Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are a few things I look for in memoirs: good writing, a sympathetic narrator, and – if possible – abject honesty. (It’s a memoir, so sometimes you have to take people’s stories with a grain of salt.) Among my favorites are Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun” and Sean Wilsey’s “Oh the Glory of It All.”
In addition to those characteristics, it helps if the author has a sense of humanity.
I’ve now read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” three times. The first time was in my 20s, when I checked it out of the library and mainly read it for laughs – the banter, the absurdity of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the recurring demands by manager Joe Schultz for his team to “pound Budweiser.”
The next time was in early 2001, not long after I’d purchased a copy of “Ball Four: The Final Pitch” from the man himself, who was seated at a table at a now long-departed bookstore in CNN Center. “For Todd – ‘Smoke ‘em inside,’ ” he autographed it. The book had lost none of its humor, though the three epilogues – written at 10-year intervals since the book’s debut in 1970 – made it clear that Bouton was no longer the 30-year-old boy-man knuckleballer of the original work. He’d been a sports anchor in New York, starred in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” made a brief comeback with the Atlanta Braves, divorced his wife and lost his daughter in a car accident. He was a deeper, wiser man, though still also a wisenheimer.
Bouton’s death last month made me pull the book out again. Now I’m much older as well. It’s a good sign that, if anything, “Ball Four” seems far more meaningful to me now than it did 30 years ago, or even 18 years ago. Because, frankly, I was worried.
From the perspective of 2019, it’s no longer quite so humorous reading about 20- and 30-something ballplayers “beaver shooting” (that is, ogling women, particularly from certain angles), taking greenies (stimulants) or generally behaving like idiots. (Not that 20- and 30-something ballplayers – and men in general – have stopped behaving like idiots.) But, to Bouton’s credit, he seldom indulges in a “boys will be boys” attitude, though he obviously enjoys telling a good story. He’s the perpetual outsider – the antiwar person on a team full of Nixon supporters, the aging knuckleballer amid hard-throwing youngsters, the thinker on a team full of guys who barely look ahead to the next game, never mind their post-baseball lives – and he presents these tales matter-of-factly.
Moreover, though the ’69 Pilots have become a joke in retrospect – after that single year, spent at disgusting Sicks’ Stadium, they moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers – they weren’t that bad for about half a season, especially for an expansion team.
Bouton mentions in the opening entries of his dated journal that he could see the team finishing third (in what was then a six-team AL West) and he had a point: They were just four games under .500 as of July 2. Of course, they went 29-59 the rest of the way and finished in the cellar, but it’s easy to think – especially if you’re a player – that maybe things weren’t going to be so bad. I actually gained a bit of respect for Joe Schultz, who wasn’t quite the buffoon people assumed from the book. (Schultz actually had a pair of World Championship rings, earned with the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967, and later managed the Detroit Tigers.) In fact, Schultz only seems a buffoon in the early entries; by summer, Bouton has granted his manager a good deal of respect, something he never gave to pitching coach Sal Maglie or bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien. Bouton does poke fun at Schultz’s habits – his frequent cursing (“shitfuck,” “fuckshit”) and telling players to pound Buds – but he comes off much better than I remembered.
Anyway, the point is that what seemed scandalous or silly in “Ball Four” is actually far more measured than I remembered. The laughs are honestly earned.
Still, I’m glad I have “The Final Pitch,” with its afterwords. If “Ball Four” hadn’t done it, those three sections show Bouton to be something more than an old jock telling stories.
He talks about his return to the majors in 1978 not as a triumph – though it was – but as a journey with all the psychological baggage you’d imagine: coping with a failing marriage, balancing his role as a father, trying to prove to himself that he’s still a major-league pitcher, even though he had established himself in other fields. (In fact, the first Bouton book I read was “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,” the 1971 follow-up to “Ball Four,” in which he talks about the reaction to “Ball Four” and his early days as a sportscaster.) In later years, he helps come up with Big League Chew, the stringy bubblegum sold in pouches, like chewing tobacco.
And then there is the story of his daughter, Laurie. Heartbreaking. When she dies in an auto accident in 1997, Bouton is bereft. Reading it now, and knowing that “The Final Pitch” came out just three years later, you sense that he’s still an open wound. Which makes him all the more human.
Bouton wasn’t perfect. While looking for other details on the man, I stumbled on a 1983 People magazine interview with his and fellow brainy pitcher Mike Marshall’s ex-wives, which made it clear that neither Bouton nor Marshall resisted affairs on the road, not something you’d suspect from reading “Ball Four.” And Bouton admits that he probably wasn’t fair to some of his former teammates, a few of whom apparently never spoke to him again.
Still, none of that diminishes “Ball Four” and its epilogues as the story of a man loved his sport but thought of a world outside it, and had a life all the richer for it. Its famous last line – one of the best final sentences in literature, in my opinion – has even greater resonance for its introspection: “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” We all have an object with a hold on us; credit to Bouton for recognizing what that means, and doing so generously.
Hope he’s smokin’ ‘em inside and pounding a few Buds in the Field of Dreams.
View all my reviews