Thursday, November 16, 2006

Termite Lit: Ball Four by Jim Bouton

When I bought Ball Four to read on a flurry of business trips, I didn't really know what I was buying. Basically, I knew I wanted to read a baseball book, and Game of Shadows isn't in paperback yet and the hardcover is almost thirty dollars. I knew I didn't want that. So I spent fifteen minutes browsing the sports section of the bookstore looking for anything that sounded promising. I wound up with Ball Four.

The book itself didn't catch my eye, but the number of various copies and editions on the shelf (an oversized hardcover, a smaller older copy, the "20th Anniversary Edition" which was the one I selected) did. If a bookstore has this many copies, it's either sold a lot, or sold none at all and no one bothered to stop reordering. I hoped it was the former and bought it. Thank the lords of Cooperstown I did.

Though Ball Four has faded into obscurity a bit, when it was published in 1969 it was, unquestionably, the most controversial book written about sports pretty much ever. In crafting this unforgettable yarn, its author, Jim Bouton, made a fatal mistake: he spoke the truth and named names. Bouton was a major leaguer at the time — a relief pitcher for the short-lived Seattle Pilots, to be specific — and he got it into his head to write a book chronicling a season in the life of a big league ballplayer. So he started keeping notes about everything he saw and heard on the field, in the bullpen and, most important, in the locker room. Ball Four is great because he simply reported, honestly, what he saw. And everyone hated him for it.

Then and now, the major league baseball locker room is like Vegas: what happens there stays there. Or at least it's supposed to; even though every team has tons of beat writers, sports reporters, ESPN correspondents following it around, the real nitty gritty, the dark stuff, that's supposed to get swept under the carpet. Bouton exposed it all, from the "beaver hunting" (a.k.a. spying on women, particularly in various states of undress) to the "greenies" (a.k.a. the amphetamines players casually and obsessively took to keep themselves pumped up throughout the grueling 162 game regular season), which are still a problem in baseball to this day (only recently, 35 years after the book was published, did the sport start testing for them).

Ball Four wouldn't be worth reading today if it was simply a breathless expose of a sport and how it was played over three decades ago. Rather, it's simply the most fun I've had reading something, anything, in ages. Every page is filled with wild outlandish stories, and conversations so funny they had to be real, because no humorist on their best day could make them up. You could literally turn to any page and find something fun or fascinating. And to prove the point, I will do that right now.

I've just flipped open to page 143:

The man I love [Bouton's incompetent pitching coach, Sal Maglie] had quite an adventure tonight. Darrell Brandon pitching, and with Rod Carew on third base he's using a full wind-up. At the last moment he decides to take a look over at Carew, who's taking a pretty good lead. So he backs off the rubber and Sal yells at him, "For crissakes, get the hitter. The runner isn't going anyplace."

So Darrell winds up and lets fly. And Carew steals home.

When Darrell comes into the dougout at the end of the inning, Maglie lets him have it. "Dammnit," he says. "You know you've got to pitch from the stretch in that situation."

In a roundabout way, Ball Four is also a predecessor to guys like Bill James and books like Moneyball by Michael Lewis. The baseball establishment was such an old boys club that people did things not because they were the best way to do them, but because that was the way they were always done, and to challenge the prevailing wisdom was to brand yourself an outsider or a weirdo, a deadly dangerous act for a player who wants to be "just one of the boys." Bouton repeatedly points out the backwards logic that drives not just the day-to-day decision making by managers and coaches, but in the long-term planning by upper management. And pretty much everything he says about the reserve clause and the need for free agency (or at least fairer wages for players) is right on the money and eventually came true.

It's a great book, but Jim Bouton has always been my hero even though I didn't know who he was until a few weeks ago. Turns out after his baseball career (which was sort of over as soon as he published Ball Four and outed his buddies bad behavior), Bouton went on to create one of my favorite childhood treats: Big League Chew. Attaway boy, way to go.


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