Jim Bouton’s Forgotten Postscript

Which is worse? A baseball commissioner trying to suppress a from-the-inside book written by an active player? An opposing team burning a copy of the book?

When Jim Bouton’s Ball Four reached the magazine-excerpt stage and, then, full publication, in 1970, the former Yankee fastball standout, reduced by arm miseries to knuckleballing, marginal Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros middle reliever/spot starter, had both happen. But if you wonder whether Bouton shriveled into a shell and disappeared as a result, you don’t remember much of his post-playing life. Not to mention the book he published a year later.

Jim Bouton's forgotten postscript is forty years old this year . . .

Nothing against Ball Four, an engaging and disturbing (in a nice way) book even today. But there ought to be a fortieth anniversary salute to, and republication of, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, his chronicle of Ball Four‘s and its protagonist’s immediate aftermath. To those whose discovery of Ball Four occurred years, if not decades after the fact, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally may help amplify the context of both the former book itself and the controversy it created.

Ball Four may be tame at last, considering much that has transpired around baseball, its players, and its insiders since. But in its time, the book unnerved and outraged the actual or alleged keepers of baseball’s image and legacy. If you were there, merely discussing the book was itself as exaggerated as the reactions it provoked even among those who loved or at least tolerated it. Among those who despised the book, of course, there could be no discussion, there could only be perverse games of can you top this outrage with yours.

If you want to get the idea in edited form, you could do worse than accept Bouton’s invitation, opening I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally‘s dedication, to revisit one of the signature exercises in Ball Four opprobrium: I feel sorry for Jim Bouton. He is a social leper. He didn’t catch it, he developed it. His collaborator on the book, Leonard Shecter, is a social leper. People like this, embittered people, sit dow in their time of deepest rejection and write. They write, oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and it makes them feel much better.

That came from a column by once-legendary sportswriter Dick Young, in the New York Daily News. Young was accused often enough in his own heyday of writing oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and thus making himself feel much better. But those remarks may have exposed his never really having read Ball Four above and beyond extracts or excerpts. It wasn’t impossible that the real contention for Young, once an iconoclastic reporter himself, was that Bouton had done from the inside what Young might have believed was a “legitimate” sportswriter’s job.

Bouton bumped into Young the day after that column appeared, in the Shea Stadium visitors’ clubhouse, while the Astros prepared for a game against the New York Mets. “Hi, Jim,” Young hailed Bouton, apparently cheerfully. “Hi, Dick,” Bouton replied. “I didn’t know you were talking to social lepers these days.” The usually pugnacious Young, Bouton observed, managed a “tight little smile” through his “drawn, nervous look,” and replied, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t take it personally.”

Bouton believed (and wrote) then, and probably still believes today, that Young and other sportswriters’ overreaction to Ball Four helped make it a best-seller in the first place. He may not have been wrong, then or now. (Is I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally the only book ever written primarily about the reception afforded its author’s previous and first book?)

During one rough outing against the Cincinnati Reds, Bouton heard such catcalls as, “Shakespeare, you no-good rat fink. Put that in your bleeping book.” At the time, he didn’t attribute that specific remark to a specific player. But in Ball Four’s ten-year anniversary edition (Ball Four Plus Ball Five, 1980), he credited Pete Rose with hollering, “Bleep you Shakespeare!” (We’ve learned long since about Pete Rose’s veracity, not to mention the cleanliness of his baseball life.)

The uproar among critics in the sporting press seemed to get half the credit for making Ball Four a best-seller. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn probably got the other half. He actually and foolishly tried to suppress Ball Four. That earned its own chapter in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. Kuhn tried to strong-arm Bouton into signing a formal statement saying he hadn’t said or written any of the book, that it was all the doing of his editor, Leonard Shecter. (Shecter’s name had been a contentious one ever since he was one of the original Chipmunks, sportswriters who fleshed out heroes with heavies in cheerfully irreverent tone, while seeking the men behind the games.)

Never mind that Kuhn had only read the Look excerpts. After a little wrangling with Marvin Miller, the players association’s executive director, Kuhn went on television merely to say everyone’s entitled to make a mistake, without daring to suggest his real problem may have been Bouton refusing to admit that Ball Four was one such mistake. But even Kuhn merely tried to marginalise Ball Four. Not even Bouton’s staunchest allies, and he had more than many might remember, accused Kuhn of trying to burn it.

The San Diego Padres thought of that. Before the Astros and the Padres squared off for a game, the Astros were surprised to see a burned copy of Ball Four, left in a special binder, at the edge of their dugout. Dick Young called Jim Bouton a social leper for writing Ball Four, but nobody called the Padres brownshirts or accused them of sneaking Joseph Goebbels into the manager’s seat. And Kuhn, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never saw fit (assuming he actually knew of the incident) to investigate it.

Ball Four‘s greatest controversy, ahead of even the sexual escapades it actually or allegedly exposed, proved to be Bouton’s comments about Mickey Mantle, his Yankee teammate. Bouton summed it up neatly in the followup:

What I said about Mantle was that I enjoyed his boyish charm, his country sense of humour, the warmth he exhibited to his teammates. I also said I didn’t like it when I saw him brush aside young autograph-seekers and be nasty to newspapermen. And I suggested that he might have had an even more spectacular career if he slept more and loosened up with the boys at the bar less. You’d think I had desecrated the flag, knocked motherhood, and attacked Spiro T. Agnew with an unabridged dictionary.

. . . I didn’t set out to destroy heroes. Anyway, it all depends on what your idea of a hero is. Why can’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time and cries into his glass that he will soon be dead, like his father and his uncle? Why do our heroes have to be so perfect and unflawed? In other parts of the world heroes can be drinkers or even wenchers and this only adds to their heroism.

Bouton was vindicated sadly enough when Mantle, undergoing alcohol rehab at long enough last before battling liver cancer, spoke publicly and poignantly about his failures and the fears that fueled them. (This is a role model: Don’t be like me.) It made Mantle a hero all over again, for the most part, the golden god of America’s youth now confessing his clay feet. For having written of Mantle’s flaws and foibles contemporarily, in an era when sportswriting still hadn’t escaped hagiography entirely and perceptions included only superstars being “entitled,” mind you, to write such from-the-inside tales (Bouton, in Ball Four Plus Ball Five: “If Mickey Mantle had written Ball Four, nobody would have blinked”), Bouton became a social leper.

Best-seller though it was, the years since have convinced me that nobody reading I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally remembered the near-final word Bouton had about Mantle:

In many ways, he’s had a difficult time of it. He was a moody guy and I suppose he was in pain a lot. I guess he was scared a lot, too, about people taking him and being dishonest with him. He had a lot of financial disasters and seemed to have a knack for trusting the wrong people (and mistrusting people he would have been better off trusting). But I’m not sure it’s necessary to make excuses for him. On reflection, I suppose what I’ll probably remember most about him is his sense of humour—even about [Ball Four]. The only thing he ever said when asked what he thought of Jim Bouton’s epic was, “Jim who?”

Not quite. In due course, by way of a message left on Bouton’s answering machine, the dying Mantle—answering a condolence Bouton left after the death of one of Mantle’s sons—said he never got the Yankees to keep Bouton from Old-Timer’s Days, or threatened not to attend them himself if Bouton was attending, something Bouton had suspected for a long enough time.

Touchingly, too, Bouton admitted how moved he was to get a positive review from Roger Angell, baseball’s Homer, in The New Yorker. “You have to read his too-infrequent pieces on baseball to realise the depth of his love for the game of baseball,” Bouton wrote in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. “Angell knows the game, understands it, recognises the nuances, even likes the people in it, most of them anyway. And there I was, the Great Destroyer of the game. If I really was, Angell would have hated me.”

“What he has given us . . . is a rare view of a highly complex public profession seen from the innermost side,” Angell had written, “along with an ironic and courageous mind. And, very likely, the funniest book of the year.”

By the time I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally was published, Bouton’s pitching career had ended on an Astros’ farm team. After a few years with WABC, where his iconoclasm was either loved or hated, Bouton tried a brief baseball comeback, climaxing with a surprising September 1978 callup to the Atlanta Braves, where he made a surprising start or three. (In one, the junkballing Bouton dueled impressively with the human torch named J.R. Richard.) He then retired to a life of earnings from his co-invention of Big League Chew, motivational speaking, a little semipro pitching, occasional writing (three subsequent epilogues to Ball Four; a novel, with Eliot Asinof; a chronicle of his participation in a bid to save a vintage, wooden-grandstand ballpark in New England), a little championship ballroom dancing (with his second wife as his partner), and the creation and oversight (Mrs. Bouton was its commissioner at one point) of the Vintage Base Ball Federation, a league playing by 19th century rules.

In the wake of his daughter Laurie’s death in a grisly road accident, and a surprise Father’s Day missive on the matter from his oldest son in The New York Times, Bouton’s relationship to the Yankees was restored. Both Bouton and Yogi Berra (boycotting the team since his arbitrary managerial firing by George Steinbrenner) were reconciled (Michael Bouton had called for Berra’s in hand with his father’s) to the club for Old-Timer’s Day 1998; both have since made Old-Timer’s Days a semi-habit. Bouton today is a comfortable if much-bruised 72.

It took me decades to read I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. A few years ago, I found my copy, in paperback, in a used book store in southern California.( To my surprise, when I took it home and opened it, the inside front cover bore Bouton’s autograph.)  I hope he doesn’t take it personally.

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