"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
In 1963 and 64, Jim Bouton was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Then he hurt his arm. He continued to pitch without much success for several years as the old Yankee dynasty crumbled around him. In 1968, he was discarded by the Yanks, and spent the rest of the year in the minors teaching himself how to throw the knuckleball. In 1969, he was signed by the Seattle Pilots, one of four expansion teams added by the majors that year. The diary Bouton kept that year became Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues, arguably the finest book about baseball ever written. When I started rereading it, I wondered if it would still be as good as I remembered some twenty odd years after I last read it. Actually, it's better. I found that I appreciate it more now given everything that's happened in baseball since it came out.
The book is best remembered for being scandalous. It was the first sports book to talk about what ballplayers and the locker room were really like. Stories such as the one about Mickey Mantle and some of the other Yankees going up on the roof of a hotel with a telescope to look through windows for naked women didn't go over very well with the baseball powers that be. The Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, tried to get Bouton to say he made it all up. Dick Young, a powerful sportswriter now best remembered for being the man who ran Tom Seaver out of New York, called Bouton a social leper. The Yankees took him off the invite list for Old Timers Day. It was all very silly. The book is actually quite tame by today's standards, but at the time no one had seen anything like it.
The thing is, Ball Four is so much more than that.
- It's a memoir of the one and only season of the Seattle Pilots, a team run by a clueless organization in a city that wasn't yet ready for it. The Pilots were the first major league team in the modern era to go bankrupt. Following the season, the remains were sold to Bud Selig, becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. (Which is a whole 'nother story in itself. The Brewers are even in a different league these days. The whole class of '69 is an interesting subject. All four teams were very successful in the early eighties, but except for the Padres, all have fallen on hard times since. The Expos became the only other team to go bankrupt.)
- It's a look at the problems of being a member of an expansion team, the major league equivalent of a pick up team. The players come from every organization in the league, and few have ever played together before. The other teams aren't going to put any top quality into the draft pool, so most of the players are mediocre at best. This results in constant roster moves. Players are sent to and from the minors, or are released, or if they're really lucky, traded to a contender. Of course, those last tend to be both the best players and the team leaders. There is no shared team history, and the chance that team chemistry will develop is slim.
In addition, the instability of the roster plays havok with the players' personal lives, beyond that of being on the road half the season. Early in the season, Bouton is sent down to the minors, after having put down a deposit on the house he and his wife rented in Seattle. Now they had to find a place to live in Vancouver, involving another deposit, and other expenses, most of which aren't reimbursed by the club. Every assignment to the minors and every trade affects the whole family, just as a transfer in a more normal line of work would. At least Vancouver was close. The Seattle's other AAA affiliate was the Toledo Mudhens.
- It's a look at the psychology of being a player and a pitcher, especially being a marginal pitcher. Bouton is learning a new pitch, and it's inconsistent. The season is an emotional roller coaster good outings and bad outings. Too many bad outings mean the minors, or worse. After one game in which the Pilots got bombed, he says:
"When I came in, it was 4-0. When I left, it was 7-0. To be honest, I wasn't crying when the other guys got clobbered. You stand out less in a crowd."
He's not getting a lot of help in the clubhouse. The coaches are indifferent, and the players regard him with suspicion, even before they notice all the note taking he's doing. This is the late sixties, and colleges are only just starting to become a significant source of players. Players who went to college are still regarded as eggheads. If they read books, they're weirdos. It works both ways. Bouton admits early in the book that he's prejudiced toward Don Mincher because Mincher's a good ol' boy. Later he had to admit he was wrong. The coaching staff especially doesn't want to deal with brainy types. Lou Piniella is traded to Kansas City during spring training because the manager doesn't think he'll fit in. Pinella winds up as Rookie of the Year, and goes on to become a pretty good ball player. (And manager. I wonder how he deals with players like him.)
The pitching coach wants him to throw more fast balls. Bouton wants to go strictly with knuckleballs. The problem is that Bouton can't get a fastball by anybody anymore, and even then his arm will hurt like hell. The knuckleball is easy on the arm, and unhittable when it's going right. Sports medicine hadn't advanced much yet, and the team is only interested in results. Players who admit to injuries find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, so they try desperately to hide them.
Then the atmosphere changes late in the season when Bouton is traded to the Houston Astros. The differences between the two organizations are enormous. The manager knows what he's doing, despite the players' grumbling, the coaching staff is helpful, and the players are more receptive towards weirdos. The Astros are in the pennant race, and the roller coaster gets more pronounced as each game becomes more important as the season nears the end.
- It's a look at the business of baseball as it existed in 1969. Given the way things are today, this is probably the most eye popping thing in the book. The reserve clause is still in effect, meaning the player is absolutely tied to the team that holds his contract. Players can be traded at will, and have no recourse. The major league minimum salary is $10,000, Bouton is making $22,000, and every negotiation is an adventure. This was right at the time the players' union was beginning to flex its muscles, and the owners are getting nervous.
- It's a look at the times themselves. In 1969, both Vietnam and the anti-war movement were at full intensity, as was the civil rights movement. Bouton talks quite a bit about the latter. It's twenty-two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and while there are now plenty of black stars in baseball, there are still very few black journeyman players. Different teams have different attitudes. On the Pilots, blacks and whites josh each other in the clubhouse, but go their own ways off the field. On the Astros, white and black players hang out together, and some even room together. This gets some of them hate mail.
- It's a look at what it was like to be a member of one of the greatest teams ever in its waning years.
It's not that Bouton set out to do all that. Ball Four is just his diary. He may not have thought it at the time, but by being stuck out in the bullpen gave him the advantage of just being able to spend most of his time just observing what was going on around him, and he is both a perceptive and insightful observer. It's like reading someone's LiveJournal. He's a bit of a smartass, but he's very funny, and the book is an easy read. It's a great book. (The New York Public Library agrees.)
It's also still sort of an ongoing project. The book came out in 1970, and every ten years or so, a new edition comes out with a new chapter attached to bring people up to date on what's been going on in his life. The updates are worth it, especially the last.