Publication Starts the Story: On Jim Bouton’s Ball Four

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Under review: Ball Four: Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Jim Bouton (465 pages, 1990, Wiley Publishing)

A memoir’s publication date usually serves as a finish line. The events within have already taken place well, well in the past; their cathartic release tends to act as a formal and organized end to the events’ influence on the author’s life.

The opposite is true of the life and memoirs of Jim Bouton, big-league pitcher throughout the sixties and into the seventies. The weeks and months that Bouton chronicled in his memoir, Ball Four, were hardly detectable compared to the Richter-scale impact that the release of Ball Four had on Bouton’s life. Decades later, Bouton in his seventies still earns speaking gigs at corporate functions not so much because he lived the life that Ball Four details, but because he wrote about it.

Throughout the 1969 baseball season, Bouton kept a running diary on both a tape recorder and whatever scraps of paper and napkins he could find. Bouton had already lived through eleven professional baseball seasons and would live through four more—the only thing at all different about the 1969 season was his decision to journal about it. Indeed, the games Bouton competed in that season—playing for the mediocre Seattle Pilots before getting traded to the somewhat impressive Houston Astros—were overwhelmingly mundane compared to his journeys to the World Series with the New York Yankees each year from 1962-64. If Bouton hadn’t daily jotted his notes, this season would have long fallen out the back of everyone’s mind, including probably his own.

Instead, every day of Jim Bouton’s season has been accounted for, with brief recaps of his ballgames interrupting a series of hilarious, only loosely related sketches and vignettes of teammates trying to crack each other up. Knowledge of the other ballplayers’ names and careers is not required in order to get the joke:

July 31

A ten-year-old lad named Marvin Standifer wandered out of the stands and into the bullpen tonight and I grabbed him, put a warmup jacket and hat on him and sat him on the bench. All his friends lined the fence and said things like, “Hey, is Marvin going to get into the game?” and “Does Marvin get to keep the hat? And “How come you let Marvin into the bullpen?” And all the time Marvin had this giant grin on his face.

Of course, Eddie O’Brien said, “We have to get him out of here. We could get in trouble for that.”

“Eddie, go sit down,” I said. “This kid’s got good stuff and we may need him later in the inning.” Eddie sat down.


September 16

Two losses to San Diego makes it six in a row and [Doug] Rader decided to do something about it. “Can you drown yourself in the shower?” he asked.

He went up on his toes and put his mouth to the shower nozzle. It looked as though the water was coming out of his ears. Some guys just can’t take this pennant pressure.

Like a Rorschach test, a complete picture eventually forms out of all these disparate inkblots. The sum total of dozens and dozens of these jokes and pranks—a player shoving “a piece of popcorn under his foreskin and [going] to the trainer claiming a new venereal disease”—coalesce into a full and layered portrait of the world of baseball. The life of a ballplayer, as it turns out, isn’t so much giving your peppy personal best for all nine innings after a solid eight hours of shuteye—it’s more like constantly fighting anxiety, boredom, meddling management, and self-doubt, with an off-kilter and family-unfriendly sense of humor (and maybe also with alcohol and road sex).

This is hardly a revelation to those of us living in 2014; blessed with a plethora of comprehensive media coverage, we have long known that the athletes we watch are capable of far worse than blue humor. But in 1970, on the eve of Ball Four’s publication, there was no way for the fan to ever discover that their favorite ballplayers were a lot less noble that they looked on their posed trading card portraits. Ball Four was unflinchingly and publicly honest, in flagrant violation of all of baseball’s unspoken rules and customs.

The release of Ball Four launched Bouton into a David Sedaris-esque feedback loop: a writer who wrote memoirs about his life—a life dictated by the effects of having written his previous memoirs. Baseball fans loved and still love the book for its unprecedented access, and baseball players and executives hated it for the exact same reason. When all you’ve been able to see of baseball is distant dots so far away from your bleacher seat, it adds a lot of humanity about the game to learn that it’s possible for a ballplayer to get traded in the morning, travel to meet his new team in the afternoon, and then pitch for them in the evening, all before being able to reach his wife on the phone.

And when you’ve been marketing baseball players as a new breed of All-American hero, as a genus of man that you’d really be proud to take home and show your parents, it can be equally and oppositely disorienting to have information about falling asleep in the bullpen suddenly available for public consumption.

As trivial as many of Bouton’s journal entries feel like on their own—another lopsided, ill-attended ballgame, another off-color joke from the locker room—it speaks to the strength of Bouton’s material and the voice with which he tells it that Ball Four came with no concluding messages. The last game of the season is the last page of the book. There is no need for heavy-handed bows to tie up loose plot points, nor does Bouton-as-narrator have to step outside of the daily ballpark scenes to establish the themes—the themes have already established themselves. It’s a worthy lesson for all genres of memoir.