Bouton, wife make terrific team

Author, former Yankees hurler assisted by spouse after stroke

July 5th, 2017
Jim Bouton dances with his wife, Paula Kurman, outside their home in the Berkshires. (Getty)

NEW YORK -- After 35 years, there's obviously still a love affair between Jim Bouton and his wife, Paula Kurman. The two have been together so long they can finish each other's sentences, which now for Kurman is imperative.
Five years ago, the former pitcher and author of the seminal book "Ball Four" was struck with what his wife said was a "devastating" stroke. Along with it came bleeding in his brain and a disease called cerebral amyloid angiopathy that is linked to dementia.
Bouton still has recall, but at times loses his stream of thought. At that point, Kurman steps in for him and finishes the story. That's the way it is every moment, every day.
Bouton and Kurman chose a panel at the Society for American Baseball Research convention on Saturday to publicly disclose the 78-year-old's condition. At the same time, Tyler Kepner wrote a poetic story about Bouton that appeared in The New York Times. Kepner recently visited the couple's home in Great Barrington, Mass., a beatific town nestled in the Berkshires on the western side of the state.
The long and the short of it is that the stroke wiped out a portion of the brain that controls Bouton's ability to speak and write. It's akin to the crashing of a computer's hard drive in which all the information is erased and the drive must be completely reprogrammed.
Kurman, who's a speech therapist among other professions, worked with her husband arduously for six months, helping Bouton regain his speaking ability.
"We just challenged him. He's so smart," Kurman said after the hour-long panel discussion concluded. "They started him out in the hospital, asking him how to throw a knuckleball and talking about baseball in an attempt to get his speech back. He's just smart and resourceful and stubborn."
Bouton also will never be out of the woods. At this point, he's at 100 percent of whatever he has left.
"He got some of it back. He didn't get all of it back," Paula said. "He got better and better and better that first year. And then I began to notice that there were things that weren't all right like his ability to contemporize, his ability to understand the concept of money. And I knew something else was going on."
That was evident during the panel discussion, which was deftly led by John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian. Bouton still has his legendary sense of humor, but his ability to track questions and respond is certainly limited.
During the course of the conversation, Kurman off-handedly mentioned that she is "a Jewish girl" who grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan.
"You're Jewish?" Bouton interjected with that trademark glint in his eye.
An audience of about 700 SABR members responded with huge applause and raucous laughter.
Bouton made his name as a hard-throwing right-handed starter for the Yankees in the final years of the dynasty that spanned from 1947-64. His rookie season was 1962, the year the Yanks won the World Series in seven games over the San Francisco Giants.
The next season, when the Yankees were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic, Bouton was 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 148 strikeouts, pitching in 40 games, making 30 starts and tossing 249 1/3 innings. It was the high point of his 10-year career.
In 1964, making 37 starts, Bouton was 18-13 and worked an unimaginable 271 1/3 innings, then 17 1/3 more in winning two starts of a seven-game World Series loss to St. Louis.
It was too much physically in too short a time. From there, arm injuries took their toll and Bouton had to reinvent himself as knuckleball-throwing reliever. He had learned the knuckler as a kid playing catch with his brother and developed the pitch early on as a Minor Leaguer. Bouton never had to rely on it until much later after the Yankees sold him to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in 1968, which led to him moving to the expansion Seattle Pilots in '69 and his fastball was done.
"I realized that if you throw the thing just right it comes in slow and then the bottom drops out of it," Bouton recalled. "So, I immediately began having a catch with my brother in the front yard. I must have thrown 100 pitches and none of them did anything, except one that left my ..."
"Fingertips," Kurman injected.
"And all of a sudden that one broke down and hit my brother in the kneecap," Bouton continued. "He was laying on the ground saying, 'What a great pitch!' So, I spent the rest of the summer trying to maim my brother."
Bouton continued to tell the story and stopped in mid-sentence.
"Lost the thread?" Kurman said. "It was toward the end of his career that he resurrected the old knuckleball. While his fastball was working, he didn't need it. Am I correct?"
"Yes, very good," Bouton said.
"Together, we make a whole person, you may notice," Kurman added, to more laughter and applause.
The entire repartee was sad as well as infinitely touching.
"Lovely," Thorn simply said.
It was also during that period when Bouton began collecting notes that would turn into what was the first sports "tell-all" book about life in the Major Leagues. "Ball Four" seems somewhat tame now, considering the media landscape, but it caused a furor that resulted in Bouton's excommunication from the Yankees and a meeting with the late Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was furious about its upcoming publication in June 1970.
"He wanted to let me know that this was a bad thing I had done and I should behave myself," Bouton said.
The book long outlasted Kuhn, whose run as Commissioner ended after the 1984 season and who died in 2007, only a year before his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, "Ball Four" was the only sports book named on the New York Public Library's Books of the Century list.
Bouton has written other books, but he has one more he'd like to finish about his childhood with his brothers Pete and Bob, the prequel to "Ball Four," so to speak. He used to write and rewrite sentences "until they gleamed," his wife said. As fate would have it, he can no longer do just that, so it will be up to Kurman to pull those tales out of him.
"He can certainly open his mouth and talk into some sort of recording device," Kurman said. "And I'm a pretty good editor."
Among so many other things.