Friday, September 7, 2018

Not-so-Forgotten Books: BALL FOUR by Jim Bouton (1970)

This book is funny as hell, and is one of my favorites. I first read it back in the '70s, either before or during the time Bouton came to Portland to pitch for Bing Russell's free-wheeling independent team, the Portland Mavericks in 1975. Going to those games was the most fun I ever had as a sports spectator, including sitting in front of the TV and watching the Portland Trailblazers win the championship in 1977 and the Portland Timbers in 2015.

This time, I got the audiobook through InterLibrary Loan, narrated by Bouton himself. It's extra-cool hearing him laugh at the funny parts, but hard hearing him choke up when discussing the death of his daughter. 

Reviewers say you don't have to like baseball to appreciate Ball Four. I'd agree, though it certainly helps. The book is formatted as a diary of Bouton's 1969 season with the now-defunct Seattle Pilots, and later with the Houston Astros, but includes many digressions about Bouton's career with the Yankees (1962-67) and reminiscences of his fellow players. The focus is on baseball, of course, and Bouton's knuckleball in particular, but the book is about much more. It's a long book, and there's plenty of talk about sex, drugs, booze, politics, religion and life in general. And there's never a dull moment.

For baseball fans of the era, it's a feast. It's like spending a little time with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Elston Howard, Carl Yastremski, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Lou Pinella, Reggie Jackson, Ted Williams and many others. Some of the real-life characters in the book came across well, while others were portrayed as ignorant and small-minded. Some of those folks, as revealed in the 1971 funny-as-hell sequel I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally, were embarassed, some livid and some are still holding a grudge. 

As the first tell-all book about professional sports, Ball Four exposed many dirty little secrets (like the pep pills called "greenies," the boozing and the players' favorite sport of "beaver-shooting") shone light on the absolute power owners weilded over the players. In the wake of the immediate outrage, the book has been credited with paving the way for sweeping change, including free agency, collective bargaining and higher (if not ridiculously higher) salaries for players.

This latest edition, titled Ball Four, the Final Pitch, includes the addendums Ball Five (Ten Years Later), Ball Six (Twenty Years Later) and Ball Seven (Thirty Years Later), and includes an account of his return to the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves in 1978. The orignal book was edited by sportswriter Leonard Schecter, who no doubt helped craft the humor. Sadly, this volume it does not include I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally, also edited by Schecter. Looks like I'll have to reread that one the old fashioned way.

Here's a bit from Ball Five, describing the marketing techniques of the Portland Mavericks:


Elgin Bleecker said...

Read it in high school and loved it.

Rick Robinson said...

Read it when it came out, gotten from the library, but not being much of a baseball fan, just thought it was so-so.

Cap'n Bob said...

I don't know when I read it but it a long time ago. I thought it was a hoot, especially the story about someone taking a dump on Joe Pepitone's birthday cake.