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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Grip of ‘Ball Four’

“The New York Post has asked me to cover the World Series for them if the Mets get into it. They said they couldn’t pay me for the articles, but might, just might, be able to pay some, only some of my expenses — like, maybe hotel, but not travel. That’s very similar to the arrangements that Tom Sawyer had with his friends on painting the fence. The more they painted, the more it cost them. I guess they figured I’d enjoy it because I’d get to watch some baseball games for free.

“I said no, thanks.”
—October 2

For nearly fifty years we’ve spent a good piece of our lives gripping copies of Ball Four and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.

Actually, we didn’t need to get to the end of a knuckleballing reliever’s diary of his 1969 campaign to come to that realization. Readers securely in the grip of the charms of Ball Four and its protagonist, Jim Bouton, may constitute the least secret society in baseball. Everybody who’s read it is quick to quote from it with a chuckle. Nobody doesn’t acknowledge they get it, because they have also read it, confirming their familiarity with a knowing nod, a louder laugh and, inevitably, another quote.

That Bouton broke ground is indisputable. Through his eyes, baseball was all of a sudden a modern pursuit brought to us in living color. Real people. Real lives. Real thoughts expressed real well. Home games in the Astrodome in the final chapter notwithstanding, Bouton treads no artificial turf in these pages. When the greatest author to ever toe a rubber passed away Wednesday at the age of 80, we mourned the writer/pitcher of course but we also welcomed the opportunity to celebrate his lastingest legacy all over again.

Ball Four was and is honest, unsparing and, most of all, hilarious. Its blend of unvarnished confessional and martini-dry asides created a rarity for its time: a sporting tale whose emotional complexity exceeded that of the cartoon on the back of your average 1960s baseball card. How long and sharp was the stick up the rear end of Bowie Kuhn that the eternally overmatched Commissioner framed as a scandal the publication of a book that allowed fans to understand baseball intimately and have fun while doing so? Bouton not only brought us inside a big league clubhouse but pointed out the idiosyncrasies of every character in the room so we, too, considered them our teammates. He made the Seattle Pilots immortal — and they died after one season.

Ball Four wasn’t exactly a 162-game joyride. We learned what a tough business baseball is for its prime practitioners. The dollar sums that players had to fight over would become chump change in the decade that followed the book’s 1970 release, but the basic parameters of labor scrapping with management for every inch of respect haven’t changed, not in sports, not anywhere. Bouton — with guidance yet not ghosting from Leonard Shecter — portrayed a kid’s game that takes a toll on a man as he gets older, and wears on the man’s family as well. You don’t always love who you’re thrown in with for six months, but you find a way to get along, get by and, when they’re done with you, get traded to Houston.

And yes, pound that old Budweiser. You can only go so long in writing about Ball Four without quoting from Ball Four.

5 comments to The Grip of ‘Ball Four’

  • eric1973

    During a team meeting with manager Joe Schultz:
    “Then somebody farted and everybody laughed.”

    I recall when Munson wanted to beat the hell out of him, on camera, when he tried to interview him on WCBS-TV news in the 70s.

    And when he came back in 1978, it was incredible to me, like he was some old relic from the Babe Ruth era.

    R.I.P, ass-eyes.

  • Ed

    Yes sad to lose Jim and thank you for celebrating his legacy. In Ball Four we got to be a fly on the wall of a baseball clubhouse. Rip Bulldog!

  • Dave

    Jim Bouton was a whip smart, funny, mutli-faceted man, but just as one-hit wonders have to settle for the fact that they had one hit more than most artists, he’ll be remembered forever for Ball Four. But not a bad single thing to be remembered for. That a guy who was a 20-game winner at about the age of 24 will be remembered for a ground-breaking book is itself quite a feat.

    Before and concurrently with Ball Four, and most since, sports books have been rah-rah 2nd grade-level reading that existed for no reason other than to perpetuate the myth of the hero athlete. Yes, Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay came first, but that paved the way for Ball Four kind of in the way, I don’t know, Gerry and the Pacemakers paved the way for the Beatles. The pavees far overtook the pavers. Even Joe Namath’s I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow Because I Get Better Looking Every Day was silly and lame, and hell, Namath was the first rockstar athlete.

    Ball Four fits more in the cultural context of those who made their name giving the middle finger to society and poking it in the eye. It fits more alongside Lenny Bruce and Hunter S Thompson and George Carlin and The Sex Pistols than it does other sports literature, most of which boils down to (cue George Carlin dorky white guy voice) “hey, gonna fight real hard and win the big game tonight.” I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call Ball Four one of the most important pieces of non-academic non-fiction of our (well, some of our) lifetime, in any subject or genre. And hell, it cost Bouton the rest of a career, as he got flat out black-balled for opening a door that was supposed to stay shut and locked.

    And let’s just say that at the time of publication, there was at least one 6th grade boy who, by reading that book, learned a lot of things he had not been previously exposed to. I am an admitted craft beer/Belgian ale snob, but yeah, pound some Budweiser for (Jersey boy, I had to get that in there) Jim Bouton. RIP.

  • CharlieH

    Miss him already.

    And apropos of something or other, his 2nd nearest comp. — according to Baseball-Reference.com, anyway — is none other than Pat Zachry.

    I can get that.

    Let’s really try & zitz this guy…

  • TomM

    Boy, this one hit hard.
    As a child of the 50s and 60s, I lose childhood heroes with an all too frequent regularity these days.
    The fact that Bouton opened up clubhouse doors to his readers made him seem more generous of more friendly than other ball players.
    So maybe we knew him a bit more than most players.
    God, what a book.
    I have a dog eared copy that I have read numerous times.
    It’s required winter reading to make it to spring.
    I’m like a more literate Rogers Hornsby in that regard.
    If you can’t laugh out loud within two pages, you’re holding the book upside down.
    RIP and smoke ’em inside Jim.

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