Jim Bouton: “His book torched everything the game’s standard bearers held sacred.”

From a lithub.com story by Mitchell Nathanson headlined “Is Ball Four the Greatest Baseball Memoir Ever Written?”:

Fifty years ago this month Jim Bouton set the baseball world on fire.  His kindling was Ball Four, a book that torched everything the game’s standard bearers held sacred. There had been sports diaries before, which, structurally-speaking, was what Ball Four was, but there had never been a sports diary like this one—one that was also a de facto political statement. You were either for it or against it,” Bouton’s roommate with the 1969 Houston Astros Norm Miller told me. There was no middle ground.

In an era of social change, when seemingly everybody was questioning everything, Ball Four brought at last the ethos of the times into the staid world of baseball. . . .

Prodded by his editor, former New York Post columnist Len Shecter, Bouton dug deeper into the psyche of baseball than anyone had previously attempted. He analyzed everything—his thoughts, assumptions, values, as well as those of his teammates and management. Bouton and Shecter realized they were catching the game at a crossroads and were alert to the confluence.

Baseball and the 1960s were colliding, they noticed. Things were changing. The players, who were by nature conservative, were at last growing their hair out—just a little—and starting to push back against the paternalistic rules dictated by management. Keep an eye on that, Shecter suggested. Bouton did. And then some.

Bouton’s eye didn’t miss much. While his teammates laughed and talked and traded tales of personal and baseball woe, Bouton took it all down, writing this or that on whatever he had available so that he’d remember it that night when he would record the day’s events into his tape recorder. In all he accumulated 978 separate sheets of notes—on hotel stationery, envelopes, toilet paper, whatever he could find.

The 978 sheets became the bones of what would become Ball Four. They were crammed with anything and everything Bouton saw, heard, thought, or felt. Some of them contained writing tips to himself: “When writing a critical piece, start gradually with the weakest stuff and build a case—then come with the big stuff at the end.”. . .

Still others were attempts to figure himself out along with his place on the club: “I don’t want to be just average or appear to be so. I want to be hip and be considered intelligent and aware—creative, funny, fun to be around.” But most of them were his attempts to catch baseball lightning in a bottle—the banter between teammates, the odd logic of old-school baseball wisdom, the wise-ass remarks, the unintentional humor, the deep cruelties. His goal was to capture as much of this as he could, and he used nearly every inch of available scrap paper to do so.

By midseason he knew he had something that was going to rock the baseball world. “I know some people are not going to like what I have to say,” he confided to a friend during the season. . . . By March 1970 talk of the book had already begun to swirl, even though it was not scheduled to be released for months. Sportswriter George Vecsey wrote that “it could very well be the most provocative ever written by an athlete.”. . .

Bouton’s goal was to paint a portrait of baseball as it existed circa 1969. He wanted, he said shortly after the book’s release, to create a record that could be referred to for generations. “I want it to be the book that’s recommended 25 years from now when someone asks, ‘What was baseball like way back then?’” So he took care to paint the clubs he documented—the 1969 Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros—in Technicolor, like the mythical world of Oz.

“Dorothy has the family members,” he later said, “and they’re interesting, but she needs to get away, and when she finds this other world, she comes back and has a whole new appreciation of where she was in the beginning because she’s come to see them in Technicolor.” After reading Ball Four, baseball fans experienced a similar sensation.

Ball Four was a personal work that invited the public in. At times both profane and confessional, Bouton’s work lays bare his vulnerabilities as well as his love for a game that nevertheless frustrated him on a regular basis. Both his cynicism and charming innocence are sometimes displayed all at once, recalling a Holden Caulfield–like character who is both attracted to and repelled by the adult world simultaneously. . . .

Because of all this Ball Four managed to sear itself into the souls of the millions who read it, unlike any of its predecessors. Previous sports diaries such as Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (1960) and Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay (1968) were fine books and are still good reads, but they didn’t enter the consciousness of the nation like Ball Four did.

Mitchell Nathanson’s book Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original is available now.

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