If you love Jim Bouton's Ball Four...
Flash back to Tampa, summer of 1970. I’m waiting 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 Not Heroes of the Bible—like the doctor’s office—or outdated copies of Readers Digest. Recent Sports Illustrated, Time, and Life issues were available. 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 didn’t mind waiting to get my haircut that day, even though the looming crew cut weighed heavy. Crew cuts weren't popular during the hirsute era.
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.”
When the team plane landed and Jim Pagliaroni blurted out, "Okay, all you guys, act horny.”
Fred Talbot’s horrible outing personified Ball Four's subtle humor. When the right-hander got the hook, he didn't get upset at the manager. Instead, he asked, “What kept you?”
Mitchell Nathanson has now delivered Bouton, The Life of a Baseball Original. Painstaking research and countless interviews are evident throughout the book. The end result is a well-written, consummate Bouton biography.
Nathanson details Bouton's relationship with Leonard Shector. Bouton collaborated to write the book with the New York Post writer. Most believe Ball Four would not have been as well written without Shector’s involvement.
Bouton became a pariah in Ball Four’s aftermath. Pete Rose yelled at him from the opposing dugout, “Fuck you, Shakespeare.”
Nathanson’s effort is far more than a Ball Four recap. Interesting tidbits and anecdotes about Bouton’s life are prevalent throughout the book. Like the fact Bouton wasn’t much of a reader while growing up. When he did read, he loved Chip Hilton books, which held a Pollyanna view of sports. Talk about ironic.
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. They were a loveable collection of rogues and misfits. What better landing spot for Bouton? He preferred to have the club’s left-handed catcher, “Swannie”, be his battery mate. “Battered Bastards of Baseball” recounts the Mavericks story, complete with Bouton's tenure. Two thumbs up for this documentary, currently available on NetFlix.
Bouton’s entrepreneurial side dated back childhood. The inclination to pursue business ventures and inventions never left him. Many of those pursuits crashed and burned. One that didn't was Big League Chew, the bubble gum packaged in a pouch like chewing tobacco. He made millions.
Nathanson received Bouton's blessing to write the book, with one request. Don't sugar-coat the story. Nathanson did not.
Feelings were not spared when Bouton shared anecdotes. And he freely criticized others as well. Yet he often showed thin skin when criticized. Said sensitivities don't diminish the Bouton's intelligence, humor, and, above all else, rebellious nature. He saw the world from a different angle.
Nathanson’s book is definitely worth reading, even if you’re not a baseball fan.