In 1969 and 1970, two books were published that demystified two of the most hidebound American institutions—presidential campaigns and major-league baseball. By and large, both were exercises controlled at their very top by Penis-Americans who were so white that they barely cast a shadow. They were both so covered with several layers of sanctimonious and pseudo-mystical hooey that whatever actual human life was going on among the actual human beings who worked in those institutions might as well have been taking place at the bottom of the sea. In 1969, Trident Press brought out The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’s revelatory examination of the almost superhuman effort it took to pitch Richard Nixon to a country that already thought it knew him all too well as an amoral slug—which, of course, he turned out to be. And, a year later, World Books brought out Ball Four, by a struggling journeyman pitcher named Jim Bouton.
Both of the books were transformational events. Both of the books changed forever the institutions they described and, more important, changed the way those institutions were perceived by their primary audiences. (One of McGinniss’s primary sources was an ambitious young political media button man named Roger Ailes.) Up until Selling was published, the model for presidential campaign books was Theodore White’s The Making of the President series, which was groundbreaking in its own way in 1960, when White got deep access to the campaign of John F. Kennedy, but which already had become stodgy and obsolete by 1968, when the country was eating its own entrails over Vietnam and racial violence. Up until Ball Four, with the honorable exception of Jim Brosnan’s work, baseball books were generally as reverential as prayerbooks, as truthful as a Jack Chick tract, and as dull as week-old porridge. Most of them read like the Iliad would have read if the gods on Olympus all had worked in advertising. These two books blew those paradigms so high that the shrapnel from it is still coming back to earth.
And both books were roundly and angrily condemned by the ice sculptures who ran politics and baseball as grievously disrespectful exercises in unauthorized truth-telling. In this, Bouton took far more heat than did McGinniss ever did. After all, the Nixon pitchmen wanted told the story of their herculean effort to put a shine on the Nixon sneaker. Baseball didn’t want anything to do with what Bouton told America about its putative national pastime. Ballplayers as voyeurs on a hotel roof? Ballplayers gulping amphetamines by the handful? Ballplayers using nasty words? Ballplayers inserting kernels of popcorn under their foreskins to fake a new venereal disease? (God bless you, Joe Pepitone.) My dear young man, that simply is not done.
Ever since Bouton passed on Wednesday at the age of 80, of a particularly vicious form of amyloid dementia—Americans of a certain age have been dropping lines from Ball Four as though it had been published last week, instead of nearly 50 years ago. Many of the primary reactions on the electric Twitter machine to Bouton’s death was some variation of Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz’s philosophical pondering—“shitfuck” or, alternatively, “fuckshit.” Friends consoled friends, advising each other to smoke ‘em inside and then go pound some Budweiser. There were some mournful renditions of “It Makes a Fella Proud To Be An Astro.” Ball Four did more than sell a lot of books and corrupt a million young American baseball fans. It implanted a conception of being a fan that was totally different from anything that had come before it, a strange but hilarious commingling of unbridled affection and informed cynicism that mirrored Bouton’s own, a love for the game energized by an enthusiastic disrespect for the people who run it, and for some of the “unwritten rules” that had deserved to be mocked for decades.
“I need a new image,” Bouton writes. “What I ought to do is take up chewing tobacco and let the dark brown run down the front of my uniform and walk up and down the dugout with a slight, brave limp and tape on my wrist and say things like, ‘goddamit’ and ‘shit’ and ‘let’s get these guys.’ Then, instead of being weird, I’d be rough and tough.”
“In baseball the only thing that’s really changed in a hundred years is the attitude toward beards.”
Ball Four may not have invented Deadspin, but it helped create its eventual audience, at least among the older crowd like, well, me.
So much of its appeal was Bouton, who proved to be a shrewd observer, a fine reporter, and a boon companion in his account of a season that took him from the expansion Seattle Pilots to the pennant-contending Houston Astros, from Joe Schultz to Harry (The Hat) Walker, who always took two and hit to right in Old-Timers’ Games, and from Gary (Ding Dong) Bell to Larry Dierker. For all the inflamed rhetoric that greeted its publication—and the late Dick Young spent several months orbiting Neptune over the book’s very existence — as times and mores were changing in the 1960’s, Ball Four and Bouton saved baseball from turning into something between a wax museum and the petrified forest.
In purely baseball terms, the book’s emotional finale came when Bouton, in a pennant race start, gets his knuckleball under control and stands the Pittsburgh Pirates on their heads, even though, in keeping with the general just-inches-from-stardom mood of the book, Bouton doesn’t get a win out of the deal, either. But the joy he takes in (finally) pitching to what he believes is his potential prevents the book’s irreverence from capsizing it into a burlesque, and it was the final reveal of the book’s ultimate theme—that it was a love letter from Bouton to his chosen occupation. Jim Bouton made it acceptable—even, maybe, cool—to love baseball again. Rob Manfred should give it a read.
Bouton did baseball a great favor, even if baseball refused to acknowledge it. (And his passing gave us all a chance to remember how truly bad at being a commissioner Bowie Kuhn was.) It can be argued that Bouton’s great love went unrequited, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. Baseball didn’t deserve Jim Bouton, dead now at 80, but it got him anyway and it owes him its deepest gratitude. It spent decades refusing to embrace him when, it turns out, it was the other way around all the time.
Charles P. Pierce is an author and writer-at-large for Esquire. Ball Four changed his life.