Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stuff I like:
Ball Four
Part 5: The real taboo topics.

I've been reading online more stuff about Jim Bouton and his book Ball Four. There were a flurry of stories last year on the 40th anniversary, and apparently nearly all is forgiven. In a post script from 1980, Bouton said he was never invited to Old Timers games, but that has changed. Now, fans give him a rousing ovation. The main reasons for the decade or more of hard feelings stem from three things in the book, worse than the profanity or discussing sex and drugs.

1. Bouton writes about money. Back before free agency, the major leagues were willing to publicize how much they paid the superstars, so the $100,000 or more contracts given to the likes of Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams were in the newspapers. They did not advertise how much they were paying everybody else, and the answer was "peanuts". Bouton always drove a hard bargain in negotiations, and even though he was a 20+ game winner on the perennial World Series participant New York Yankees, he never made more than $30,000, and by the end of his career, his salary was closer to $20,000. This was a good middle class salary in the late 1960s, but ballplayers often had to deal with moving expenses when traded, or maintaining a home for the family in some town away from where the club played. In the space of one season, Bouton has to move from Seattle to Vancouver to Seattle to Houston, with his family making two of those moves, then his wife and kids going to Michigan to live with family while he plays ball in Houston. Bouton claims some credit for swaying opinion towards the players in this era just before free agency becomes the law of the land, and he might very well have a point.

2. Superstars displayed in a negative light. You might think the story about Ted Williams in the batting cage doesn't show Ted at his best, but while it shows Williams as being somewhat vain, he had plenty to be vain about. No, the meanest stories Bouton tells are about the lack of hustle in superstars like Roger Maris and Carl Yazstremski, or the stunts Whitey Ford resorted to when his fastball wasn't as scary as it used to be. These were the things many ballplayers and sportswriters really objected to.

3. Bouton and authority. In Seattle, Bouton doesn't show much respect to his superiors, but the real problem for him is that he isn't getting straight answers or the information he needs to help the team more. In Houston, his attitude improves markedly. While Harry "The Hat" Walker has a reputation as a tough guy and a screamer, most of the stories he has about run-ins with Walker end with "You know what? Harry was right." Bouton actually does respect being treated like an adult, but that treatment was rare in the major leagues back in the day, and I'm not sure how prevalent it is now. The other coach he writes about with reverence is his old pitching coach Johnny Sain, once a star pitcher with the Boston Braves. Nearly every quote of Sain's is treated as a pearl of wisdom, and Bouton is always glad to talk to him and get his advice on situations Bouton faces as he makes the transition from fastball pitcher to knuckleball thrower.

In conclusion, I'm glad I returned to this book some 41 years after I read it first. While I don't think the obscenities will be as shocking to readers now as they were then, it's still a very entertaining book that does a great job of trapping a time and place very different from the 21st Century in a snapshot, a testament to Bouton's honesty, humor and innate skills as a writer.

No comments: