One more grip of Jim Bouton

Wasn’t it true, Don Vito Corleone wondered while commiserating with a fellow Mafia chief in The Godfather (the novel, not the film), that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward? It proved to be for the late pitcher/writer Jim Bouton, whose sometimes deceptive but nearly-incurable optimism was finally smashed when his youngest child was killed in August 1997.

Driving home in New Jersey, Laurie Bouton stopped short to stay out of an accident in front of her, but a driver behind her didn’t do likewise, smashing into her car. The 31-year-old an uncle described as “Jim all over again” for her free spirit died hours later. It destroyed Bouton’s generally sunny view of life—until it reconciled him to the New York Yankees.

In fact, as biographer Mitchell Nathanson also notes in Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Bouton struggled for months to follow until Laurie’s oldest brother, Michael, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the Yankees to do what had never yet been done and invite his father back for an Old Timers Day. (Father once revealed his son’s essay moved him to tears.)

What nobody including Bouton knew was that his decades-long blackballing from the Yankees—for whom he once starred as a pitcher, before his too-hard throwing style ruined his arm and shoulder, reducing him to the margins and back to a knuckleball he abandoned earlier in his career—had absolutely nothing to do with Bouton’s own longtime prime suspect.

Mickey Mantle was hardly thrilled at Bouton’s Ball Four revelations about him, but six years before Laurie’s death the death of one of Mantle’s sons provoked a sympathy letter from Bouton. That prompted Mantle to call his old teammate to say yes, he was ok with Ball Four at last and, no, he wasn’t the reason for Bouton’s Old Timers Day freeze-outs.

The freeze-outs turned out to be courtesy of former Newark Star-Ledger writer Jim Ogle, whom Bouton zinged in Ball Four for treating players “purely on how much they were helping the Yankees to win. Charm, personality, intelligence—nothing counted. Only winning. Ogle didn’t have even the pretense of objectivity . . . in fact, Ogle’s ambition was to work for the Yankees. But they would never give him a job.”

Until they did. The Yankees hired Ogle to direct their club alumni association in 1975, his duties including, as Nathanson writes, “keeping the Yankees in the good graces of their most iconic alumni and organizing Old Timers Days. In his mind both responsibilities could be best discharged by blackballing Jim Bouton.”

Nathanson’s book unfurls Bouton’s story with both affection and the kind of candor Bouton himself would have appreciated. (And in fact insisted upon, when he and his wife agreed to let Nathanson have access to everything from family doings and undoings to the still-preserved Ball Four notes and tapes that ended up sold to the Library of Congress during Bouton’s final illness.)

It’s the story of an intelligent and sensitive young man who didn’t become a pitcher because he looked to turn sacred cows into steak or to write the book that secured his name and sent baseball and about half the world of sports journalism to the rye bottle, either.

Nathanson’s Bouton is a pitcher who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience to heed, with no malice aforethought but flying in the face of an establishment unwilling to concede the great and glorious game (A. Bartlett Giamatti’s phrase) was only too human. He couldn’t deny the caprices he saw in front of him, whether front office people engaging one-sided, lopsided, deceitful contract talks with players to players themselves proving unheroic often enough while letting the fans in the stands or with their morning after newspapers worship them as gods.

The fun-loving Bouton loved the game but hated its business and duplicities. The longer his pitching career went despite the arm issues, the less Bouton could turn the blind eye. Unlike most players even then, Bouton talked freely when interviewed and didn’t try to hide the sides of him that were unlike the typical jock of his time. Some respected him for it, others rejected him for it.

When his established sportswriting friend Leonard Shecter suggested he keep a kind of running diary on his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, Bouton revealed he’d already begun taking notes. Anyone could do it regarding the old imperial Yankees; who else would have thought about doing it among an expansion team of fellow outcasts just trying to keep their jobs and their sanity?

Many Bouton teammates weren’t sympathetic to his final product. The embarrassments of some kept them from seeing that Bouton humanised them and thus elevated them. He was as observant of their field or mound struggles as their off-field shenanigans, sorrows, and oft-ignored or mistreated injuries. He told the world these were human men when it seemed often enough that baseball ignored or denied their humanness.

Bouton had already stepped beyond the bounds of baseball’s proprieties before starting his Ball Four season. He’d supported publicly a threatened American boycott of the 1968 summer Olympics if South Africa’s then whites-only teams were allowed to compete. He spoke against the Vietnam War whenever asked.

Bouton’s original notes, tapes, and the pages shaped by his editor/friend Leonard Shecter for Ball Four now repose in the Library of Congress.

But with Ball Four he was considered either a revelator by those who loved the book or a traitor by those including then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who tried to suppress it. (Or, in the case of the San Diego Padres, leaving a burned copy of it on the Astros’ dugout steps.) It was enough to seed a followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the controversy, his final pitching days before his first retirement, and his early days as a New York sports reporter.

That book wasn’t quite the hit Ball Four was, of course, but it offered a few more insights into what Bouton thought and felt about becoming an unexpected literary star. Not to mention his further thoughts on the real reason the old guard sportswriters resented him: he’d told the stories they thought they should have told but, for assorted and not always edifying reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Some saw themselves as keepers of the proverbial baseball flame. Others saw themselves as club adjuncts. Jim Brosnan, whose from-the-inside books Nathanson called “tell-some” books, had annoyed them enough. This was too much of enough already.

But Ball Four proved in due course as significant as any other evidence, when it was introduced at the arbitration hearings through which pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what outfielder Curt Flood’s brave but failed prior lawsuit (begun the same year in which Ball Four first appeared) started, ending the reserve era and its suppressions of player pay and rights. Well after its literary stature was affirmed.

The book inspired a rash of further tell-alls from baseball’s insides, from players and collaborators who lacked Bouton’s wit and Shecter’s sensibilities. They hardly understood  that Ball Four‘s success lay as much in Bouton’s ability to show baseball’s humanness as in the, shall we say, steamy revelations on which those subsequent books leaned most heavily. (“More outrageous than Ball Four” was a tellingly typical cover blurb.)

Nathanson goes into fine detail Bouton’s years as a sports reporter, his head-buttings with those who thought sports reporting equaled promoting their teams instead of, you know, real reporting. He also goes deeper into the truest conflict inside Bouton’s psyche and life—the guy who achieved beyond his own expectations but couldn’t resist a challenge because he had something to prove past the challenge itself.

His love of baseball the game prompted him toward a comeback bid in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a spell with the minor league legend Portland Mavericks. He eventually made it back with the Atlanta Braves for a September 1978 spell—he once went mano-a-mano with Houston’s ill-fated howitzer J.R. Richard, pitching him to a draw—then walked away feeling for the first time that he didn’t have to prove a thing anymore.

His first baseball retirement led to the crumpling of his first marriage; Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, had simply grown apart, though Bouton wasn’t immune to the occasional extracurricular activity, with the emphasis on occasional. (They divorced in 1981.) He didn’t really move to do something about it, though, until he met an attractive academic named Paula Kurman unexpectedly at a fundraiser to which both were invited.

Jim Bouton and second wife Paula Kurman, at a Ball Four retrospective.

It was Kurman (a speech therapist with Ph.d in interpersonal communications) who showed Bouton most of all what even his own family couldn’t, that he no longer had to take up quixotic challenges to prove himself to himself. The deception in his optimism until then was that it masked a man who had a difficult if not sometimes impossible time believing in his own worthiness. They married in 1982.

Bouton promoted Big League Chew (his Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson came up with the idea but Bouton sold and promoted it to buyer Wrigley), became a motivational speaker, helped to renovate an old but somewhat storied minor league ballpark, joined his wife learning and becoming a competitive ballroom dancer, continued writing, and eventually also became a stonemason who’d build walls and other supplementing fixtures for their home in the Berkshires.

In other words, this unfairly reputed miserable smasher of icons for its own sake was as normal, life-affirming, and human a man as his critics didn’t or couldn’t see. (Well, not everyone gets dance lessons from stage and film legend Marge Champion.) That 1978 Old Timers Day appearance simply began Bouton’s return from the ranks of the living dead into which his daughter’s senseless death plunged him.

“Looking up in the stands, at all of the family and friends who were there . . . ,” Nathanson writes (they included a contingent of friends bannering themselves “Laurie’s Girls!”), “[Bouton] understood that life could and would go on. It was what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it most.”

The only thing that could and did knock Bouton out permanently enough was the 2012 stroke he suffered on the fifteenth anniversary of Laurie Bouton’s death. It exposed a condition of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and presented him the first and only challenge he couldn’t take on as successfully as he had others. It didn’t rob his intelligence, but his intelligence made him too aware of what he’d lose.

The most famous single line in Ball Four is the one that closed it: “You see, you spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.” On the day of Bouton’s death in 2019, his ability to speak gone, “in the netherworld between life and death,” his wife put a baseball into his right hand.

In his final act of life on earth, Bouton did with that ball what Nathanson’s biography will do to you once you open the covers and start reading. He gripped it tight.