From gripping a knuckleball to brain disease gripping Jim Bouton

The dance is only too different now for Jim Bouton and his wife, Paula Kurman.

The dance is only too different now for Jim Bouton and his wife, Paula Kurman, now that Bouton battles cerebral amyloid angiopathy.

Freshly-deceased Anthony Young, hapless Mets pitcher, showed grace under the harrowing pressure of a record-breaking losing streak and in refusing to let the inoperable brain tumour that killed him last week knock him down. Now another New York baseball legend shows his own grace under the pressure of insidious brain disease. 

And, unlike some of the reaction he got when he published the book that changed his and baseball’s life irrevocably, there won’t be many wisecracks about former Yankee, Pilots, Astros, and Braves pitcher Jim Bouton’s brain making for a good dog’s breakfast.

Bouton planned to spend this weekend going public, at the Society for American Baseball Research’s New York convention, with his diagnosis of cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a condition linked to dementia. The likely trigger was a stroke he suffered in August 2012—on the anniversary of his daughter Laurie’s death at 31 in a New Jersey traffic accident.

His body wasn’t much affected by the stroke, but his mind—impacted already by a smaller previous stroke treated with blood thinners his doctor called “catastrophic” since it led to a frontal lobe hemorrhage that “essentially wiped out” Bouton’s language abilities, according to the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner.

“He had to relearn how to read, write, speak and understand,” Kepner continues.

Bouton’s fortune includes his wife of 35 years, Paula Kurman, Ph.D., who “had worked with brain-damaged children many years before, and recognized troubling signs in her husband: repeating questions, difficulty organizing and categorizing information. A visit to (neurologist Dr. Alec) Kloman confirmed that Bouton was suffering from more than the aftereffects of a stroke. He had mild cognitive impairment.”

“The blessing is there’s no physical pain,” Kurman told Kepner. “The awful blow is the very thing which enabled him to write Ball Four is mangled — something he prides himself on, and he’s not going to get back to that level again.”

There were those who thought Bouton himself was mangled for having written Ball Four in the first place. He picked up where the late Jim Brosnan (The Long Season, Pennant Race) left off, going deeper in revealing baseball’s clubhouse and administrative culture than even the candid enough Brosnan ever did, not to mention first exposes into previously unseen sides to Mickey Mantle and the last old-guard dynastic Yankees.

Ball Four—about Bouton’s 1969 with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astroswas both an expose and a self examination that 1970 baseball wasn’t quite ready to behold.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn actively and clumsily tried to suppress the book—based on nothing more than an excerpt he’d read in Life. Unknown members of the San Diego Padres left charred copies of the book on the dugout steps of the Houston Astros, with whom Bouton played when the book was published. Pete Rose screamed at Bouton across the field, “Fuck you, Shakespeare.”

And Dick Young, then still with the New York Daily News and still one of the country’s more powerful sportswriters, called Bouton 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 down in their time of deepest rejection and write. They write, oh hell, everybody stinks, everybody but me, and it makes them feel much better.

The day after that column appeared, Bouton bumped into Young in the Shea Stadium visitors’ clubhouse, where the Astros were preparing to play the Mets. “Hi, Jim,” Young hailed him, cheerfully enough. “Hi, Dick,” Bouton replied. “I didn’t know you were talking to social lepers these days.” Young smiled nervously before replying, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t take it personally.”

That exchange gave Bouton the perfect title for his second book, which was written mostly about the hoopla Ball Four provoked and partially about Bouton’s adjustment out of baseball and, at first, into local broadcasting as a sports reporter for WABC and WCBS television in New York. Meanwhile, Players Association chief Marvin Miller asked, and Bouton consented, that Ball Four be used as evidence in the Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally case that ushered in the free agency era.

Bouton also made a brief, memorable comeback to pitching with the Atlanta Braves, in 1978, including a start during which he fought J.R. Richard to a draw—”the young flamethrower and the old junkballer,” Bouton called it in Ball Four Plus Ball Five, added to the book on the original’s tenth anniversary—on the night Richard smashed the National League single-season strikeout record for righthanders.

“Some of the players I didn’t really like that much, but I was listening to them, and they became interesting,” Bouton told Kepner, during a visit at Bouton’s Massachussetts home, explaining his original note-taking for what became Ball Four. “I had no idea. They were funny, interesting characters.”

A lot of them didn’t think he was. Bouton’s roommate, pitcher Gary Bell, who remains a friend (“Every year, I get a Christmas card addressed to ‘Ass Eyes’,” Bouton once wrote of Bell), found himself “having to convince people that [he's] not fucking Adolf Hitler.” His second roommate, outfielder Steve Hovley, remains a friend.

Bouton, the first and most famous Seattle Pilot . . .

Bouton, the first and most famous Seattle Pilot . . .

But fellow pitcher Fred Talbot remained suspicious of Bouton, once a Yankee teammate as well. ”Well, I’m still living,” said Talbot in 1980, when Bouton called as part of assembling his Ball Five postscript. Lamented Bouton, “He hung up. I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I was glad.” (Talbot died of cancer in 2013; Bouton once wrote he believed Talbot had said of Ball Four that his prose “could gag a maggot.”) And Steve Barber never forgave Bouton for scoring him over his refusal to go to the minors to rehabilitate his always-bothersome arm. (Barber died of pneumonia ten years ago.)

“I think he came, over the years, to love them,” Kurman wife told Kepner. (Kurman and Bouton met as Bouton’s first marriage collapsed, when Bouton was mounting his comeback in the Braves’ organisation. “The Magic Lady,” he called her in Ball Four Plus Ball Five.) “As each one died, he got really teary about it. He realized how deeply they were part of him.”

Including and especially Mickey Mantle, who left Bouton a message that he hadn’t tried to have him blackballed from Yankee old-timer’s events, after Bouton left Mantle a message of condolence when one of his sons died. Bouton keeps that message and a framed photograph of himself, Mantle, and the late Yogi Berra in his home.

(After his daughter’s death, Bouton picked up a Times to read his oldest son’s Father’s Day plea for him and for Berra to be reconciled to the Yankees, which happened. Bouton’s two sons and Kurman’s son and daughter live away from Massachussetts; Bouton and Kurman have six grandchildren.)

Bouton’s physical limitations may be very few; once a competitive ballroom dancer with his wife, he can still throw a knuckleball, the pitch he taught himself to stay in the majors after his arm trouble robbed his fastball, and likes to do that a couple of times a week. It’s the cognitive robbery that affects him now. His wife learned from working with brain-damaged children that the key is to think about what’s still there, not what’s gone.

She never thought she’d have to think that way with her own husband, who admits frustration that he has to explain, sometimes, something he’s just written or said. ”You need to learn,” she told Kepner, “that the person is still that person, and you have to focus more on what he can do, rather than what he can’t do. And then you adjust.”

For one of baseball’s classic wits—who was once a terrific pitcher until his arm began to betray him in 1965—it certainly could be worse. A journalistic and lexicographic wit from an earlier generation, H.L. Mencken, suffered a stroke in 1948, not long after covering the Democratic National Convention.

The Sage of Baltimore lived the final eight years of his life unable to read or write at all, content to listen to classical music, long bereft of the company of his wife who died young, thirteen years before his stroke. Bouton may have to explain his writing or speaking now, but he’s luckier. His wife isn’t going anywhere. Neither, apparently, is his spirit.

One thought on “From gripping a knuckleball to brain disease gripping Jim Bouton

  1. Jim took me in in spring training in 1966 and believed I had a shot at making the Yankees that year. He was right and helped me immensely! If anyone can come back from something, Jim can.

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