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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 [1] 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 [2], 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 [3], 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.