By Ken Reed
Jim Bouton died last week at 80. The plethora of Bouton obituaries and tributes since have focused on his pitching career, including winning a couple World Series games with the New York Yankees, and the blockbuster book Ball Four* he wrote in diary style about his 1969 season. But Jim Bouton was also an influential sports reformer and social activist.
Bouton was indeed a star pitcher for the New York Yankees. He won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963 and 18 in 1964. He won two more games in 1964 in the World Series against St. Louis. An arm injury in 1965 stole his outstanding fastball and his career began to decline. By the late 1960’s, he was relying on a knuckleball to survive.
It was in 1969 that Bouton decided to start keeping notes for a diary-style book which became Ball Four, one of the most famous sports books of all time. Bouton’s book caused a huge uproar in the baseball world because the book chronicled some behind-the-scenes activities in baseball that had never been reported up to that point. After the book’s publication, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to sign a statement saying the book was untrue.
Bouton’s intent was to highlight some of the funny aspects of the game he loved for fans. While he certainly accomplished that, the biggest impact Ball Four had on the game itself was the role it played in the 1975 Andy Messersmith arbitration case, which in effect ended the onerous reserve clause system that owners had employed for decades and gave players free agency.
Ball Four also changed how reporters covered professional baseball, and the owners, executives, coaches and players in the game. Prior to Ball Four, reporters basically served as public relations agents for the teams they covered. Stories were almost always spun from a perspective team owners would approve of and players were positioned as Frank Merriwell-like All-Americans. Beat writers ignored any player indiscretions or activities – even those that clearly had a negative impact on a player’s performance on the field. Ball Four changed all that. Sports journalism became more open, honest, and ethical. Bouton may have the unique status of being the only person to help spur significant reform in both sports and sports journalism.
The New York Public Library selected Ball Four as one of its “Books of the Century,” the only sports book so selected. David Halberstam called it a “book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.”
Bouton was an activist in other ways. He was part of a group of sports figures that traveled to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest the inclusion of apartheid South Africa. He also was an opinionated delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic Convention.
Later in his life, Bouton exposed small-town government and media corruption with his book Foul Ball, which chronicled his efforts to try and save a historic small town ballpark. The San Francisco Chronicle said Foul Ball was “not just a funny book, but a patriotic one.” He’s also the author of Strike Zone, a novel, and I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, a follow-up to Ball Four.
I had a chance to interview Bouton a couple years ago. Here’s that interview:
Reed: When did you first fall in love with sports?
Bouton: I’m not sure when I first was introduced to sports, or first fell in love with sports. But if you look in the picture section of Ball Four there’s a picture of me as a very young boy in a sailor suit and I’m holding a ball in my hand and it actually looks like I’m holding the ball with a knuckleball grip. I told my wife “Look, that might’ve been my first knuckleball!”
My dad was very much into sports. I’m sure he gave me my first introduction to sports at some point.
Reed: Well, I guess for better or worse, despite everything else you’ve done in your life, you’ll be most remembered as the author of Ball Four. It was picked by the New York Public Library as one of the “Books of the Century,” the only sports book on the list. In your mind, what’s the meaning of Ball Four in terms of its impact on sports and society?
Bouton: I don’t think about that very much. At the beginning, a lot of people were unhappy with the book because it was a different way of looking at sports. As time went on, more people started to really like Ball Four. Ultimately, I kind of think it’s up to other people to judge the impact of the book.
Reed: Talk a little about the impact Ball Four had on the economics of the game, in particular, the role the book played in ending the reserve clause. Did that surprise you?
Bouton: Regarding labor-management relations, it never occurred to me when I was writing Ball Four that some day my book would have an impact on the economics of the game. That was one of the wonderful by-products of writing it. An accidental benefit from writing the book was revealing the ugly economics of the game at the time. I realized in looking back on it, almost every player had a story about how some general manager, or some owner, took advantage of them during salary negotiations. Every player in Ball Four has a wonderful story about being cheated by a general manager.
Marvin Miller (head of the players union) wanted me to go to the Andy Messersmith arbitration hearing in 1975, which ultimately led to free agency in baseball, and read a few excerpts from Ball Four. I read one story from the book about a player being cheated by a general manager, and one of the lawyers for the owners stood up and said “We don’t need to go through all this. We’ll accept the book as it is.” So, Ball Four went unchallenged in the hearing testimony.
What were they going to do, try to rewrite history? The stories in the book were so believable to everybody; you couldn’t make that stuff up.
Reed: How do you think Ball Four changed sports journalism?
Bouton: Well, I think it was for the better. It helped sports journalism become more honest. I didn’t start out with any preconceived notions in terms of what I wanted to accomplish with Ball Four, I just wanted to write about what was actually happening. It wasn’t until the book came out that some observers started talking about how the book was changing sports writing. That’s when I started thinking, “Wow, what have I done here?” That wasn’t one of my objectives but it was a positive by-product.
Reed: In 1969, when you were writing Ball Four, there were a lot of important things going on in our country that were impacting every industry, including baseball. It was a time of social unrest.
Bouton: Oh, it was an incredible time. You had Vietnam, peace marches, the civil rights battles. There was a pushback against authority and the status quo. Once again, when I was writing Ball Four I didn’t realize what an important time it was in our country’s history.
The book remains kind of a snapshot of American society in the sixties.
Writing Ball Four, keeping notes about that time and that season, was the best thing I ever did in my life. It was just a strike of good fortune. It was a lot of hard work and I had to be diligent with my note-taking. There were several times when I said, “Ah, the hell with it. This is a waste of time.” But I stuck with it and I’m sure glad I did.
Reed: You once said nobody has a better deal than baseball owners. Do you still feel that way?
Bouton: Well, certainly today’s situation is not like it was in 1969. Today, thanks to the union, it’s more of an arms-length situation when it comes to negotiations. Players have a lot more clout today and a lot more experience and understanding of the negotiation process. There was no real negotiation process back then. It was basically take it or leave it.
The adversarial relationship between players and owners is definitely more fair today. But the owners certainly still have a nice situation relative to other business owners in the country, due to baseball’s monopoly status, antitrust exemption, and other advantages.
Reed: You were part of a group of American sports figures who went to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to protest the involvement of apartheid South Africa. What was that experience like?
Bouton: I got asked, in the spirit of sportsmanship, to be part of a delegation to Mexico City whose purpose was to protest apartheid South Africa’s participation in the Olympics. They were sending an all-white team to the Olympics from a country that was 80% black. It was clearly unfair. As it turns out, I was one of a few American sports figures that agreed to participate in the event and challenge South Africa’s involvement.
My role was to present my views as a current American professional athlete. I wanted South Africa banned from the Olympics unless they fielded a team representative of their country. It didn’t happen in 1968 but it eventually happened.
Reed: One of my favorite sports quotes of all-time is the last sentence of Ball Four: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” How did that line come to you?
Bouton: It came out of a conversation I had with Leonard Shecter, who was my editor for Ball Four, when we were wrapping up the book. The basic premise of that sentence was that you think you’re doing something for a given reason on one hand but on the other hand what you’re doing ends up having a completely different meaning.
I think it can apply to a lot of things in life. You start out doing something with one objective in mind and along the way another objective or calling comes your way that you feel passionate about.
Basically, in the beginning, you head out on a path for one reason but you end up staying on the path for a completely different reason.
* * *
If you haven’t read Ball Four, or would like to read it again, make sure you get the last edition, Ball Four: The Final Pitch. It includes updates from Bouton on his life and those of his teammates, managers and coaches through the years since the book’s publication in 1970. The book becomes a great human interest read with all the “ups and downs” updates on the book’s characters. I highly recommend it.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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