BY Jim Caple 12:00PM 07/11/2019

Bouton: ‘Couldn’t have an ego’ playing for Pilots

Jim Bouton’s death at 80 prompts many fond recollections of his 1970 book, Ball Four, which pantsed baseball and delighted millions of readers, including Jim Caple.

Jim Bouton immortalized the 1969 Pilots in his book, Ball Four. / David Eskenazi Collection

When I was 12 years old and playing my final season of Little League in 1974, I read Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, which had been published four years earlier. The book was much about his life and career, including his time with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, as well as when he was traded to the Houston Astros later that August.

The book was so wonderful and I loved it so much that I have read it at least six more times, perhaps more. For a while, I read it every spring training.

As many others agree, it is the best book written about baseball. It is funny and told so much about what life in baseball was really like.

A victim of dementia, Bouton, who had an amazing career as a ballplayer and an author, died Wednesday at 80. He also had a stroke in 2012 and later was diagnosed with cerebral amyloid angiopathy.

After attending Western Michigan University, Bouton made his debut with the Yankees in 1962. He won 21 games with six shutouts his second season in 1963 and also made the All-Star team that year. He won another 18 games in 1964 but then started to decline as a pitcher.

After learning to throw the knuckleball, he was signed by the Pilots at 30 before the 1969 season and began as a reliever. As he wrote about being purchased from the Yankees by the Pilots: “Which is how come I was happy to be making $22,000 with the Seattle Pilots.’’’

The Pilots won their opening game Angels 4-3 over the Angels and Bouton wrote, “Already we’re better than the Mets.’’

Well, they weren’t.

The Mets went on to win the World Series that season while the Pilots went 64-98 and finished last in the AL West. Not that Bouton was with them at the end. He was traded to the Astros Aug. 26 for Dooley Womack after going 2-1 with a 3.91 ERA for the Pilots.

“At nine this morning while I was asleep in my room at the Statler Hilton in Baltimore my phone rang,’’ he wrote. “I picked it up and (Pilots manager) Joe Schultz said, ‘Jim, you’ve been traded to the Houston Astros.’’’

Just one more mistake by Seattle general managers.

I interviewed Bouton in 1994 for the book’s 25th anniversary. We had a great dinner together. He talked about a lot of things, including what the Pilots were like.

“It was a team where there were no egos. Because you couldn’t have an ego with the Pilots,” Bouton said with a smile. `”Whatever ego you had was smashed to smithereens when you walked into the clubhouse and saw that there was no hot water in the showers. That’s when you knew you were just a piece of meat. As soon as you put that cap on with the scrambled eggs on the brim, you knew you were going to be a clown of sorts. Everything about the organization told you that you were nothing.

“My job was to be degraded and humiliated as a player so I could concentrate on being a writer.’’

He also wrote that he didn’t think Seattle would be a city “that will ever draw 25,000 or 30,000 regularly. It’s a town much more concerned with culture than athletics.’’ Fortunately, that has changed since then.

After the Pilots only season in Seattle, “Ball Four’’ was published in 1970. It was criticized by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but so loved by others that it sold nearly six million copies. The book pulled back the curtain on players, including that they slept around, distrusted owners (salaries were much, much lower) and sometimes disliked reporters. And that some also were very smart and funny. Like Bouton.

Even legendary Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam wrote that the book “was a reflection in the sports world of what was taking place in larger society.’’

Bouton’s final line is also worth remembering: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around the whole time.’’

He temporarily retired from baseball after the 1970 season but then returned to the sport in his mid-30s by pitching with the Portland Mavericks of the Class A Northwest League in 1975 when he went 5-1. He also pitched in the minors with the White Sox in 1977 and made it back to the majors in 1978 with Atlanta, going 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA. Even after that, he continued to pitch in semi-pro leagues.

Bouton wrote other books, including I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally and Foul Ball. He appeared in the movie The Long Goodbye, was in the short-lived CBS sitcom based on Ball Four and worked as a TV sportscaster with WABC and WCBS in New York. He also started a brand of bubble gum called Big League Chew.

He and I became friends after our 1994 interview. He had me write a description of Ball Four for the inside cover when an updated version was re-published in 2000. I wrote: “It is not just a diary of Bouton’s 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros. It’s a vibrant, funny, telling history of an era that seems even further away than three decades. To call it simply a ‘tell-all book’ is like describing The Grapes of Wrath as a book about harvesting peaches in California.’’

Bouton autographed me a copy of the new edition of his great book, which I keep next to the original edition on my bookshelf. And which I will read again. And again. And again . . .

 


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YourThoughts

  • Steve Buckholdt

    I just read Ball Four a couple of weeks ago for the first time. With the way the Mariners season has been going (the last 17 seasons, actually) it seemed like an appropriate thing to do. What struck me was how cheap and miserable the owners were, which was no real surprise. They hid behind the reserve clause to keep the players subjugated. Maybe in its own small way Ball Four started the process of forcing the owners to open their kimono a little, leading to Curt Flood challenging the reserve clause and Andy Messersmith finally winning the legal case against it. Mr. Bouton wrote a great book and did baseball fans a real service. My sympathies are extended to his family,.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Mr. Buckholdt
      Good observations; thanks for them. Never forget, however, the immense contributions of the great Marvin Miller, the players’ association leader, who virtually single-handedly advanced the ball players’ standard of living.
      If you are into baseball books, get A Whole Different Ball Game: The Inside Story of the Baseball Revolution, by Miller. A fine read.

      • Steve Buckholdt

        Mr. Spumoni,
        A few hours after my original post I thought “Gee, I should have mentioned the tremendous contribution of Marvin Miller too”. Thanks for making this unnecessary. Every player today drawing a MLB salary should have a shrine to Curt Flood and Marvin Miller in his home

        • Archangelo Spumoni

          Many thanks again. I have had occasion to speak with old ballplayers (I am old) and 100% of the ones who started playing before Miller and played through his era are fully on board with the shrine concept as precisely 100% of them know the facts.
          We are talking the single greatest increase in the standard of living of a class of employee with Miller’s work.
          As an organized labor participant, adherent, devotee, supporter, whatever, Miller has my lifetime respect.
          Outsiders, non-players, and haters in general are jealous of the economic package ballplayers get but I am not. Simply look at the revenue generated and who does it and this explains all.
          Last point: Miller regretted not being able to get Willie Mays his true value on the open market.
          Get the book!

          • art thiel

            Miller was light years ahead of owners. It took several labor disruptions, but it was worth it for players. NFL players wish they had such a leader.

        • Kirkland

          If Flood and Miller aren’t in the Hall of Fame as builders, they should be. Bouton, too, for his transformational book.

        • art thiel

          Modern players should get a tutorial on the contributions of Bouton and Miller.

      • art thiel

        Miller was another game changer for a sport that was remarkably anti-player until he helped unshackle the industry.

    • art thiel

      Good for you to get to Ball Four. No book has had a similar impact on a sport.

  • jafabian

    Excellent piece Jim. Regarding the Pilots move it’s sad how over the years the city hasn’t learned from their dealings with the Pilots and have continued to make the same mistakes over and over again.

    I agree with Bouton to a point that Seattle is a city of culture and can be indifferent about sports but it depends on the product. Ever since Thanos Infinity-snapped the Sonics out of Seattle the city has become Title-town with a boon of successes. On the flip side for example, George Argyros was indifferent as owner of the M’s and fans knew it. Consequently his tenure had the lowest attendance totals as well as results on the field. The management and coaching teams of the current professional sports teams and Division I sports are proactive and energetic which fans appreciate.

    Sad to hear of Bouton’s health issues in recent years. Sounds like he had it rough. I need to re-read Ball Four and then pick up his other books.

    • Kirkland

      I don’t think culture and sports can be mutually exclusive to a city, and Seattle is proof.

      Besides the fanatic Seahawks and Sounders support, the UW has a track record of success in multiple sports, the Mariners when run competently draw crowds, the NHL team has a huge season ticket deposit list, and attendance was not the reason the Sonics left.

      Meanwhile, Seattle is one of the few cities in America that has a major ballet company, a major opera, and a major symphony. That is one impressive cultural trifecta. There’s plenty of room for both in this city; heck, I remember going to Thunderbird games in the Seattle Center and watching fans wearing hockey jerseys rubbing shoulders with opera/ballet goers in formal black tie and evening gowns.

      • art thiel

        Bouton might have been a little more right in 1969 about Seattle, but there was no big-league litmus test then except for the first two years of Sonics expansion in what was at the time a backwater league.

        But today, you’re right — after NY, LA and Chicago, I’d put Seattle right there with any other city in terms of sports/arts diversity.

    • art thiel

      I would disagree about Seattle being indifferent about sports. The Sounders, Seahawks, Mariners and Sonics all led their sports at one time in attendance. This is a great sports town, but often without great sports teams.

  • Parts

    I too first read ball four as a kid. It sounds like it may have had as much of an impact on me as it had on you. I’ve probably read it 10 times over the years. I still have my well worn paperback copy, but I think it might be time to buy a newer edition and read it again. Not to mention big league chew! Man I chewed so much of that stuff. I couldn’t get enough. On Christmas day I would always find my stocking stuffed with 5 or six packs of the stuff. Thanks for writing this Jim. Good stuff. Rest easy Mr Bouton. Thanks for all the smiles your work provided me over the years.

    • art thiel

      I get a kick out of those who read a book multiple times. I’ve rarely found the time/interest to do so.

  • David Michel

    Thanks for the article Art. It was a good read, I may have to read it again.

    • art thiel

      Credit my man, Jim Caple. He knew Bouton personally, and felt the loss.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Tremendously entertaining baseball book. Candid and so amusing, thoughtful, insightful. It was emotional to see him in The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a very entertaining film. He hung on. But now he’s gone. Sad.