updated version of the book, published in 2000, can still be found in bookstores.

"There was a time, not too long ago, when school kids read 'Ball Four' at night under the covers with a flashlight because their parents wouldn't allow it in the house," Bouton wrote in the preface of his 1980 revision of the book. "It was not your typical sports book about the importance of clean living and inspired coaching. I was called Judas and a Benedict Arnold for having written it. The book was attacked in the media because among other things, it 'used four-letter words and destroyed heroes.' It was even banned in a few libraries because it was said to be 'bad for the youth of America.'"

The story of how Bouton became a best-selling author began more than a decade earlier. A marginal pitcher at Chicago's Bloom Township High, he was part of a pitching staff whose ace was Jerry Colangelo, who later owned the Arizona Diamondbacks and the NBA's Phoenix Suns. His nickname was "Warm-Up Bouton." Within just a few years, though, he would have a nickname with a completely different connotation.

After attending Western Michigan University, Bouton and his father fooled the Yankees into signing him. Having received little to no interest from Major League teams, the two penned a letter to several of them, informing them of Bouton's availability as though he were a hot commodity. The Yankees bit, signing him in 1959.

He arrived in New York, during the 1962 season, a much different pitcher. Despite a smallish frame -- he was listed as being six-feet, 170 pounds -- he had become a power pitcher, throwing an over-the-top fastball with a motion so violent that his cap flew off his head on virtually every pitch. Teammates called him "Bulldog."

Bouton won 21 games in 1963, pitched a perfect inning in the All-Star Game and was on the losing end of a 1-0 score in Game 3 of the World Series against the Dodgers and Don Drysdale. He won 18 more games in 1964 and then beat the Cardinals twice in the Series, once on a walk-off home run by Mantle.

Bouton pitches against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the 1964 World Series. (AP)

But as the mighty Yankees -- led for years by the likes of Mantle, Maris, Ford, Berra, Howard and Skowron -- deteriorated beginning in 1965, so did Bouton. The fastball had quickly taken its toll on his right arm, and his statistics, as well as a trip to Triple-A Syracuse, reflected the loss.

"Back then, if you had a sore arm, the only people concerned were you and your wife," he once wrote. "Now it's you, your wife, your agent, your investment counselor, your stockbroker and your publisher."

In 1968 he was assigned to the Seattle Angels of the Pacific Coast League, which ultimately gave him a path back to the Majors -- as a knuckleball pitcher -- when the American League expanded to Seattle the following season.

While he said that he just wanted to be one of the guys, Bouton didn't always fit in. He was part of a new breed of player -- the type who read books and played chess on planes and buses, had opinions on the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, was strongly pro-union at a time when Marvin Miller had just been put in charge of the players' association, and who challenged the conforming nature of the clubhouse that existed at the time.

He wasn't alone. Yankees teammates such as Joe Pepitone, Phil Linz and Fritz Peterson were among the 1960s-style, opinionated players who differed from the veterans who limited their public opinions to those about hunting and fishing and frowned on younger players who spoke openly with sportswriters. There was a new breed of sportswriters, too. In New York they were called "Chipmunks" and they were quickly replacing the establishment types. One of those writers was Leonard Shecter of the New York Post.

At about the time that Bouton traveled to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to help protest the involvement of apartheid South Africa, Shecter asked Bouton if he would be interested in writing a diary during the 1969 season. Oddly enough, Bouton had already thought of it and had been taking notes.

As expansion teams are by definition, the Pilots were a collection of castoffs. There were former stars such as Tommy Davis, Gary Bell and Steve Barber, and future (and yet-to-be appreciated) stars such as Mike Marshall, Marty Pattin (who did a great Donald Duck) and, among the first players the team sent away, Lou Piniella, who would win that year's AL Rookie of the Year Award for the Kansas City Royals. Schultz, a longtime Cardinals coach, was the manager. New York legends Sal Maglie and Frank Crosetti were among the coaches.

"... They were perfect for the book," Bouton said. "It was gold. Every one of those players was an interesting story, in one way or another. You had rookies, and you had grizzled veterans. You had Ray Oyler with all the Detroit Tigers stories, Don Mincher with all the Minnesota Twins stories, Tommy Davis with all the Los Angeles Dodgers stories ... It was like every club sent a special representative to the Seattle Pilots, so we could chronicle this team. It was a perfect cast of characters, almost as if somebody had said, 'This team's not going to win any games, but if someone writes a book, this'll be a great ballclub.'"

So Bouton wrote, mixing his recollections of his Yankees days with thoughts of his own struggles as he tried to revive his career, his experiences with the Pilots (and later the Astros, who traded for him in August) and stories shared by teammates.

Some examples:

• I once invested a dollar when Mantle raffled off a ham. I won, only there was no ham. That was one of the hazards of entering a game of chance, Mickey explained.

• After the game Joe Schultz said, "Attaway to stomp on 'em, men. Pound that Budweiser into you and go get 'em tomorrow." Then he spotted Gelnar sucking out of a pop bottle. "For Chrissakes, Gelnar," Joe Schultz said. "You'll never get them out drinking Dr Pepper."

• At dinner Don Mincher, Marty Pattin and I discussed greenies. They came up because O'Donoghue had just received a season supply of 500. "They ought to last about a month," I said.

• For a long time Whitey got away with throwing a mudball that was positively evil. Sometimes Ellie Howard would load it up for him by pretending to lose his balance and steadying himself with his hand -- while the ball was in it. Ford could make a mudball drop, break in, break out and sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

• I don't like the Mantle that refused to sign baseballs in the clubhouse before the games. Everybody else had to sign, but Little Pete forged Mantle's signature. So there are thousands of baseballs around the country that have been signed not by Mickey Mantle, but by Pete Previte.

• In the Milwaukee clubhouse there's a sign that reads, "What you say here, what you see here, what you do here and what you hear here, let it stay here." The same sign hangs in the clubhouse in Minneapolis. Also, I suppose, in the CIA offices in Washington. If I were a CIA man, could I write a book?

"With the first printing of only 5,000 copies I was certain that 'Ball Four' was headed the way of all sports books," Bouton wrote in 1980. "And then a funny thing happened. Some advance excerpts appeared in Look magazine and the baseball establishment went crazy. The team owners became furious and wanted to ban the book. The Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, called me in for a reprimand and announced that I had done the game 'a grave disservice.' Sportswriters called me names like 'traitor' and 'turncoat.' My favorite was 'social leper.' Dick Young of the Daily News thought that one up.

"The ballplayers, most of whom hadn't read it, picked up the cue. The San Diego Padres burned the book and left the charred remains for me to find in the visitors' clubhouse. When I was on the mound trying to pitch, players on the opposing teams hollered obscenities at me. ...

"All that hollering and screaming sure sold books."

Bouton met with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in June 1970. (AP)

In 1996, "Ball Four" was named on the New York Public Library's list of Books of the Century. It was the only sports-themed book so honored. Sports Illustrated ranked it the third-best sports book in history.

"A book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact it is by no means a sports book," Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam wrote.

"It's a vibrant, funny, telling history of an era that seems even further away than three decades," sportswriter Jim Caple said. "To call it simply a 'tell-all book' is like describing 'The Grapes of Wrath' as a book about harvesting peaches in California."

Rusty Staub, who had a long playing career with the Astros, Expos, Mets and Tigers, said when "Ball Four" was published: "I hope the book is damned good, because it might be the last one he writes."

It wasn't. "I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally," a sequel, followed in 1971. Later he would write two more books: a novel titled "Strike Zone" in 1994 and "Foul Ball," a diary about his fight to save a historic ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2003.

Upon being released by the Astros in August 1970, Bouton immediately took a job as a local sports anchor for WABC-TV in New York, later moving to the city's CBS affiliate. He played a leading role in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye." He co-wrote and played the lead in a CBS sitcom called "Ball Four," loosely based on the book, but the show lasted only five episodes.

Perhaps because his playing career ended on the heels of “Ball Four,” or because he still longed to be one of the guys, Bouton made three attempts at a comeback, the last one culminating in a return to the Majors with the Braves in September 1978. He went 1-3 in five starts, beating the Giants by holding them to three hits and one unearned run over six innings for his 62nd and final big league victory. He left baseball for the last time with a 62-63 record. He was 39 years old.

Bouton pitched for the independent Portland Mavericks during most of his comeback, and it was there in 1977 where he and teammate Rob Nelson collaborated to create "Big League Chew," a bubblegum shredded and packaged in a pouch to resemble the look of chewing tobacco, and pitched it to the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in 1980. By 2005, according to Wrigley, it had sold more than 800 million pouches.

Bouton spent the ensuing years playing semipro baseball for teams in New Jersey; Albany, N.Y.; and western Massachusetts. He remained persona non grata in the baseball world. The Yankees wouldn't give him a media credential when he worked in television, and they didn't invite him to any Old-Timers' Days. It was widely speculated that Mantle, upset over what Bouton wrote about him, provided the impetus of the blackballing. But Mantle, in a 1994 phone message to Bouton in response to receiving a condolence card following the death of Mantle's son, Billy, told Bouton, "I was never really hurt by your book," and said that he wasn't the one preventing him from being invited to Old-Timers' Day.

"I still have the tape," Bouton said four years later. "I was really glad to have it when Mickey died, to have that closure."

Bouton's reconciliation with the Yankees and baseball came about in 1998. The previous year, Bouton's daughter, Laurie -- whom he had called "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in "Ball Four" -- died after an automobile accident. Bouton's eldest son, Michael, wrote a piece in The New York Times in which he told of his father's pain and appealed to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to see the bigger picture of life and let bygones be bygones.

"Nobody told me Michael's letter was being printed," Bouton told Sports Illustrated. "That day, my son David called and read me what Michael had written. I cried: joy, sadness, pride. The best Father's Day gift you could ever get."

Five weeks later, Bouton, sporting his old uniform No. 56, took the mound at Yankee Stadium. His cap, intentionally oversized at the urging of former teammate and Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, fell off his head on the first pitch. He threw six pitches, received a warm ovation and waved to a large group of his daughter's friends, who had nearly brought him to tears while he was warming up by raising a banner that read "WE LOVE LAURIE."

"The whole experience was like walking in a dream," he said. "What a variety of emotions. I feel like I just stepped off one of those paint-mixing machines."

Bouton (right) in his role as chairman and CEO of the Vintage Base Ball Federation in 2006. (AP)

Bouton spent the latter part of his life living in western Massachusetts, writing, making public-speaking appearances and playing in and organizing 19th-century-style baseball games.

At the end of the 1969 season, facing an uncertain future despite having appeared in 73 games for the Pilots and Astros, Bouton mused about players who hang on to their careers as long as possible and wondered whether he would do the same.

Bouton, who professed a love for the game despite his displeasure with management, the reserve clause that bound players to their teams and the sometimes small-minded culture that existed in baseball at the time, decided that he probably would. He explained his reasoning in the final sentence of "Ball Four":

"You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."