Jim Bouton

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by a man who had a successful career as a baseball pitcher and then rewrote sports journalism. He changed the path and history of sports journalism. Jim Bouton, great to have you here.

Jim Bouton: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Paulson: Of course, your book is Ball Four, a much honored book. Sitting here, reading that the New York Public Library selected Ball Four as one of its books of the century, the only sports book on the list among some pretty heady company.

Bouton: Well, I, I had the good fortune of playing with a great team not as far as winning ball games go, but as far as characters are concerned. It was an expansion team, the 1969 Seattle Pilots. And we were, you know, a collection of sort of guys who were over the hill from a whole variety of different teams. And they couldn’t hit or pitch or field, but they’re great storytellers, so I had all the great stories from the different teams all in, all in one place.

Paulson: And this book is groundbreaking, because it was, in effect, a diary of a full season, and you talked about both what went on on the field and what happened off the field, which earned you some complaints, let’s say … some anger from people in high places, including the commissioner of baseball.

Bouton: Yes, Bowie Kuhn called me into his office and had a statement for me to sign that he had typed up that basically said that this book is exaggerated, I made up some of the stories, and my editor had a lot to do with it, et cetera. And I read the statement. I said, “This is ridiculous. I’m not signing this statement. I’m proud of this book.” And, so, then that was the first 15 minutes of the meeting. The next 45 minutes was discussing what I should be allowed to say about the meeting in the first place.

Paulson: Well, he issued a statement, and, you know, this is a show about free speech. And it’s just fascinating, the language here: “I advised Mr. Bouton of my displeasure with these writings and have warned him against future writings of this character.” It — it’s an almost governmental memo, you know? It’s as repressive a remark as you can get from somebody in public office.

Bouton: Exactly. One of the great things about censors is that they really know how to sell products, you know, whether it’s a book or an art show or whatever it is. And, so, the publisher had only printed 5,000 copies on the grounds that nobody would want to read a book about the Seattle Pilots. And then when the baseball commissioner called me into his office, now everybody wanted to read the book the commissioner didn’t want them to read. So, they had to print 5,000 and 50,000 and, you know, on up. And, so, I dedicated my second book to Bowie Kuhn.

Paulson: The revelations in the book, you know, by comparison to today, they’re not terribly shocking and appalling. But do you recall what got you in the most hot water?

Bouton: I think the story about Mickey Mantle hitting a home run with a hangover. And this was — do you want to hear the story?

Paulson: Absolutely.

Bouton: Anyway, we were playing in Minnesota. We’d been out the night before, having a few drinks. I don’t want to say Mickey was drunk, but he spent about a half an hour trying to make a telephone call from a grandfather clock.

Paulson: [Laughs]

Bouton: Showed up at the ballpark. He couldn’t play, so we had to put somebody else in center field. The game goes extra innings. And Ralph Houk says, “I’m going to need a pinch hitter in the 12th. Go — somebody wake up the Mick.” We wake him up. He comes out into the dugout, staggers up to the plate. Fortunately, he’s a switch hitter; it doesn’t matter what side he gets on. Steps into the batter’s box and hits the first pitch into the center field bleachers. A tremendous blast. And after the game was over, I walked over to Mickey’s locker, and I said, “How did you do that? You couldn’t even see up there.” He said, “It was very simple. I hit the middle ball.”

Paulson: [Laughs] Well, what’s funny — people have written about this since, of course — is that fans who read that loved Mickey all the more.

Bouton: Sure.

Paulson: Because a guy — they could relate to a guy with a hangover who could hit a home run. It is — it has probably been forgotten just how good a ballplayer you were. My peak baseball collecting years would have been about ’63 and ’64, which —

Bouton: Well, that’s about — that’s — you caught the — you caught my entire career there.

Paulson: [Laughs] That’s right. It was two years. Those were years that we coveted your baseball cards. And, actually, a couple of extraordinary years. You won 21 games in 1963. And, of course, you won your ring in 1964. I guess you won 18 games, and then you beat the Cardinals twice in the World Series. And that was quite a remarkable achievement for somebody who, as late as 15, 16 years old, actually couldn’t get off the bench and didn’t get into ball games to pitch. Lightning strike? How did you develop your skills?

Bouton: I, I always had a good overhand curve ball, even when I was 10 or 12 years old. And I had a knuckleball. So, I had good stuff. I just happened to be on a high school team that, that had a good team already. It was a lot of great players, and, you know, I really didn’t get into the games until my senior year. And I was a non-scholarship walk-on at Western Michigan University. And in the summer after my freshman year at college, I played on a team that won the Chicago Park District championship. I was about the number four pitcher on the team or number five. We got into a national tournament in Battle Creek, and the way the double rotation worked out in a double-elimination tournament, I ended up having to pitch against the best team about a week into the, into the tournament. They hadn’t scored less than 18 runs in any game, so they were supposed to knock us out. That afternoon, there were about 300 scouts coming to see all these hitters on this great team from, from Cincinnati. And I beat them with a two-hit shutout. And the scouts were swarming on the field, ’cause they wanted to meet this kid. “Where’d you come from?” You know, “What’s your phone number?” “Where did you go to school?” “How come we don’t have you in our files?” So, based on that one game, really, I was offered a contract, and I played three years in the minor leagues. And I just sort of — I guess you could call me a late bloomer.

Paulson: Well, you did, in your year with the Seattle Pilots, record baseball as it had never been recorded before. And there was a major backlash. I suppose there was a — to some extent, the book that had come first would have been Jim Brosnan’s book, in the late ’50s, which was a relatively realistic look at the game. Is that something you’d read?

Bouton: Yes, I read Brosnan’s book. I think it came out in ’57, if I’m not mistaken. It was right about the time I was a senior in high school. And I loved the book. And I thought the best parts of the book were the quotes. When he was talking about what Solly Hemus was saying to Brooks Lawrence or what the guys were saying to each other in the bullpen during the game, it all came alive for me. These guys, that’s what they say during the games? You know? And, so, I remembered that when I started keeping the diary for, for Ball Four: capture what they’re saying, ’cause that really captures who they are as people. And, so, I spent most of my time writing down just the dialogue, because the dialogue would remind me of the story. And at the end of the day, I would take my notes and spread them out on the bed, talk them into the tape recorder. But it was the, but it was the dialogue of the players that, you know, enabled me to remember the stories and pretty much capture who they were.

Paulson: All the heat you took for Ball Four really illustrates that there, — no matter if we have free speech or not, whether we have free press or not, and you touch on this in your new book, as well — there is often resistance to challenging institutions, the status quo. It can be an uphill battle. And you had to be surprised at the kind of powerful reaction you faced after Ball Four.

Bouton: Yeah, it was pretty well organized. Not organized, but I mean it was pretty overwhelming, basically from the sports writers, who, I think, were partly jealous because I had access that they didn’t have. I was in the bullpen. I was in the dugouts, et cetera. I was on the buses. So, so they might have been a little jealous of that. And I think they had decided what should and shouldn’t be said about baseball. They had established the boundaries. And when I crossed those boundaries, they were almost angrier, angrier at me than the players were. And, of course, the baseball owners were upset but not because locker room stories and behind-the-scenes secrets, but the owners were upset with Ball Four because it was the first book to tell people how difficult it was to make a living in baseball. It changed — I think what I’m most proud of is, I think it changed the perception of how people felt about ballplayers in terms of, you know, making a lot of money, that they made a lot of money. They didn’t. And it showed that baseball players were basically mistreated by the owners. And it was that climate, that new climate that I think made it possible for the arbitrator to rule in favor of the players and against the owners at the arbitration hearing in 1975. As a matter of fact, Ball Four was part of the evidence against the owners at that hearing.

Paulson: The irony of the controversy about the book is that so many of those people you wrote about later wrote books, including Mickey Mantle —

Bouton: Yeah.

Paulson: — that were much more self— much more confessional and told many more stories than you’d ever told.

Bouton: Sure. Well, that was the other thing, too. I was at the end of my career. I was certainly a marginal pitcher with the Seattle Pilots. And the thinking has always been, if you’re going to pop off, if you’re going to mouth off, then you should be hitting .300. You should be winning 20 games. A great player can do that, not, not some guy in the bullpen. But, in fact, most of the, I think, better books about inside of an industry come not from the top guy or from the top people but usually from the people on the fringes, the ones who have a lot of time to sit around and watch and listen and think, you know? So, if you said I could read a diary of the White House by the president or the vice president or by the doorman, I’d say, “Let me read what the doorman has to say.” [Laughs]

Paulson: Your teammates didn’t know you were writing the book while you were writing it.

Bouton: Well, that’s not entirely true. They knew I was writing something. I’m not sure what they thought I was writing. But I was constantly taking notes. I was taking notes in the bullpen, taking notes during team meetings. As a matter of fact, there’s a line in the book where one of the players says, “Hey, no, no taking notes during a team meeting.” And another time, somebody says, “You know something, Bouton? Keeping notes like that, it’s worse than whispering.”

Paulson: [Laughs] The — so, the heat from the baseball establishment, did that include your teammates? Did they feel betrayed?

Bouton: Well, yeah, sort of. I had been traded during the season from the Seattle Pilots to the Houston Astros. So, when the book came out in the spring of 1970, I was with the Astros at that time. So, I was hearing feedback from, from some teammates through other teammates about how the Seattle Pilots felt about the book. And — but the biggest, the biggest outcry came from Yankees and Yankee fans, even though the Yankees were probably discussed on fewer than 10 pages in the entire book. And yet it was, you know, “Say something about Mickey Mantle, then, then, then you’re going too far.” I think it should be made clear that I did not name names on the sexy stories. I didn’t quote anybody making anti-Semitic remarks. I didn’t quote anybody making racial comments.

Paulson: So, you protected people.

Bouton: Yeah, I felt that I was invading people’s privacy and that there was a line that I shouldn’t cross. It just was a different line than, than they thought. That’s all.

Paulson: Yeah, I see. That book has stayed in print since publication?

Bouton: Well, I haven’t really let it go out of print. I’ve updated it three different times: once in ’80, once in ’90, and once in 2000, so. But that’s the last version, so, if you buy that one, you don’t have to buy any others.

Paulson: So, people who love the 1970 edition should be now looking for the final edition, it’s called?

Bouton: Yeah, Ball Four: The Final Pitch.

Paulson: And what, and what, what’ll they find in this — I guess they’ll find 30 additional years.

Bouton: Well, it’s actually the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, but there are some events that occurred to me — occurred during that period of time and sort of put a closure on the book. I guess the most significant one was the passing of my daughter, Laurie. But then my reconciliation with Mickey Mantle.

Paulson: Right.

Bouton: My invitation to Old-Timers’ Day.

Paulson: Oh, we need to tell folks a little bit more about that. After the loss of your daughter, your son wrote a column for The New York Times.

Bouton: Yeah, he wrote a surprise Father’s Day letter to the editor, which they ran as their Father’s Day piece. And I knew nothing about it until my other son, David, called me Sunday morning and read it to me over the telephone.

Paulson: And, and he suggested that it was time for the Yankees to set aside any resentment. And, and what’s so odd about that is that the Yankees of 1970 bore no relationship to the Yankees of today.

Bouton: Exactly.

Paulson: And yet a team with tradition, apparently, is also traditional about its grudges, and they weren’t inviting you back. And, so, they saw that there’d be probably some benefit in inviting you back, and they did that. Can you talk about that day you walked back on the field at Yankee Stadium?

Bouton: Well, it was a very emotional day, obviously, the first time back in 28 years. And mixed emotions. You know, I was happy to be back, and it was great to have those fans accepting me and cheering me and no, no feeling at all about “I shouldn’t have said that about Mickey Mantle,” none of that. My teammates were really good to me. Except for a couple guys, most of them were, you know, really glad to see me. So, that was fun. But then the sad part was, I knew why I was back there: because Laurie had died and Michael had written this beautiful letter in which he made a reference to Laurie and, “Let bygones be bygones. Life is short,” you know? So, I went back and forth between, you know, having a broken heart and a silly grin on my face at the same time.

Paulson: Well, speaking of life being short, it was a loss in Mickey Mantle’s life that brought the two of you together. I guess you never actually had a conversation—

Bouton: No.

Paulson:— but a message was left?

Bouton: Yes. Mickey never spoke to me after Ball Four. And that was — I guess the last time I saw him was with the Yankees in 1967. I may have seen him in the role of a sportscaster. But in any case, in 1994, his son Billy passed away. Or it might have been ’95. And I sent him a note telling him how badly I felt, that I had a nice memory of Billy running around the clubhouse in spring training. He was always a polite little boy. And I told Mickey I’ll take this opportunity to say I hoped he was feeling OK about Ball Four these days. I never wrote it to hurt him. And I never expected to hear back from him. I told him I was also proud to be his teammate. And I never thought he’d respond to it. You know, Mickey’s not the kind of guy that spontaneously reaches out very easily. Ten days went by, and I walked into my office, and my secretary was standing by the answering machine of my telephone. She says, “I want you to play this one yourself.” So, I punched the button, and I heard that Oklahoma twang. “Hi, Jim. This is Mick. I got your note about Billy. Thank you. And I just want you to know something,” he said, “I, I’m OK about Ball Four these days. And one more thing,” he said, “I want you to know I’m not the reason you don’t get invited back to Old-Timers’ Day.” He said, “I heard that going around,” he said, “That’s not true. I never said that to anybody. Anyway, thanks for your note.” So, I saved it, obviously. I still have it. And it meant an awful lot to me. So, while we never spoke, we, we, we sort of, we sort of made up there.

Paulson: Well, after the — what appeared to be the end of your career with Houston — do you believe, by the way, that they released you because of the book? Or was it just baseball?

Bouton: No, it was just baseball. Believe me, if I could have gotten hitters out, I’d still be pitching. As I once said, “Charles Manson would be playing third base if he could hit .310.”

Paulson: [Laughs] Well, so, you were done with baseball, or so it appeared. And then you pick up the ball again, and you get into your head that you want to pitch professionally again. What drove that?

Bouton: I don’t know. Some — it was a crazy period in my life, and I guess I was having a midlife crisis, and I needed to — a challenge. And a voice in the back of my head over in the crazy section said, you know, “Go back to baseball. See if you can make it back a second time. It might be fun.” So, I played Minor League ball. Two years.

Paulson: And you, you probably had a knuckleball to rely on then.

Bouton: Yeah, it was all smoke and mirrors. A little of this. A little of that. Throwing knuckleballs. And then, of course, they thought a knuckleball was coming, and then something slower would come. It was very confusing.

Paulson: [Laughs] Does it surprise you, the longevity of some ballplayers now?

Bouton: No, no, because they take care of the guys today. They count their pitches, and they have all sorts of training devices. They pitch once every five or six days, not once every four days. They, they treat the players like thoroughbred horses, you know, we were farm animals.

Paulson: You have written a novel with a baseball theme.

Bouton: Yeah, baseball theme. It’s a story of an umpire, a home plate umpire that’s fixing a game. And it’s told from two points of view: the umpire who’s fixing the game and the pitcher against whom the game is being fixed, in alternating chapters, inning by inning. I write the pitcher’s side of it, and Eliot Asinof, the author of Eight Men Out, wrote the umpire’s side of it. So, he’s the umpire. I’m the pitcher.

Paulson: Having written the book with Asinof, whose book on the Chicago White Sox becoming the Black Sox is, is, you know, thorough and compelling and obviously laid the foundation for a pretty remarkable film—

Bouton: Yeah.

Paulson: — as well, it does raise the question, “Could somebody throw a game? Today?”

Bouton: It would be hard to do. You’d have to have the umpire, I think, home plate umpire. Or you’d have to have a pitcher, a pitcher and a catcher, almost, a combination. But there’s really no incentive to do that. There’s so much money to be made playing the game legitimately —

Paulson: Right.

Bouton: — you don’t need to do something to make money illegally. Like, you know, the guys in 1919, you can understand what their motivation might have been.

Paulson: And now you have a new book. It’s called Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark. An unusual topic. And this is the, although much of your work revolves around baseball, this has to do with a ballpark that is, is one of the most historic in the nation. How did it come to your attention?

Bouton: Well, I live in Egremont, which is not far from Pittsfield, where Wahconah Park is located. And there had been a battle raging up in Pittsfield over whether or not to build a new stadium or, or save the old ballpark. Those are some of the two choices. And I’d been watching this go on for a couple of years, and I loved Wahconah Park. I love old ballparks. That’s one of the last of the wooden ballparks. They’d been playing baseball at that site since 1892. So, my partner and I said, “You know, we could get some money together, get some investors, renovate the ballpark, put a professional team in there from the Northern League or the Atlantic League, and, and give Pittsfield its own locally owned baseball team.” They won’t be held hostage, as they are year to year. You know, “Build us a new stadium, or you’ll never see your team again,” which is the threat that team owners make to cities all over the country. So, we wanted to sort of turn that upside down, and we would have a locally owned team at no cost to the taxpayers. We bring this idea to the city of Pittsfield, and we think it’s a no-brainer. They’re gonna go for this. Nobody has ever volunteered to invest money in this historic ballpark. And then we get attacked and, and beat up by — not physically beat up but rhetorically beat up and editorially abused by The Berkshire Eagle, which, which wants to build a baseball stadium on property that it owns. So, you have The Berkshire Eagle against us. It’s the only daily newspaper in town. And, so, we have the tyranny of a one-newspaper town.

Paulson: I want to read a paragraph that caught my eye here, because the show is about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and, and all the fundamental liberties of expression. And you’ve got a paragraph in here referring to a Founding Father. You say, “The most insidious of the new stadium supporters are the media, the so-called free press that Thomas Jefferson once said was more important to democracy than a legislature.” Pretty tough stuff. You believe that to be the case for all press, or are you limiting your comments to The Berkshire Eagle?

Bouton: No. I, well, I don’t have firsthand experience with a lot of the media. I’m extremely nervous about the concentration in fewer and fewer hands. I don’t like corporations owning media. I don’t think they should be allowed to do that. So, that makes me nervous. But I never expected to run into anything like this in my life. And it was only after, you know, about a month of being involved in this project that I decided, you know, “I should start taking notes here.” I mean, here you have a city of Pittsfield, and the decisions are being made behind closed doors, and the City Council is beholden to the publisher of the newspaper, and the publisher of the newspaper needs to call his boss in Denver, Colorado, Dean Singleton, who owns MediaNews Group. So, the decisions on people in Pittsfield, their, their future and their baseball destiny, is in the hands of a guy in Denver. I just thought that was, you know, outrageous and needed to be written about.

Paulson: I loved your description of the ballpark. I mean, you convey so clearly why this has to be preserved, beginning with the people who played in this park. Can you talk about the history of, of, you know, this extraordinary facility?

Bouton: Well, it’s, you know, it’s an old wooden park. It’s situated backwards so that the sun sets in center field, which shines in the batter’s eyes. So, there’s always a ten-minute period where the umpire has to call time out because of a sun delay, which is a, you know, a nice marketing opportunity. Everybody goes and gets a hot dog. So, that’s part of its charm. It’s got quirky distances: a deep, deep right center field and a shorter left field. The stands are very close to the field. You can hear the players, you know, calling to each other. It’s just a, you know, sweet old venue that’s been called “Rockwell-esque” and “a baseball cathedral.”

Paulson: Lou Gehrig played there.

Bouton: Lou Gehrig, yeah. Casey Stengel got thrown out of a game there. Sugar Ray Robinson boxed there. Jim Thorpe played there.

Paulson: Wow. Well, we don’t want to give away the end of the book, but, I think, suffice it to say that you fight the good fight. You document very carefully what’s going on in the community. And you make the case for the need to preserve not just this ballpark but a lot of historic ballparks and, for that matter, American history to the extent we haven’t torn it down and razed it. There are a lot of beautiful things from a century ago that we can’t afford to lose.

Bouton: Yeah. That’s, that was the first point I wanted to make, was to try to save this old ballpark and talk about why these buildings are, are important to people. But the point that I ended up making inadvertently, I think, deals with this issue of free press and to what extent, what obligation does a local newspaper have to its community in terms of at least staying out of anything that would give it a conflict of interest, which is what we had here.

Paulson: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. And I think that’s one of the challenges you have when — look at the Chicago Tribune owning the Chicago Cubs.

Bouton: Exactly. Why should you have to wonder—

Paulson: Right.

Bouton: — whether what you’re reading is influenced by the cross-ownership of various corporations?

Paulson: Like all of your books, Foul Ball is a thought-provoking work and will probably prompt all kinds of responses from people in power. Have they read the book yet?

Bouton: Yeah, The Berkshire Eagle has read it. They’re already starting to tee off in advance.

Paulson: I see.

Bouton: Get their shots in. It’s OK. The, the book speaks for itself.

Paulson: As do you. Our guest today has been author and former Major League pitcher Jim Bouton.