"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Remembering Bouton's seminal "Ball Four"

First let's retreat in time a little: The first non-fiction book I ever read was a sports biography. I checked it out from the elementary school library which surely meant it was a "safe" book.
No revealing of any peccadilloes. No grumbling about pettiness, mendacity and pitfalls in the workplace.
You could say sports books of that time were cookie-cutter. Personally I enjoyed them. I still have in my possession a paperback biography of Bobby Richardson written in the early 1960s.
Bobby Richardson? He was a player of less than superstar status with the New York Yankees. He was a fine second baseman and fine person. He was a straight-laced person in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes mold.
The traditional type of sports book was right up his alley. I wouldn't mind reading it again. Today I'd find it refreshing next to the avalanche of candid stuff that has come down the line - stuff that actually uses peccadilloes to sell.
The honest and tabloid-y stuff was once taboo.
What happened? It's easy to explain because there was one book that broke the mold. The book was kind of a one-hit wonder for its author.
Maybe "author" should be in quotes because I think he really just provided the raw material and facilitated it.
Big league sports was ready for a book of this kind. So was the publishing world. So along came Jim Bouton, pitcher and opinionated soul.
Not much is said about this book anymore. It broke the mold and once that was done, there were no inhibitions anymore.
For a while Bouton was a whipping boy. He paid the price for going against the norms of the time. A lot of that type of thing was going on in 1970, though, the year "Ball Four" came out and ruffled feathers.
Michael Moore can be seen on C-Span2 telling stores from that time period, a time when berating "the establishment" was both risky and necessary. Moore focused on a fraternal organization that sponsored a youth speech contest on the subject of Abraham Lincoln. One problem: the organization had a "Caucasians only" policy for membership.
I was astonished that such a policy was allowed to exist at so late a time.
Bouton in Ball Four went after sacred cows. He revealed superstars as ordinary mortals who could be as scared, vulnerable and ignorant as anyone.
Ball Four was a diary type of book about the 1969 season. I recall that Bouton worked with an an iconoclast type of sportswriter named Leonard Shecter. Shecter was part of a sportswriting fraternity known as "the chipmunks." You can get a glimpse in Billy Crystal's movie "61*" about the 1961 home run race. (Yes, there's an asterisk after "61.")
Newspapers were at their apex then. "Chipmunks" were sportswriters who were more interpretative than in an earlier time. Readers wanted to peel below the surface a little more. People were getting more interested in the human element of the game, knowing full well their heroes weren't the one-dimensional figures they once seemed.
The chipmunks not only obliged them, they became very competitive.
No wonder Roger Maris started losing his hair.
You might say Ball Four culminated the rise of the chipmunks. The establishment recoiled but as with most turbulence of that time, the new way won out.
Many of the athletes who trashed Ball Four were probably gnashing their teeth about not having written it themselves.
Fans of the book will remember it was put out by World Publishing. We can remember the jacket illustration: a close-up of a hand releasing a "knuckleball."
Bouton was a teammate of Richardson in the early 1960s. They were key members of the last chapter in the Yankee dynasty of that time. Bouton seemed washed up in 1965, the year when the Yankees faded and our Twins won the pennant.
Well, he was washed up in terms of his ability to throw conventional "stuff."
In 1969 he joined the expansion Seattle Pilots, a fascinating team that lasted just one year. Seattle wasn't quite ready for major league baseball. Bouton felt affection for the city and said it cared more for its art museums than baseball.
Bouton was a knuckleballing relief pitcher. The knuckleball is a total finesse pitch. It's released with a lazy delivery.
Bouton didn't set the world on fire but he held his own in "the bigs" for a while longer. In 1969 he compiled his views on life, baseball and even politics daily. The raw material for Shecter was enormous. Bouton was in line with the counterculture and anti-war movement. There's a photo of him addressing a moratorium audience (a mass of people outdoors).
We seem to have forgotten what it's like to live in a time when young men would shudder about getting a draft notice and facing the prospect of going overseas to some godforsaken jungle to perhaps be killed. Or, of being amidst fraternal organizations that were "Caucasian only."
Bouton saw the injustices and the tragedy. Attacking all that required the kind of candor that can get you in trouble. Since he had decided to enter that abyss, he had no inhibitions whatsoever.
He vented his frustrations at the micro level, talking about the meanness and pettiness in the workplace. Any professional person might relate. But hoo boy, this is not how sports books were written up to that time.
Ball Four broke through barriers just like Michael Moore did. Obviously it spawned imitators. The novelty of such a book in fact faded quite fast.
So today I almost find it refreshing finding a book of the older genre, a book like the Bobby Richardson type.
If I remember correctly, the first non-fiction book I ever read was a biography of Eddie Matthews, the Milwaukee Braves third baseman.
The Braves eventually moved to Atlanta and the Pilots moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. Meanwhile, Seattle hung in there and eventually re-entered the bigs with the Mariners.
The Pilots seem like an orphan in baseball history with no one really caring about them. Ball Four helps deal with that. The former players with them may not be that proud about the association, because their "human," fallible side had been revealed so vividly.
Of course Bouton could have written this book about any major league team.
He even focused on his Yankee mates of the early 1960s. The Yankees up through that time were in a special pantheon. No way would Richardson have a biography published if he had played for any other team. We can understand why Mickey Mantle was a superstar. But Joe Pepitone?
Bouton revealed all these souls as being less than Olympian in their stature. Many of them cursed Bouton but I suspect they were just bitter because it was Bouton, not them, making money from the venture.
Ironically Bouton is cited as a force helping bring empowerment for the players and their union. Players may be ridiculously wealthy today but they were far more modest in their means through the 1960s. The better players could make a nice professional wage but keep in mind how meteoric these careers could be. The owners held tremendous power over them.
When the owners lost in the famous Curt Flood legal case, it was "like the Confederates losing the Civil War" - an analogy used by Bowie Kuhn in his memoirs. I gather this is a popular analogy used in the legal profession to describe a side that loses totally - no spin available.
Ball Four was written in a time when baseball was grim in many ways. The players were tread upon. They were discarded or traded on a whim. They were forgotten after they "lost a step."
Once on the scrap heap they'd fend for themselves, perhaps selling insurance or some such thing. Many were woefully lacking in the kind of education or refinement that would enable them to do well in that or many other things. Reading Ball Four helped us appreciate all that.
The boomer generation demanded brutal honesty. Ball Four was an honest book on steroids. There were heroes and villains.
It was hard not to think of Bouton as one of baseball's victims. He had lost his fastball. He was industrious enough to get a reprieve with the "junk" he threw. He hung on for more than just a cup of coffee. Heck, Ted Turner gave him another reprieve in the late 1970s. Bouton had one last comeback with Turner's Atlanta Braves.
Bouton working with Shecter was like Dean Martin working with Jerry Lewis. Bouton on his own was never the same. He had an arrogant side that came out way too much. This is what editors are for.
Even though Bouton couldn't parlay Ball Four into a continuing significant body of work, he gave us the seminal Ball Four, cheered by the boomer youth of the time who were symbolized by Michael Moore.
Now that we know all about the "human" side of sports, I find it kind of refreshing to see the old Bobby Richardson book again. I think I'll dust it off and read it sometime.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

No comments:

Post a Comment