“He was my North Star, and I was his”

Jim Bouton, Paula Kurman.

“It brought him back in living colour and at the same time highlighted the excrutiating loss,” writes Jim Bouton’s widow, Paula Kurman, Ph.D. ,about writing her coming memoir of their love story. This photo, from Kurman’s collection, shows the couple not long before their 1982 marriage.

The late Jim Bouton’s love for baseball didn’t extend to surrounding himself with memorabilia. His home only featured two photographs from his pitching career because his wife stumbled upon them seeking something else in their basement. One showed a group hug of Bouton and his Hall of Fame Yankee teammates Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. The other showed a crowd of Yankees shampooing Bouton with champagne.

“Jim spent no time wishing for the old glory days,” writes Bouton’s widow, Paula Kurman, Ph.D., in the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Reasearch Journal, Spring 2023 issue. “But oh, he loved the game itself.”

Not to watch on TV, or to sit in the stands. We almost never went to professional games. He wanted to play, to run in the sunshine, to throw a ball—to take his trusty old glove, suit up, and join a group of guys similarly obsessed. He wanted to work on his motion, get guys out with strategy and a dancing knuckleball. He had no interest in senior leagues, however, or what he called the “beer-belly league” of the Over 40s.

Somehow, some way, Bouton joined local teams of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, and played. Some, Kurman writes, had seen time in the Show; others still dreamed of it. Her husband was asked often what it was like for a former major league pitcher to play amateur ball. His reply, she records, was, “I wouldn’t know. I don’t think of myself as a former anything.”

All that and quite a bit more comes in an excerpt from Kurman’s forthcoming memoir, The Cool of the Evening: A Love Story, a title she borrowed from Bouton’s favourite pitching coach, Johnny Sain. The book is due in “the first quarter of 2024,” Kurman says, adding that writing it helped her through her grief while the pan-damn-ic gave her all the solitude she’d need to write.

“I loved Jim Bouton and was well and truly loved by him for more than four decades,” she writes. “It doesn’t get any better than that. I was his lover, his wife, his best friend, his playmate, his business partner, his confidante. We were each other’s editors, occasional critics, and most appreciative audiences. He was my North Star, and I was his.”

For everything Bouton wrote in Ball Four—not just the randy boys-will-be-boys hijinks and deeper revelations about the reserve era’s abuses, both of which helped make him a major league pariah—the line for which he may remain best remembered is Ball Four‘s closing: You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.

When adding a postscript for Ball Four‘s tenth-anniversary republication (Ball Four Plus Ball Five), Bouton finished by saying his life changed when he first picked up a baseball but changed even more after he put it away. We should have known he’d never really put it away. Not until he absolutely had to.

When the couple moved from New Jersey to the Berkshires, Bouton managed to rig a practise area in their unfinished basement: a makeshift mound outline, and a strike zone outlined in black electrical tape. “Jim was working on his pitching skills to be competitive for the historic Saugerties Dutchmen in the Hudson Valley,” Kurman writes, “and for a team called Mama’s Pizza in the Albany Twilight League—named for the time of day the games were played, not the age of the players.”

Bouton remained in sound enough physical shape for such doings. He’d tiptoe downstairs to his makeshift rehearsal space early in the morning and throw from that circle of the mound for twenty minutes. When the ball hit the strike zone outlined on drywall, and the resonance reached the master bedroom upstairs, Kurman could only laugh through the pillow burying her head.

“All that care to leave the room quietly,” she writes, very much in the cheerfully cheeky voice of her husband’s most famous work, “and now Mr. Thunderfootdownthestairs was pounding the hell out of the wall under the bed with his best shots, completely unaware of the sound transmission.”

(Now, I wonder: Remembering his Seattle Pilots roommate Gary Bell’s annual Christmas card salutation, did Mrs. Bouton ever address her husband as “Ass Eyes?”)

This was also a couple who became motivational speakers and semi-professional competitive ballroom dancers together. They administered a recreational baseball league playing under 19th century rules and helped preserve an old ballpark or three. “Would I have been a better wife if I had said to him, get real, you’re not a young man anymore, stop wasting your time?” she asks.

The answer was no, of course. “I loved his focused intensity,” she continues. “No one was more appealing than Jim when he was having a good time. It didn’t matter if he didn’t reach it, whatever the goal was. We both understood that all the benefits were in the journey.” When she watched him go out to the mound yet again, the elder playing for love of the game against those young enough to be his children, “I fell in love with him all over again.”

Once, they traveled to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David. Kurman said to her husband, “to the amusement of some nearby tourists,” Look, Babe, it’s you! By which she meant the pose as much as anything else. “Replace the stone with a ball,” she writes, “and the slingshot with a glove, and there it is. Perfect.”

Until it wasn’t. Kurman remembers the day Bouton discovered he could no longer play even among his amateur compatriots. A week later, he went to his basement to put “some things” away and spotted his glove and a baseball, waiting for him to play. He sat next to her, put his arms around her, and cried. After awhile, Bouton spoke.

“I only feel safe enough to cry when you’re with me,” he said. “I’m always with you, Babe,” she replied.

Jim Bouton, Paula Kurman

Kurman and Bouton, still crazy (about each other) after all those years. (SABR, also from Paula Kurman’s collection.)

Bouton contented himself with the stone walls he took to building around their Berkshires property and occasional public appearances, though he and his wife agreed mutually that they’d say nothing of his health issues other than his August 2012 stroke. For as long as they could. In 2017, they couldn’t any longer. They revealed to New York Times writer Tyler Kepner that, a year earlier, Bouton’s decline turned into a diagnosis of cerebral amyloid angiopathy, “a rare form of vascular dementia. It’s progressive and there is no cure.”

The Boutons managed to appear at a 2017 SABR convention and, thanks to the Times article, Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium in 2018, two decades after the death of Bouton’s daughter, Laurie, helped prompt the burial of any hatchet between Bouton and the Yankees. Though they enjoyed the ceremonies and the tributes, they didn’t stay for the game.

“I feel like I finally belong,” she records Bouton telling her when they arrived home. “I’m part of it, part of them—where I always wanted to be. And you were accepted, too, by the other wives, and by the players. It was different this time. They all wanted to talk to you. The players wanted to know what you thought of things . . . I was so proud to be with you.”

“He was clearly moved and gratified by the acceptance he felt that weekend,” writes Kurman, who was only too well aware that her husband tried as best he could to make light of his former baseball ostracism.

Whatever the motivation of the Yankees in their gracious hospitality and accommodation to our needs, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they were gracious. The deed itself is what counts. That it brought peace to my beloved at the end of his life is something for which I will always be grateful.

She prefaces her excerpt by revealing her husband had three requests of her in the event she out-lived him on earth: 1) Place his archives safely. (They repose in the Library of Congress.) 2) Send his 1962 World Series ring to the Hall of Fame. (That was hard. I’d worn the ring for decades. Jim didn’t wear rings, “in case a game breaks out and I’m called in to pitch.”) 3) Write a book about Bouton “based on notes he urged me to keep during the forty-two years we were together.”

“Nobody knows me the way you do,” he’d say. And, “Write that down,” he’d say when something funny or meaningful or extraordinary happened to us. “Memory fades. Contemporaneous notes are better.”

Suddenly, through the implicit sweetness of the request, I recalled Bouton recording an Astros teammate, pitcher Larry Dierker, approaching him out of the blue (My note-taking is making the natives restless, he’d said elsewhere in Ball Four) to share a thing or two, urging Bouton, “Write this down.”

Bouton met Kurman—a Ph.D. in interpersonal communications and a speech therapist by profession—at a late 1970s fundraiser as his first marriage crumpled. In Ball Four Plus Ball Five, he referred to Kurman invariably as the Magic Lady. The couple married and blended their families (Bouton had three children, Kurman two) in 1982.

His mates on the minor league Portland Mavericks—while he made his pro baseball comeback also in the late 1970s—invariably pointed out assorted elderly women saying, “There’s one for you, Jim.” Finally, Kurman attended a game. “That,” Bouton wrote, “was the day my teammates stopped kidding me about blue-haired old ladies.”

If this excerpt is any indication, you’ll want to read the whole of The Cool of the Evening and believe that maybe Bouton was only half right. Maybe Kurman and Bouton were really a Magic Couple.


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