Jim Bouton, one of baseball’s most influential bad boys, is the subject of Mitchell Nathanson’s admiring biography, “Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original.” Although he was a superb pitcher in his first three major league seasons, Bouton’s fame rests on “Ball Four,” his very funny, bean-spilling account of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, and previous tenure with the Yankees.
Bouton, who died last summer, was born in New Jersey in 1939, the son of a businessman and his wife. According to Nathanson, he learned to throw a knuckleball from a Wheaties box, which “would alter the course of his life.” At first Bouton mixed the baffling pitch with a fastball and curve, then dropped it, relying on blistering speed. Signed by the Yankees in 1959, he played in the minors until 1962 when he was brought up midseason to play in the bigs, gaining the moniker “Bulldog.” By the end of the 1964 season, however, he had thrown out his arm. Back came the knuckler and the struggle to survive.
In 1969 the Yankees sold him to the expansion Seattle Pilots for $20,000 or, in Bouton’s words, “a bag of batting practice balls.” At the suggestion of sportswriter Leonard Shecter he took notes on what he saw and remembered that season, sending the scraps of paper back to Shecter, who assembled them. “Ball Four” came out in 1970, a bad year for team owners, for it also saw Curt Flood’s $1 million antitrust lawsuit against Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Thanks to Bouton’s book and Flood’s action, baseball no longer seemed to be the wholesome, uplifting pastime of yore, but the preserve of virtual slavery and unedifying hijinks.
“Ball Four” titillated fans and outraged owners, management and team-loyal sportswriters, to say nothing of the players themselves. The book showed them sleeping around, spewing obscenities, pounding Bud, popping “greenies,” and making a sport of looking up women’s skirts. Here, too, in unlovely contrast to Bouton’s and his ragtag teammates’ poignant efforts to stay in the game, were the owners, greedy, arrogant and double-crossing. Thanks to the outcry from the older generation of sportswriters and from Commissioner Kuhn, the book became a bestseller and is still one of America’s greatest sports books.
Nathanson follows Bouton through his attempted comeback with Atlanta, his many campaigns and business ventures, including his support for liberal causes, his investment in Big League Chew, and his attempt to save an old ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass. Some schemes panned out; more didn’t. Nathanson is gentle with Bouton and does not dwell on the man’s own peccadillos. This is a book for Bouton’s fans — of which I am one.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original
By: Mitchell Nathanson.
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 448 pages, $34.95.