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Former pitcher, author of 'Ball Four' Jim Bouton dead at 80

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One of the most influential authors in the history of sports writing has died.

Jim Bouton, author of the seminal baseball book “Ball Four,” passed away last week at the age of 80. He was a tireless evangelist for the game that he loved … even during the decades in which his book meant that the game didn’t love him back.

“Ball Four” hit bookstores in 1970, a book that explored the world of major league baseball from the inside in a manner utterly unlike anything the public had ever seen. Bouton’s voice was brutally honest and hilariously funny, exposing readers to the true inner workings of the game for the first time.

What separated “Ball Four” from the sports-related books that preceded it was that honesty. Bouton pulled back the curtain of mythology that had long surrounded the game and its players. This book was not saccharine feel-good pap or legend-building. There was none of the hagiography or cronyism that marked baseball writing to that point. It showed fans the truth, warts and all.

Bouton had been a hotshot pitcher for the New York Yankees in the early 1960s, but due to arm troubles, he had found himself bouncing around, struggling on the margins of the big leagues. In the course of attempting to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher, Bouton hooked on with the American League expansion team the Seattle Pilots during their inaugural year in 1969.

“Ball Four” is a season-long running diary of that 1969 campaign, focusing on Bouton’s attempts to mount his comeback. However, it was his observations and anecdotes about other players, about managers and administrators, that really made the book into the seminal work that it became.

Bouton’s stories about his Pilots teammates, and especially his manager Joe Schultz, were bitingly funny. And the impressions he shared about his former Yankee teammates – including legendary figures such as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford – were equally entertaining.

What these stories were not, however, was particularly complimentary. They didn’t always portray his baseball fellow travelers in the most positive of lights. Bouton’s revealing of the world of the locker room was particularly enlightening; readers got a real sense of the crass crudity of that pocket universe. Bouton also discussed the cold, harsh realities of injury (this was in the years before free agency and guaranteed big-money contracts) and the proliferation of amphetamines among ballplayers.

As you might guess, the book was not well-received by the baseball establishment. So many in the game felt that “Ball Four” was a betrayal of some sort of sacred trust. Bouton’s career suffered because of it; he was soon out of the game. Granted, some of that was due to Bouton’s own struggles, but one imagines he would have been given another chance or two had he not been the guy who wrote “that damned book.”

In this day of complete access, social media scoops and the 24/7 news cycle, the idea of outrage against a sports insider publishing a tell-all book is almost quaint. But at the time, “Ball Four” was incendiary; no one had ever been so frank in relating the truth behind the scenes of professional sports.

Bouton opened the door for what we consider modern sports reporting. He ushered in an age of honest sports writing, taking the genre beyond the soft-selling hero-worship that had been its baseline. Instead of blandly burnished false images, we got a peek at who these players really were. And far from being driven away, we were drawn even closer – our idols were flawed, those flaws made them human and that humanity made them more interesting.

Jim Bouton was a trailblazer. His contributions to how we experience and consume the sport of baseball are immeasurable. He changed the way we look at our heroes; even someone like me, who came to the book some two decades after it was published. Nearly half-a-century after the book first exploded into the cultural consciousness, it remains an important touchstone for anyone who has ever wanted to know the stories beneath the stories of our MLB idols.

Thank you, Mr. Bouton. Smoke ‘em inside.


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