Jim Bouton Reflects on the Yankees and Ball Four
Rebounds from a stroke to deliver anecdotes and one-liners.
October 2015 – The “Bulldog” shined through.
Three years after a stroke left him unable to form words, former Yankee pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton merrily delivered anecdotes and one-liners at Drew University. In an interview that covered everything from his playing days to his afterlife as an author, sportscaster and entrepreneur, Bouton seemed in his element, showing few side effects of the stroke. In fact, if moderator Ira Berkow hadn’t noted it, you may not have known that this was his first speaking appearance since it happened.
Ball Four, Bouton’s 1970 candid memoir about the foibles of baseball, struck a chord with readers and became a thorn in the side of baseball owners. In short, he presented players as they were—quirky, profane, raunchy, fallible—and exposed the take-or-leave-it tactics of ownership in player contract negotiations. And for that, he became an outsider in the game he loved, shunned for simply telling the truth.
When the book was published, for example, then Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn deemed it “detrimental to baseball,” even urging Bouton to sign a statement saying it was fiction. He refused. Also, for decades the Yankees didn’t invite him to Old Timer’s Day, despite his heroics for the team in the early 1960s, when he pitched brilliantly in two World Series. He also was shut out of a Yankees-only memorial service for Yankee legend Yogi Berra last month—45 years after Ball Four came out.
Bouton’s first-hand accounts of contract negotiations certainly helped players, though, becoming evidence in an arbitration case that opened the door to free agency—and rising salaries—in 1975. So, athletes may appreciate Bouton’s outspokenness; many owners, however, are cross and unforgiving. As Bouton’s wife Paula Kurman, on hand for the interview, put it, “They go to their graves with grudges because they lost a lot of money because of Ball Four.”
Bouton was at Drew for its In the Game interview series, a cousin of Drew Forum that features sports personalities and is sponsored by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. He was the second guest in the new series, after Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the New York Knicks. Each was interviewed by Berkow, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former sports columnist for The New York Times.
During more than an hour with Bouton, Berkow asked about his former Yankee teammates, his days as a sportscaster, his comeback with the Atlanta Braves at the age of 39, and of course, Ball Four. Here are some highlights:
On Yogi Berra, his catcher on the Yankees: “Yogi was always figuring out what the next step was. And guys would listen to him. He was a very, very, very bright man.”
On Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle: “Mickey was probably the best teammate you could ever have.”
On losing his job as a sportscaster: “This my was last stint, at ABC (in New York). This was before the Super Bowl and I had said on the sportscast, ‘Tomorrow is going to be the Super Bowl. And it’s the Stupid Bowl. It’s not worth the time, the whole damn thing is watching television.’ I said, ‘What you should do is go out to the yard and throw the football around and get some exercise.’ And before that segment was done, [ABC President] Roone Arledge called the office from Pound Ridge and said, ‘Bouton will never [do another sportscast] with us.’”
On the comeback, as a knuckleball pitcher: “As I said to [then Braves owner] Ted Turner, ‘You’re 39 years old. I’m 39 years old. Are you washed up?’ He said, ‘Hell, no.’ I said, ‘Well, me neither.’”
On Ball Four, one of the New York Public Library’s Books of the 20th Century: “The beauty of Ball Four was the characters, these wonderful teammates of mine (on the Seattle Pilots, in 1969). They were teammates who were all rejected. This was the expansion team, the Seattle Pilots. They got the players that actually nobody wanted. And so now, we were thrown together and I was getting just to know [them]. So, we all were exchanging each other’s stories—this story here, this story there. Every day was another thing, another personality. … All I had to do is pay attention and write stuff down.”
After the interview, Bouton sat down in the lobby outside The Concert Hall to autograph books and reminisce with fans, as he did beforehand at the Ehinger Center (see below). Like players, they certainly appreciate what he means to the game, even after all these decades away.