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In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

Formative books

I think we all had our formative books: those that stayed with us, changed our young outlooks, made us who we are. I certainly did, and they have been on my mind lately.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine l’Engle): a book with a Christian theme, thus considered acceptable kid reading at the psychotic religious school I attended in Colorado. (Heritage Christian School, Fort Collins, CO, 1971-74, still haven’t forgotten you or the sadism. Have a good day.) At that age, I didn’t quite get it, but on a later re-read I did. There is a misfit character in the book named Meg, who is obstinate and emotional and doesn’t quite meet everyone’s lofty expectations. There comes a point where all the children are given gifts, and Meg is told: “Meg, I give you your faults.” Later on, she comes to understand and wield her obstinacy and passion as weapons.

Meg was my inspiration. I realized I would probably go through most of my life agreeing with very few people, constantly pressured to conform and fall into line, ridiculed when I would fail to do so, and never much of a group joiner. Meg also taught me that, as long as I was committed to immunity to peer pressure and okay with its consequences, I would right a few wrongs and get a few things done through simple obstinacy. I’d make a few enemies doing that, and I’d baffle people who would not understand why I cared, but that was why I had to get serious about rejecting peer pressure.

1984 (George Orwell): didn’t really get it in high school, but definitely got it in college. It was one of the texts for my modern European history survey with the late, revered Jon Bridgman, in the book’s actual titular year. At the time, I could see that there was a strong pattern of speech policing and suppression of ideas in academia, though they didn’t torture people for ‘wrong thinking.’ Then I saw that society offered the same thing, increasingly, over the course of my lifetime, though not always in the same direction. I saw mass hysteria and mass conformity, and I saw those become the social rule.

And I realized that no matter who Big Brother might represent in my world, for my own sense of self, I’d better commit to hating him all day long. Otherwise I’d be drawn into the mass conformity, and while a part of me would be happier, the majority of me would know I’d sold out.

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn): and here was the full tale of life in katorga, corrective labor in camps, for those who did not toe the Soviet line. I didn’t know what our best solution was, but from that I knew one potential solution that had an irredeemable flaw. That said, as I studied Russian in high school, Solzhenitsyn was a hero of mine. He had gone ahead with publication knowing what it would cost him personally. He may be Russia’s greatest modern writer. If I was going to despise authoritarianism, Solzhenitsyn showed me why one might.

Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck with Ed Linn): I found my copy of this as a battered spine-split paperback among Gothic novels on the shelves of a house my family rented in northern Colorado when I was seven. The more I learned about Veeck, the more I yearned to have been born in a time when I could just travel to his operation and start picking up litter outside the ballpark until he finally gave me a job. Baseball can be stuffy, and that’s an insult no one ever directed at William Veeck Jr. He put clowns in the base coaching boxes. He invented the exploding scoreboard. Most famously, he sent a little person up to bat. Veeck was what the dictionary people are trying to describe when they seek to define the word ‘rollicking.’ We miss him terribly.

Ball Four (Jim Bouton): another great nonconformist book, for which the author paid the price. Bouton had risen so far as to win two World Series games for the Yankees, back when I was a tot. By the time I was six, he was throwing the knuckleball and trying to stay in the game with an expansion team. Bouton was a freethinker in the most resistant to change of all our sporting cultures, wearing a weird number, throwing a weird pitch, liking hippies and the players’ union, and all that made him somewhat of an outsider even before he wrote this tell-all book about the season. No one credibly tried to say that the book was untrue; the knock on Bouton was that he shouldn’t have written it.

As for me, I found it hilarious, bawdy, and invigorating. I was a teenager living in a small, stupid, brutal logging town, I didn’t fit in and never would, and Bouton was speaking my language. Later in life, when I went back to real baseball and was recovering from a serious injury with a new team, I donned #56–Bouton’s number, the symbol of the nonconformist and the comeback. I even learned to throw a good enough knuck to earn one start and one relief trip to the mound. Without Bouton, I’m not entirely sure I would have made it through my teens as a free adult.

They weren’t all nonconformist, though…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Howard Pyle): what many don’t realize is that there’s no single authoritative canon of the Robin Hood legend. To the extent that one takes it as fiction, the story can be what the author desires. Pyle’s treatment is the adventure classic I read until the covers began to fall off, and loved more and more each time. Comedy, good vs. evil, culture and history…just the thing for an early readers.

The Mad Scientists’ Club (Bertrand R. Brinley): kids, when we were young, what happened was the school passed around an Arrow book catalogue, from which we could order whichever books we could convince our parents to fund. It took weeks to receive them, but we did. As I remember, this was one such.

The book is about a group of young nerds with a lot of scientific ambition. It doesn’t set out to be comical; that was part of its genius. It told a good story, but it also told a story of gifted boys having adventures. It would be a mistake to call it ‘young adult,’ because adults are eighteen and over, and this is for teens and pre-teens. It’s worth the effort to hunt up.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain): this produced hilarious results. I loved it, of course, and for the record, the un-PC aspects didn’t imprint racism on my little brain; they showed me how it was back then, without sanitizing. However, my parents were Kansans, and in addition to the Kansas vs. Missouri rivalry that has its roots in eleven years of mutual atrocity and reprisal, there’s the fact that educated Kansans like my parents tend to recoil from the Cletus stereotype. So when I began talking like Tom Sawyer, you can imagine their horror. I didn’t understand the freakout; it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was correct. I guess it’s the same freakout my second grade teacher had when I deliberately misspelled every word on a writing assignment. (Sorry, Mrs. Fulks. That really was disrespectful of me.)

Dune (Frank Herbert): for me, the impact was in the frank way it proposed viewpoints that held water, yet were unpalatable to speak in our own society. “We mustn’t run short of filmbase. How will the people know how well I govern them if I don’t tell them?” In two sentences, gone is the folly that the People are Wise; they are acknowledged as too foolish to discern the truth. The entrenched oligarchy without apologies: what we have, but what we are supposed, even ordered, to insist we do not have, and its ownership class expected to issue the usual pro forma denials. I have only so much patience for certain types of idealism, and Herbert presents a universe with very little.

No, I didn’t see the movie. Whatever movie you are asking about, I haven’t seen it.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (C.S. Forester): it was the first in a long series devoted to a flawed but mostly admirable semi-historical figure during the Age of Sail. It wallowed in British chauvinism while showing up all the weaknesses of the British system. It inspired. It made one wish to be able to say one had walked the decks with roundshot coming in through the side. And while it did so, it taught a great many lessons about leadership. Were it in my power, every midshipman at Annapolis and New London would read and write a paper on the entire series, of which the given title is the first.

The David Kopay Story (David Kopay with Perry Dean Young): growing up, I guess I was as homophobic as the garden variety small-town American boy, but that was already unraveling by my mid-teens. This book would help that process. Kopay, the first NFL figure to come out, was an alum of the dream school that I would later attend. His story filled me with admiration, because he had done two impressive things: he had made an NFL career out of hustle and desire and a little bit of talent, and he had taken a public stand for which there would be consequences.

I understood Kopay immediately: he had never set out to become an activist, though his actions pushed him into that position. Above all, he was a competitor. I would play sports into my mid-forties, always with a couple of ounces of talent and a whole lot of fight (at times arguably too much), and Kopay was among my inspirations.

 

Here’s a valid question that might occur to some in our control-oriented society with its schools like jails and its universal surveillance and its obsession with minor wrongdoings: could my parents have shaped my behavior through the books they provided?

I don’t think so, and here is why: so many of the books did not take. Yeah, I may have started a lamentable speaking habit after reading Tom Sawyer, but it didn’t stick. Treasure Island didn’t turn me into a pirate. The Bible didn’t stay with me long after my liberation from high school. The books that influenced me did so because they resonated with what I already was, even going back to toddlerhood. I read plenty of books that didn’t change me: Helter Skelter, for example, or None Dare Call It Conspiracy. No, I don’t think it has much targetable impact.

Thank the gods it’s not that easy.

Doubled off second on an infield fly

In my thirties and early forties, I played adult baseball. Most of the people I played with were younger than me, which made it challenging, but for the most part I had a great time. Well, except for the torn cartilage, and the ruptured achilles, and a few other bummers. There were two comebacks, sort of similar to Jim Bouton’s career. I even learned to throw a knuckleball, as did Bouton, and in my last go-round wore his #56 as well.

You can’t play very much baseball for very long without seeing some humorous situations on and off the field. There was the time Frenchy, desperate for a toilet at Bellevue CC (which didn’t even have sani-cans), climbed atop a stack of old tires and had a particularly disappointing bowel movement in them. The league almost got kicked off using BCC’s field. There was Riggs, an old fellow and a great baseball mind who looked a little bit like Burleigh Grimes, especially when his face got all red and he complained to umpires. We would all be in the dugout making the Riggs complaint face and laughing. There was the time I got my very first print credit in a book, and told my team at practice. A couple of them spat sunflower seeds or chew, and I think one muttered, “Will it help you hit a good curveball?” They didn’t care. This was a baseball dugout.

One funny story had a tragic coda, and I wouldn’t have laughed about it in the same way for years had I known. When I was on the Rattlers in my early forties, we had a kid named Andy Hyde. Andy was one of those unpredictable loose cannons, and was not especially popular. He had a way of saying things that stung, making petty complaints, ignoring direction. He once tailgated me most of the way home on his motorcycle, so close that I had to resist the temptation to tap the brakes. One time I was watching July 4 fireworks with our catcher, Josh Langlois, and some of his friends. As we were walking back, we saw someone on a motorcycle being arrested. It was Andy; for what offense, I never learned.

Andy resisted base coaching. I don’t mean that he listened, then did something else. I mean that he yelled at you to shut up, complaining that he couldn’t run the bases and listen to a base coach at the same time. Well, in baseball, you kind of have to accept some coaching. Now, in case you aren’t familiar with the rule, in baseball there’s an infield fly rule. If there are less than two out with a force play at third base, and the batter pops up a fair ball in the infield, an umpire bellows: “Infield fly! Batter’s out!” It doesn’t matter whether anyone catches the ball; the batter is out. No runners are forced. If someone does catch the ball, however, the runners may tag up and advance at their peril, just as with any caught fly ball. (If they let it drop, the runners don’t have to tag up.)

One day I was coaching third base, with someone on first and Andy on second. Thus, if our batter popped up in the infield, this rule would apply. In such a case, the runners should hold if a fielder even looks like he might catch the ball. Sure enough, our hitter popped one up to second. The umpire called the infield fly rule–but Andy had taken off for third base on contact. He got 3/4 of the way to third base before finally paying attention to my very colorful exhortations to return to second. While a speedy base runner, not even most major leaguers could have come that far and then gotten back to second in time. Their second baseman made the catch, flipped it to the shortstop covering second base. Andy was out by at least five feet. Double play! It was one of the dumbest plays I’d ever seen. Perhaps the very dumbest.

Andy didn’t stay with the Rattlers that long, and we didn’t hear much about him after that. A few years later, our self-adopted daughter called with some very sad news. Not too far from her home in Burbank, late at night, Andy had driven his car up to a fenced transformer. He’d scaled the fence, climbed over the inclined barbed wire at the top, walked over and grabbed the transformer. As I recall, she wasn’t the one who had found him, and gods be thanked for that. There was no other plausible explanation except suicide.

I hadn’t really considered Andy a friend, but I felt someone from the league should be at his funeral. I wore my jersey. I learned that he had been a star athlete in school, but had battled mental problems in young adulthood. He heard voices, did erratic things, perceived dangers that didn’t actually exist. He had gone into the Navy, and it had worsened his condition to the point where they discharged him. For years he had struggled to see the world with basic clarity, hold some form of employment, and avoid letting his demons lead him into trouble. As for whether he climbed into the transformer intent on suicide, or simply perceived it as something other than thousands of volts of live current, that we can’t ever know. We didn’t know the world his mind knew. His family grieved him, though years of trying to help him had worn on them. He had been just functional enough to get himself into serious predicaments, without the clarity to extricate himself. Nice family, compassionate people; one could not watch and hear them without feeling some of their pain.

In a way, it’s still funny, simply because of the preternatural dumbness of getting doubled up on a play where all one has to do is stay put. But it’s more unfunny than funny, because now I know why he couldn’t listen to base coaches. They were just more voices adding to his clamor. He lived in a world of pain and fear and confusion, one none of us could see.

I guess sometimes we only later come to grasp the rest of the story. What it has meant to me, I guess, is that I should generally try to hold a part of my judgment back. There may be another 2/3 of the story I never knew.