Book Reviews

Book Review: Ball Four by Jim Bouton – A Hilarious Year in the Life of a Ballplayer

There was a time when baseball players were considered role models. Even sportswriters were in on the conspiracy, hiding things like drinking and womanizing from an unsuspecting public. Then came Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four. It was the first baseball tell-all that might seem tame by today’s standards, but it sent major league baseball spinning when it was first published in 1970.

Bouton was an unconventional player with the New York Yankees whose tendency to speak his mind was tolerated while he was throwing a smoking fastball. Once his arm started tiring and the fastball started to fade, he was branded a trouble-maker and shipped off to the minors. In the expansion draft of 1969, he was tagged by the Seattle Pilots to play for them. Never heard of the Seattle Pilots? That’s because, after one season in Seattle, they moved to Milwaukee and changed their name to the Brewers.

During the 1969 spring training and the regular season, Bouton detailed notes about the happenings in Seattle, and then later on in Houston when he was traded. The observations are candid and both personal and professional as Bouton lets the reader journey inside the world of professional baseball players. This was a time before free agency and the high salaries most major leaguers earn today. At this point in time, players were often forced to work jobs in the off-season and lived much like the fans did. This was all the while having to worry about whether they would be sent down to the minors or traded, meaning the leases they signed on rental residences often cost them a good deal.

Bouton exposed it all and showed the players as they really were. They weren’t iconic heroes, but everyday men who often seemed to act like high school boys who never grew up. Bouton named names, and he drew on his memories with the Yankees when it was appropriate as well. This resulted in several players never speaking to him again, including Mickey Mantle, who one day wrote memoirs that were just as candid about baseball as Ball Four. Actually, I think Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski suffer the most in terms of reputation from Bouton’s book, although I just laughed at what he reveals about them.

Reading the introduction, I learned that Bouton had to edit out a lot. The current version of the book already comes in at 465 pages including the introduction and two afterward, reflecting on the publication of the book ten and twenty years later. In editing, Bouton and editor Leonard Schecter chose to eliminate some of the material, hopefully keeping the most revealing moments in the book.

By “revealing” I don’t just mean salaries and living conditions. Bouton shows all the drinking that went on, as well as drug use (“greenies”). He tells about “beaver shooting” and womanizing. He tells about the arguments and disagreements that went on between the players and coaches; the players and the manager; the players and the front office. He makes the coaches of the day look like buffoons, whether that’s deserved or not. If nothing else, the front office should have listened to him on the Gatorade issue. They all might have made a fortune by getting in on the ground floor of that.

Bouton also gets into issues of race and politics at times. This was the end of the 1960s and much of what’s in Ball Four seems to substantiate the theory that the American League suffered at the hands of the National League for twenty years due to racism. There are those who say that because the racist American League owners were more reluctant to have African-Americans on their team, all those better players ended up in the National League. Reading Ball Four, I got that same feeling by reading between the lines as Bouton discusses various issues.

The petty arguments, disagreements, and grudges that are carried around are detailed as well. Bouton so wants to beat the Yankees as he’s still so consumed by resentment, that the first third or so of the book seems to be dominated by that. He doesn’t harbor this same resentment against the Pilots after he’s traded, and even his opinion of his manager in Seattle seems to become tempered after a while.

The flow of the book is just like reading someone’s diary. Some parts flow better than others. There are some entries that are quite long, and others that are short and sweet. None of it was anything I wanted to miss, even on re-reading it since I first read it quite some time ago. Even the shortest anecdotes could be quite revealing about the state of major league baseball in 1969.

This season was a time of transition for Bouton. His fastball had become ineffective and his arm was hurting. In order to continue playing, he was trying to perfect throwing a knuckleball and achieved moderate success with it. However, what he will be remembered for in baseball is this book. It caused such a stir that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get him to sign a statement saying that everything in the book was a lie. Bouton never signed, and sports were probably changed forever due to that.

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