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My Thoughts about Jim Bouton's Ball Four

Flash back to Tampa, summer of 1970. I’m waiting to get a crewcut (the interpretation of that particular style represented a myriad of outcomes) at Arky’s, the barbershop on Kennedy Boulevard. The place had good magazines. Not Heroes of the Bible—like the doctor’s office—or outdated copies of Readers Digest. We’re talking Sports Illustrated, Time, Life, and Playboy, upon request, for the older gentlemen.

The June 2, 1970 issue of LOOK ran an excerpt of Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s expose about life in the major leagues. Among the juicy details were stories about amphetamines—a.k.a. “greenies”—peeping toms, and sex. I certainly didn’t mind waiting to get my haircut that day.

Later that summer, I bought Ball Four. I didn’t understand everything I read, though. Like Mike Hegan’s answer to the question, “What’s the toughest thing about being a major leaguer?” Said Hegan, “Explaining to your wife why she needs a penicillin shot for your kidney infection.”

Or…

Just after the team plane landed and the players were preparing to reunite with their wives, Jim Pagliaroni blurted out. “Okay, all you guys, act horny.”

Fred Talbot’s horrible outing personified the classic’s subtle humor. Rather than argue when the manager went to the mound to give Talbot the hook, the right-hander asked, “What kept you?”

Now, Mitchell Nathanson has delivered Bouton, The Life of a Baseball Original, a project that clearly involved painstaking research and countless interviews. The end result is a well-written, consummate Bouton biography.

Critical to Ball Four’s success was Leonard Shector, the New York Post writer whom Bouton collaborated with him to write the book. Most believe the book would not have been nearly as good without Shector’s involvement. Nathanson goes into great detail about their relationship.

Bouton became a pariah in Ball Four’s aftermath. Alex Johnson of NBC News wrote that Bouton had “destroyed the myth of baseball as a wholesome pursuit of God-fearing, milk-drinking young men.” Players could talk to the media about the game, but outside-the-lines information was limited to milkshakes and lollypops. Pete Rose famously yelled at Bouton from the opposing dugout, “Fuck you, Shakespeare.”

In addition to the Ball Four insights, Nathanson’s book delivers interesting tidbits and anecdotes about Bouton’s life. Talk about irony, Bouton wasn’t much of a reader while growing up, but when he did read, he loved Chip Hilton books, which held a Pollyanna view of sports.

Bouton continued to try and pitch well after exiting the major leagues. That led to a stint on the Portland Mavericks, an independent team in the Northwest League. Bing Russell, a blue-collar actor, owned the team. He also happened to be Kurt Russell’s father. The Mavericks were a collection of rogues and misfits—the perfect landing spot for Bouton, who preferred to have the club’s left-handed catcher, “Swannie”, be his batterymate. A documentary about the Mavericks (“Battered Bastards of Baseball” is currently available on NetFlix) included Bouton’s tenure on the team.

Bouton’s entrepreneurial side dated back childhood. Though many of his ideas crashed and burned, he made millions being a part of Big League Chew, the bubble gum packaged in a pouch like chewing tobacco.

Bouton gave Nathanson his blessing to write the book with the caveat that Nathanson not sugar-coat the story. He didn’t.

Clearly, Bouton could be sensitive. Dishing out critiques and anecdotes about others came easily, but when the tables were turned, he had thin skin. One thing is certain, Bouton was intelligent, funny, and managed to see the world from a different angle.

Nathanson’s book is definitely worth reading, even if you’re not a baseball fan.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bobby Ross. The former college and pro football coach led Georgia Tech to a share of the national championship in 1990 and later led the San Diego Chargers

©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography