Jim Bouton pitched in over 300 games in the Majors. He spent seven years (’62-’68) with the New York Yankees. In 1963 he won 21 games. Then he bumped around with several teams during the 1969 season when he wrote Ball Four. Bouton’s enduring mark on baseball will forever be this book. Jim Bouton died last week at the age of 80.
Imagine if you can Major League Baseball in the 1960s. Players were underpaid. Team owners were a 20th century throwback to slave masters. Players openly womanized with baseball groupies in every city. Alcoholism was rampant in and out of the clubhouse. There was no such thing as drug testing of players. Local sportswriters were in on the wall of silence. And there was no such thing social media.
Then in 1970, Ball Four was released and the baseball world went ballistic. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to have the book banned. He called Bouton to his office and demanded he repudiated the entire book. Kuhn actually expected Bouton to say this book was fiction. Bouton was effectively blackballed. Players wouldn’t talk to him anymore. He got death threats.
Today, tell-all books like Ball Four are everywhere. No one thinks players are athletic gods or that owners are benign overlords. But in 1970, Bouton’s revelations were earth-shaking. The shock waves went way beyond the baseball world or even sports in general.
Ball Four became a national best-seller with high praise from the literary community. It was “a book deep in the American vein,” journalist and historian David Halberstam wrote of the book in Harper’s Magazine. “So deep in fact it is by no means a sports book.”
If you’ve watched Mad Men you know Don Draper struggled with a changing society. But in 1970, the entire country was involved in that turmoil. The sexual revolution, women’s lib, civil rights, and Vietnam were shaking American. In the baseball locker rooms similar unrest was building but no one talked about it, until Jim Bouton did.
Some will say the 1970 version is outdated, but in rereading it recently I found it still does what it did back then. Twenty something young men playing out the string of a losing season while partying their time off the field at record levels. Bouton spent that season with the truly awful Seattle Pilots before being traded late in the season to the contending Houston Astros. The locker rooms couldn’t have been more different, except for the alcohol, groupies and lousy working conditions.
What angered Commissioner Kuhn and the plutocratic owners was the stark revelations of the cheapness of the owners and lack of concern for players safety or comfort. Baseball historians give Bouton credit for opening up the conversation which led to both free agency and a more player friendly collective bargaining agreement.
‘Ball Four’ Today
Bouton penned two sequels Ball Four plus Five (1981) and the more recent Ball Four: The Final Pitch (2014). If you’re tempted to read Ball Four, select the 2014 version, which Bouton has updated with his perspective 40+ years after the book’s original release. He knew there would be push back to the original book but no one had any idea just how far Major League Baseball would go to suppress the truth of the 1960’s baseball monopoly.
In the end, Ball Four is pretty tame compared to the books that followed. But it remains a breakout moment in the literature of the sport. And more significantly an insider look at the turmoil that was “the 60s” in America.