This wasn’t the first time I revisited Jim Bouton’s book about the 1969 Seattle Pilots baseball team. He seems to come out with a new edition every decade or so, and I generally re-read it then. This time around, my birthday came up, I saw there was a Kindle version, I put it on my wish list, and my baseball-loving sister got it for me (thanks!).
Ball Four is of interest, even to a non-fan of baseball, because of its historical importance as one of the first sports books to reveal what the game was “really” like. It wasn’t the first … not sure what is, although Jim Brosnan wrote two similar books in the early 60s, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that have long been favorites of mine. Nowadays, it might seem quaint to realize there was a time (the early 70s) when the baseball establishment could be in an uproar because Bouton (and his co-writer, Leonard Shecter) talked about players cussing and taking amphetamines and getting drunk on their off-days (and sometimes their on-days). Brosnan went through the same thing, although as I recall (not having re-read his books for a few years … perhaps it’s time) his books didn’t have quite as much a feel of exposé as Bouton’s did.
But most of the interest for the non-fan comes from that historical impact. The diary aspects, with its chronicling of the drudgery of a six-month season, are great for baseball aficionados, but I don’t suppose others would care. Having said that, Ball Four ultimately works because it is a book filled with characters, and the fact that they are real people makes it even better. Apparently Joe Schultz, manager of the Pilots, was angered by his portrayal in the book. Which is sad, because Schultz comes across as a great character, someone placed in an impossible situation (managing a poor, expansion ball team that lasted only one season before moving to Milwaukee) who used an idiosyncratic use of language to cajole his team into whatever heights they might possibly reach.
That’s what is most enjoyable about revisiting Ball Four, reading once again about Bouton and Schultz and the rest. The response of the time is historically interesting, but in the end, what I like best is Joe Schultz telling the guys, “Boys, bunting is like jacking off. Once you learn how you never forget.”
For an interesting, positive contemporaneous review of the book from a perhaps surprising source, check out Robert “Dean of American Rock Critics” Christgau’s piece, “Bouton Baseball”:
Bouton is the kind of iconoclast who is so insecure in his chosen isolation that he seems to delight in making other men look foolish. To an extent, this may be salutory. Even the most skeptical fan forgets that those names in the newspapers and figures on the screen are as frail as you or me, and this oversight is compounded by the daily dope from journalists whose living depends on acquiring more dope tomorrow. But it's hard to say how essential such an illusion may be to the continued power of the game. The baseball men who complain most bitterly about this book never claim it is untrue, only unfair--because it examines baseball's errants so steadfastly--and injudicious--because it reveals what the kids are better off not knowing. Unfair it isn't: Bouton obviously loves baseball and despite his snittiness he describes his fellows with generous appreciation. But injudicious? I don't know. Theoretically, a player is judged by what he can do on the field--the game itself is the thing. But even more than other sports baseball requires not just technical esteem but an investment of emotion, and emotion is best invested in people, however faultily perceived. I don't think the glowering visage of Sal Maglie will ever fill me with awe again.