Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jim Bouton's Ball Four

At the end of Ball Four, Bouton writes: "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." This book caused a lot of controversy when it was first published, because Bouton shared with the world the details of clubhouse grab-ass, pranks, and dirty jokes, the life of a professional athlete on the road, and the Catch-22-like absurdity of coaches and general managers. He revealed that Mickey Mantle was a heavy drinker, that Whitey Ford and Elston Howard cheated by doctoring baseballs, front offices took advantage of poorly-educated players, and how any number of other baseball figures from the 60's and 70's weren't the milk-drinking, apple pie-eating heroes that the media had made them out to be. Bouton was ostracized for writing this book, even years later, when Mantle's drinking, Ford's cheating, and the unsavory business practices of team owners had become common knowledge. In spite of all of that, Bouton's love of the game is so genuine that the beautiful epigraph with which he closes the book feels completely earned. If anything, Bouton was trying to rescue the game he loved from the way it was exploited by its management and taken for granted by the vast majority of its players. Bouton's complaints about the life of a major league ballplayer are legitimate - Bouton does an excellent job of making us feel the day-to-day anxiety of knowing that you could be traded, or sent to the minors, and have to uproot your entire family and relocate to a strange city on short notice, through no fault of your own. Also, before free agency, players rarely earned more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year, good money for seven months' work, but not enough that players didn't have to work jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. To Bouton's credit, he always makes those complaints with a grain of salt, because he recognizes that he would rather have his complaints over those of another person almost any day of the week.

Ball Four is organized as a season-long diary, dictated by Bouton as he went from hotel to hotel throughout the course of the season. For much of its first half, Bouton uses the events of his life as jumping-off points to tell anecdotes collected throughout the course of his nine-year career. In the second half of the book, minor characters from the first half reappear in new contexts, there are callbacks to some great jokes, and the book begins to seem like more of a thematic whole, instead of "just" a diary. People familiar with the baseball movies of the 80's and 90's - Bull Durham, Major League, Eight Men Out, etc. - will recognize a lot of types in this book. In some ways, Jim Bouton has a lot of the same attributes of Bull Durham's Crash Davis - he has spent a lifetime in the game, learned its lessons, and wants one more shot at glory before calling it a career and finding a 'real' job. Bouton had an enormous amount of success early in his career, having 20-win seasons and going to the World Series several times with the Yankees, only to injure his arm at age 26 (most likely because the Yankees overused him) and spent the next five years scraping by as a marginal player, eventually getting released by the Yankees and signing on with the Seattle Pilots (later the Milwaukee Brewers) and the Houston Astros. Few players have seen as many different sides of the game of baseball as Jim Bouton, and, in Ball Four, he shows all of them to us.

A lot of the book's negative attention was due to the fact that he pulled back the curtain on the New York Yankees, who, in 1970, were still seen as America's team, a collection of clean-shaven, brush-cutted types who had mainstream-to-conservative politics and represented a simpler, pre-counter-cultural era. There's a reason that Paul Simon chose to reference a Yankee, Joe DiMaggio, in "Mrs. Robinson." In Bouton's telling, the Yankees drank just as much, if not more, than other teams, caroused on the road just as much, if not more, than other teams, and "shot beaver" - the 1960's baseball term for scoping out beautiful women and trying to look up their skirts (if they're at the ballpark) or peek through their hotel windows to catch them having sex (when they're in hotels on the road). With even a few years' hindsight, it seems obvious that the Yankees were doing all of those things, but it was shocking at the time. From the distance of forty years, the take-away is that even the most buttoned-down teams in baseball are still big collections of young men - some barely older than boys - who get paid to do their absolute favorite thing in the world. That, as much as the game itself, is the reason we watch. Who among us wouldn't want to have that much fun?

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