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 numerous “best ever” sports 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.