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Alan Goldsher is Collectable’s Head of Content.
Visit him at http://www.AlanGoldsher.com or on Twitter @alangoldsher.

The Point After Talks Ball Four with Jim Bouton’s Biographer

I’ve read Ball Four an absurd number of times. And I’m far from the only one.

For the uninitiated (and the non-obsessive), Ball Four is Jim Bouton’s oftentimes hilarious, oftentimes heartbreaking, and always brutally honest diary of the 1969 MLB season, a season that found the 30-year-old pitcher attempting to fight through a bum elbow, the utter inability to connect with his teammates, and the frustration of playing with an expansion team that was truly, truly bad at baseball.

Arguably the first sports book that really brought readers inside the locker room, Bouton’s memoir has purportedly sold upwards of five-million copies, and can be found on numerousbest eversports books lists, mine included.

As noted, I’ve plowed through Ball Four a whole bunch—I usually bust it out each year during spring training—as has Mitchell Nathanson, author of Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). The crazily-well-researched, eminently readable bio has received plaudits galore, among them a starred review in Library Journal, which raved, “Baseball fans will laugh alongside and, ultimately, feel touched by this look at an iconoclastic, often quixotic man who, despite the charges that his landmark book had hurt the game, loved baseball to the very end.

Yeah, that sounds about right to me.

A veteran professor of law at Villanova University who has somehow found the time to write three stellar baseball books, Nathanson discussed with me his book, his writing process, the intrinsic oddness of Major League Baseball, and, of course, the knuckleballer/author who they called Bulldog.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

When did you discover Ball Four?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

During the 1981 players strike. I was 15, which is I think when you want to get to Ball Four because it’s got enough sex, and dirty language, and people not acting the way they’re supposed to. If you’re 15, that’s the book you want. 

When the players strike hit, I thought, “Well, I’ll get my [baseball] fix,” but then I learned a lot [from the book] about why the players were on strike, which was interesting because Ball Four had been written 11 years prior. You can see why they went on strike, and you read all the stuff that he was talking about in Ball Four. There was such a connection. It helped me understand what was going on.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

What were the parallels between the ’81 strike and the labor issues in Ball Four?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

The book is all a lot of fun about the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, and all the hijinks. Bouton also spends a lot of time talking about players being mistreated by management, being lied to by management, being strong-armed by management. There’s a lot about how the ownership and the front office didn’t care about the players other than trying to wring out whatever they could wring out from them and then discarding them as soon as their value was gone.

He also talks about managers being in the pockets of the owners because they’re trying to keep their jobs. They want to be good guys and seen as good guys by the front office, so nobody was really looking out for the players. I think that was the point that Bouton was making: These guys were on their own, and they formed a fraternal bond because they were the only ones looking out for themselves.

In 1981, free agency was the big issue, and owners wanted to get rid of that, and so it’s, again, a lot of the owners and management trying to control the players. When you connect Ball Four to what was going on in ’81, you could see why when the owners tried to clamp down a little bit on free agency—which the players had won in ’75—the players would bite back.

After putting up with all they put up with that you read about in Ball Four, they were sure as hell not going backwards. And as much fun as Ball Four is to read, you really get a sense of just how miserable it was, in some ways, to be a Major League Baseball player. Everybody thinks you live this privileged life, but most of these guys weren’t making a lot of money. They weren’t being treated well. They were washed up in their early thirties, and they really didn’t have much to fall back on.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Bouton was earning just $30,000 with the Pilots in 1969.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

Yeah, they weren’t making a lot of money. People knew that Mickey Mantle made a hundred grand, and ownership would make a big deal about talking about how much Mickey Mantle is making and how much this star is making, and most fans assume, “Well, if Mickey Mantle is making a hundred, then the guy who is maybe half as good as Mickey Mantle is making fifty.” They didn’t realize the guy who’s half as good as Mickey Mantle is making $11,000.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

When he played with the New York Yankees [between 1962-68], Bouton almost always discussed his salary with the press, and the Yankees brass pushed back, but he still wouldn’t keep quiet.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

No matter where you work, you hear the same thing. It’s not even like you get told, Don’t talk about your salary, but you internalize it as an employee. You internalize it, and then if you think about it, you say, Well, who is this helping? It’s not helping me. It’s only helping the people who are paying me less than I’m worth.

But there’s just this taboo about talking about your salary, and it’s purely against your benefit, against your interest, to not talk about it. The players like Bouton who talked about it—and there weren’t many of them other than Bouton—they heard from the front office. When he started talking about it, other players who really had never even thought about why they don’t talk about their salary started to question, Why am I [not talking about it]?

One of those players was Sandy Koufax, who was the preeminent pitcher of probably the last 75 years. He was being underpaid by the Los Angeles Dodgers and was told not to say anything about his salary. After Bouton held out in the early ’60s and talked about it, Koufax went public and said, Well, I don’t understand why I don’t talk about it. The following year, that’s when Koufax held out with [teammate] Don Drysdale and ended up getting more money for the both of them, but that never would have happened if Bouton wasn’t talking about his salary before them.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

I never realized just how tight Bouton was with the younger generation of New York sportswriters, like Stan Isaacs, Larry Merchant, and Bouton’s collaborator/editor on Ball Four, Lenny Shecter. Most of the players had disdain for writers who wanted to go below the surface, but Bouton embraced them. Why?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

Bouton was just a naturally curious person, and it’s interesting that he ended up as a Major League Baseball player because he’s put in a room with a lot of people who are not curious about anything other than getting a hit, getting drunk, or meeting women. For a lot of ballplayers, that’s it, and there aren’t a lot of curiosity seekers.

These reporters had interesting perspectives. They were paid to provide their perspective, and Bouton was naturally drawn to them because I think he found he had more in common with them. One thing I found when I was doing the book was that he had a reputation among ballplayers as being an intellectual. He was not an intellectual. He never graduated from college. He had a year and some courses at Western Michigan, then he took some courses at Fairleigh Dickinson a few years later—real estate and some creative writing courses—but he was not an intellectual. But any player who had any interest in anything outside of baseball, beer, and broads—as the term was back then—would be considered Tolstoy.

He developed a good relationship with the writers, and of course, they loved him because they were looking to write about personalities. That group of writers came to be known as The Chipmunks.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

How did that come to pass?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

It’s not quite clear who came up with that, although the most popular story is that [old school sportswriter] Jimmy Cannon noticed that these younger guys would all kind of congregate together in the locker room and talk to each other. And one day he said, “Look at you guys chattering together like a bunch of chipmunks.” There’s no way to confirm this, but the story that I was told was that they were congregated around Jim Bouton’s locker when Cannon made the comment.

This was 1962, Bouton’s rookie year when he went 7-7. He wasn’t a standout pitcher, but in ’63 and ’64, he was very good.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

For a couple of years, Bouton was a beast. Before he blew out his arm, he had an excellent fastball.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

Yeah, but he wasn’t like Don Drysdale where no one could touch him. He’d have a bunch of walks, but he wouldn’t let in a lot of runs. He always competed.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

If you watch him on tape, you can’t be surprised that his arm went so quickly, because his mechanics were terrible.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

His mechanics were not something that should be replicated by anyone, and it’s interesting to think about what would happen to a guy like Jim Bouton today. I doubt he’d even sniff the minor leagues because his mechanics were so bad that I think somebody would try to fix it, and if they tried to fix it, he wouldn’t have been as effective.

I was fortunate enough to talk to his high school coach, who’s since died, but we talked about his mechanics. Everybody else would tell him to fix Bouton’s delivery, but this guy said, “No, he’s effective. I’m going to leave him alone. And as long as he’s getting guys out, why would I change it up?”

Today, there’s no way that a guy like that would be allowed to pitch beyond high school with those mechanics. But he did throw very hard. For a really short period of time, he was able to throw hard, but I think it led to him throwing this arm out. The other side of that is that if he threw differently, he wouldn’t throw as hard, and he wouldn’t have ever been signed in the first place.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

He had arm troubles even when he was pitching well.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

Yeah, so by the time he gets halfway through ’64, his arm hurts, and I know that the Bouton lore was that he actually hurt his arm opening day ’65. But I found a whole bunch of articles in the paper about him talking about how his arm hurt him. And even in ’64, if you go back, there are articles that talk about how he’s winning, but he’s not throwing as hard.

After the 1964 World Series, Lou Brock made a comment which nobody made much of at the time, but now half a century later, you look at it, and you see, Well, here’s the problem. Brock said, “We were getting ready for the Yankees. We were told that Bouton was a fireballer, and we were prepared for a guy like Drysdale. And what did we get? We got a guy who was a soft-toss, and he beat us. He was effective, but he didn’t throw hard at all.” He had arm problems almost right out of the chute.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

In your book, why did you choose not to discuss much about Bouton’s season with the Pilots and the Astros?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

When I started this project, I was thinking, How am I going to do this? It’s a difficult project conceptually, given that you’re writing about a subject who’s a writer, and you’re trying to figure out, How do I tell my story or tell the story of Jim Bouton without repeating what Jim Bouton wrote?

I decided to tell the story around Ball Four, because one thing you don’t want is to compete with Ball Four. First, you can’t, and second, it’s just not that interesting. What’s interesting is something different. If people want Ball Four, there’s Ball Four, and Ball Four is great. 

Since my book came out, I’m often asked, “Did you talk to this player? Did you talk to this player? Are there any stories in Ball Four that you added that weren’t in [Bouton’s book]?” And my response is, “I talked to some players, but my goal was not to make my book, ‘Here’s what ended up on the [Ball Four] cutting room floor. My book is going to be different.’” I did talk to some players, but my interest was really around the ’69 and ’70 seasons.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

How much input do you believe Lenny Shecter had into Bouton’s book?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

That’s a question a lot of people ask: “Who wrote what? Did Bouton write this? Did Shecter write that?” In my opinion, I think it’s Bouton’s book. It’s his experience. He’s the one who spoke into the tapes. Did Lenny Shecter mold that stuff? Absolutely.

If you go and look at the [early] drafts, which I did, you can see Shecter’s comments in the margins, circling this and crossing out that and saying, “Hey, how about more of this?” or, “That’s not that good. Cut that out.” It’s a collaboration, sort of like Jagger and Richards or Lennon and McCartney. One of them would bring the song in, but then the other would take the song and mold and shape it, add in this, subtract that. In the end, you get “Yesterday” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” We’ve all heard the Beatles, and we’ve all heard John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s solo albums. They don’t sound the same.

The Beatles only sound like the Beatles when they’re the Beatles, and it’s the same with this. Bouton and Shecter sound like Ball Four, but when you take one of them out, you’re going to get something that’s different. That doesn’t mean Shecter wrote the book, though. What it means is there was a guiding hand doing what a good editor does, which is to have a good eye and ear for what’s working and what’s not working.

So it’s impossible to say who did what because it’s just such a stew. Everything is together, and people can do forensic handwriting analysis if they want to say who wrote this, who wrote that, but at the end of the day, it’s Bouton’s book as edited by Shecter, which is what it says on the cover.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

The original draft of Ball Four was something like 300,000 words and they cut it down to approximately 150,000. Do you feel like there is room for an extended director’s cut, if you will, or is what we have enough?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

I think what we have is enough. You could go to the Library of Congress and see the onion skin first draft. There’re a few copies of that. One went to Shecter, and one went to Bouton. And then there are multiple subsequent drafts, and you can see them all.

In that first draft—the one in which Bouton just talked into the tape—you see Shecter’s handwriting in the margins. A lot of [what’s in there] shows up in Ball Four, but also, there’s a lot of Bouton sort of just talking to Shecter, asking, “I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think about this? Do you think I should do this?” or “What do you think about that?”

You can tell he knows he’s not writing something that’s just going to be transcribed and thrown out in the world. He’s speaking through ideas and asking questions, so to read that, I don’t know what you get out of it. There are other stories that are in there of players and events that might be interesting today, but I don’t know.

There is a lot of game stuff in the first version, along the lines of, When we played this team, this is what happened. Bouton and Shecter would send the book out to other people to get their take on it. [Bouton’s former teammate] Mike Marshall got one version, but also, Bouton’s father got a version. Bouton’s father sends back a long letter with handwritten notes, and the one big piece of advice he gave Jim was, “Take out the game stuff. The game stuff isn’t interesting. The stuff in the locker room, that’s the stuff you want.” A big assist has to go to Jim’s father. That was relatively late in the process.

Ultimately, I think the version that we have is the version that we want. I don’t think that more is better.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Access to the subject and/or their family can make or break a biography. Was it difficult getting Team Bouton on board?

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

I wrote an earlier book on Dick Allen, and I didn’t have his cooperation. I thought about whether I was going to do that book or not, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that it was still worthwhile to do the book because the story with Allen is more about how people reacted to Allen, and so yeah, it would have been nice to talk to Allen, but there actually is a lot of Allen out there in different types of press that people don’t really know about. Bouton’s different because I think the thing that’s interesting about Bouton is what’s in his head. 

I contacted Bouton a few times, and he said no because as he said to me once, “Well, I’m sure you’re a good guy and all, but I’m a writer, so what do I need you for?” It’s hard to argue with that. He’s certainly a much more successful writer than I am, so that went on for a while, and then he got sick. Eventually, his wife responded to me and said, “Why don’t you come up to the Berkshires and let’s talk about it?” That went well. 

They didn’t have any control over the final edits, but I did get their cooperation, and that opened up a lot of their friends and associates and people they worked with who probably would not have spoken to me. I do know for a fact that a lot of people that I spoke to, after I contacted them asking to speak to them, their first phone call was to the Boutons to ask if it was okay to talk to me.

MITCHELL NATHANSON:

Why have you read the book so many times?

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Because it gives me a feeling of just how much I love baseball. I find Bouton’s voice comforting, so to me, that’s really what Ball Four is about—that voice. I usually pick it up in February when it’s really crappy out, and I just want spring training to get here. It’s like a warm blanket that you’re putting on in the dark days of the winter, and it gets you through to spring training, and then you’ve got baseball again.