Monday, July 11, 2011

Stuff I like:
Ball Four
Part 1: Introduction.

I've been doing a lot of review recently, watching movies and TV shows I liked when I was younger, re-reading favorite books. This week, I was able to get Ball Four by Jim Bouton out of the Oakland Public Library, opening the pages again forty one years after it was first published. It was a must-read book for any teenage boy in 1970 who liked sports even a little bit. Two friends of mine from high school, Andy and Steve, sometimes check in on the blog. They both read it back in the day. We talked about it for weeks. I would overhear conversations in the hall and on the school bus between guys I barely knew, and I'd hear them repeat stories and jokes from the book. We didn't use the phrase "water cooler material" back then, but that's what Ball Four was for adolescent males in 1970, provided your parents let you read it.

The book is the diary of Jim Bouton recounting his 1969 season playing for several teams, both in the majors and in the minors. Sports diaries had been published before, but Ball Four was significantly different in two major ways.

1. Bouton had been a top pitcher for the Yankees, but when this book is written, he is nearly washed up and struggling to make the club on The Seattle Pilots, a first year expansion team. (The team didn't work out in Seattle and move to Milwaukee the next year, changing the name to the Brewers.) Most diaries before this were by stars or superstars on winning teams, often teams that won the pennant in the year in question.

2. Bouton told the truth. He told about all that he saw that he found interesting: the funny, the petty, the ridiculous, the crude. Like other adolescents loved Catcher in the Rye for its raw language, my friends and I loved Ball Four, not only for the jokes and new permutations of obscenities, but for the stories it told and the characters we met.

I'm only about a quarter of the way through, but it's a quick read and I should be finished soon enough, probably by the weekend. I can honestly say I am getting more out of it now with the gift of hindsight than I did when I first read it when it was fresh.

When I was a kid, I thought it was funny and I still do. This may be because my sense of humor is still at the stunted adolescent level, I can't be sure. Here's a way to test yourself. Sing the following lyric.

Summertime.... and your mother is easy.

If you laughed at that, you'll laugh at Ball Four.

But the big thing is that when I was a kid reading about the escapades Bouton the adult and his teammates, the emotional tug wasn't the same as it is now that I'm a man far past the age of thinking about breaking into the majors, reading the words of a man in the twilight of his career.

In any case, get ready for about a week of posts about Ball Four, a honest book about flawed people, including the author, disguised as a filthy, funny book about sports.


Fran said...

Ball Four! I was a bit of a sports freak at that age... and we are of a similar age, you and I.

I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated and I loved baseball and hockey, basketball too. Football never did - still has not - appealed to me.

I read Ball Four in hardcover, I think I asked my mother to buy it for me at the bookstore with my money. She was not paying much attention. I loved every word - I remember rereading it about a year later. It was so... adult. I'm sure it would seem a bit different today. And you just may have influenced a trip to my local library.

Thanks for this and for all Matty!

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, Fran! I didn't know any high school girls who read it when I was growing up, but obviously some did. I checked used book stores with no luck, but the good old Oakland Public came through.