Thursday, March 08, 2007

Happy Birthday, Bouton

I was 12 when I first read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. It was all Bouton, giving the proverbial middle finger to the baseball establishment. Tame by today’s preponderance of “kiss and tell” treatises, in 1970, it stood the baseball world on its head.

At the time, sports books were like Wonder Bread—bland and G-rated without much texture and filled with preservatives, simulating reality, but more in keeping with the dictates of ad men, rather than farmers. Then, along comes Bouton, the former 21 game winner in 1963, the year after I was born, naming names, pulling back the curtain and making no excuses for revealing what the world of athletics was really like.

Bouton dared to breach the subject of players cheating on their wives, abusing amphetamines (“greenies”) and even had the audacity to show Mickey Mantle, the epitome of white manhood in 1950s America, as a hard-drinking player, who abused his body and yet, warts and all, still comes across as larger than life.

[From Wikipedia] Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn called Ball Four "detrimental to baseball," and tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was completely fictional. Bouton, however, refused to deny any of Ball Four's revelations. Many of Bouton's teammates never forgave him for publicly airing what he had learned in private about their flaws and foibles. The book made Bouton unpopular with many players, coaches and officials on other teams as well, as they felt he had betrayed the long-standing rule: "What you see here, what you say here, what you do here, let it stay here." Pete Rose took to yelling "F--- you, Shakespeare!" from the dugout whenever Bouton was pitching. Many traditional sportswriters also denounced Bouton, with Dick Young leading the way, calling Bouton and Shecter (Leonard Shecter, Bouton’s co-author and the sportswriter who convinced him to begin keeping a season-long diary and subsequently publishing it) "social lepers."

Bouton’s book helped me to realize that it was ok to be a “jock” and also read books and have opinions about things other than sports. Like Howard Zinn, who I wrote about last week, Bouton was a seminal figure in helping shape and form the person I am today.

During the period when I was struggling with whether to independently publish When Towns Had Teams, I ran across Foul Ball, Bouton’s own independently published book, about his adventures to save historic Waconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and the politics behind many local building projects and the shady figures and money movements that are part and parcel of much that passes for economic development across the country.

Bouton and partners offered the city of Pittsfield a restored ballpark, done entirely by private contributions and no cost to the taxpayers of the city. Yet, amazingly, it was opposed by a group of local power brokers who instead, sought to build their own 18.5 million stadium, a deal that had been voted down three times before! So much for the will of the people.

In the process, we learn about the mayor on the take and the local paper also in on the fix, all told in Bouton’s inimitable style.

While I will continue my saga of big-box malfeasance, with my next post probably appearing over the weekend, I wanted to take this occasion of Bouton’s birthday to highlight one of my sports heroes, still going strong at 68. As we head into another summer of baseball, now might be a good time to refamiliarize yourself with this sports classic.


Listmaker said...

i found foul ball to be pretty damn fascinating as well.

Jim said...

Bouton isn't your "typical" jock. As a player, he was always interested in more than just throwing a baseball by hitters (or later, when he lost his fastball, baffling them with a trick pitch, the knuckleball).

I liked "Foul Ball" on several levels--obviously, I was interested in Bouton, who had success with major publishers--going the independent route, with DIY publishing. Also, the economic development "mafia" angle in Pittsfield, which pervades communities across the country. I also found Bouton's honesty in sharing his obvious personal pain in recounting the death of his daughter, Laurie, really hit close to home with me, as a father.

It was a great read and helped me gain an even greater appreciation for him as a writer, activist and human being (who btw, is probably one hell of a fun guy to have a few beers with).