Review of Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original

Nathanson, Mitchell. Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original. University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Pp. 407. Acknowledgments, bibliography, epilogue, index, notes, photographs, prologue, $34.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 major league baseball season may seem tame today, but Ball Four’s release 50 years ago caused a furor. A book written by an athlete had rarely been so honest and relevant. It was an unvarnished view inside the locker room, and while it made Bouton a “social leper” in the eyes of columnists like Dick Young of the New York Daily News, it was an immediate bestseller because of its honesty.

Bouton was a struggling pitcher when he began taking notes, literally hanging on, as he wrote at the time, by his fingernails as he decided to exclusively throw the knuckleball. Bouton had two strong seasons with the New York Yankees, winning 21 games in 1963 and 18 more games and a pair of World Series games the following year. A sore arm derailed Bouton’s career and he finished with a 62-63 record. But Bouton’s biggest contribution to baseball was his keen powers of observation, which came to light in Ball Four. Now, Mitchell Nathanson has contributed a solid, detailed and intriguing biography of the maverick pitcher-turned-author.

University Nebraska Press, 2020.

In Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Nathanson, a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law, presents a balanced look at Bouton, who died last July at the age of 80 after a long struggle with vascular dementia. The book has a May 1 release date.

Nathanson probes Bouton’s inventive side and how he challenged baseball’s establishment. He also reveals the self-centered, shoot-from-the-hip persona that Bouton’s former roommate in Houston, Norm Miller, said was similar to the knuckleball because “he had difficulty controlling it.” (p. 276)

Bouton and his second wife, Paula Kurman, approved Nathanson’s project after he visited them at their Massachusetts home in 2016. Nathanson reached Bouton just in time. The former pitcher suffered a stroke in 2012, and five years later he revealed he had cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease. The Boutons insisted they did not want a “puff piece” of a biography, Nathanson writes. (p. 362). They didn’t get one. Nathanson, who has written a biography about Dick Allen (God Almighty Hisself), the Philadelphia Phillies (The Fall of the 1977 Philadelphia Phillies) and A People’s History of Baseball, is evenhanded with his compliments and criticisms.

Bouton gets high marks for his courage in writing Ball Four, his willingness to mingle with the younger generation of sportswriters — derisively nicknamed chipmunks — his fearlessness in taking political stands on Vietnam and civil rights when baseball players were generally mute on the issues, and his generosity toward young fans.

On the negative side, Bouton always insisted he had “to be true to myself.” (p. 79). He refused to read scores during his newscasts and antagonized his fellow broadcasters. He had affairs while his first wife, Bobbie, was at home with their three children. He also removed Leonard Shecter’s name from the cover of Ball Four when anniversary editions of the book were released so it “looked cleaner.”

Shecter, a sportswriter for the New York Post and later the sports editor for Look magazine, died in 1974. He originally edited Bouton’s prose, producing a cohesive narrative from 15 cassette tapes and 978 scraps of paper. Shecter pushed Bouton to provide candor and insight to make Ball Four a unique sports book. Previous diaries, like pitcher Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (1960) and Pennant Race (1962) — along with Jerry Kramer’s diary of the 1967 NFL season, Instant Replay, andBill Freehan’s 1970 book, Behind the Mask — gave sports fans a glimpse into the locker room.

Ball Four kicked the door down, making it much more than a “tell-some” book. Amphetamine use (they were called “greenies” in 1969), voyeurism and rough clubhouse humor were covered in detail. Friction between teammates, petty moves by front office executives and the unintentional wit and wisdom of Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz proved to be a gold mine for Bouton. Schultz would later say Bouton cruelly diminished him, Nathanson writes. (p. 135)

In one of his few moments of hyperbole, Nathanson compares the Bouton-Shecter collaboration as “the sportswriting equivalent of Lennon and McCartney.” (p. 137) However, the writing process that shaped Ball Four demonstrated that putting together a groundbreaking book could be more than a hard day’s night. “(Shecter) had a hot, sticky apartment,” Bouton told Nathanson. “And he’d say, ‘Take your pants off, Bouton. We’ve got a long night ahead of us.’” “And there’d they be,” Nathanson writes. “Two men, in their underwear, shaping the raw material that in less than a year’s time would become Ball Four.” (p. 137)

Bouton also presents a literary locker room view of the publishing business, complete with friction, pettiness and intrigue. He describes how Bouton and Shecter had to fight to keep passages the publishers wanted removed. World Publishing’s lawyers targeted 42 items as “potential legal land mines.” Bouton and Shecter only yielded on five of them.

Nathanson also examines the criticism leveled at Ball Four when it was released — that it was Shecter, not Bouton, who was the writing wizard. And, that Bouton was surreptitiously taking notes. Yet, several players are quoted in Ball Four as saying, “Hey, put that in your book.” The note-taking did not jolt the players. Rather, “it was the frankness of the book that startled them,” Nathanson writes. “So much so that when asked about it, they claimed ignorance of the entire thing.” (p. 135)

Those criticisms came from some of Shecter’s contemporaries. Young, a groundbreaking sportswriter who was the first to enter the locker room and talk to players when he covered the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1950s, was upset by Ball Four. Young’s vitriol inadvertently gave Bouton the quote he would use to title his follow-up book to Ball Four, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. It was professional jealousy. “In truth, all of Young’s bluster was cover for his pique that the man who considered himself the game’s ultimate insider was scooped,” Nathanson writes. (p. 161)

The Ball Four stories are enough to carry the book, but Nathanson realized there was life before and after the bestseller list. He delves into Bouton’s childhood and his early success with the New York Yankees. He interviewed the kids who began his fan club in the mid-1960s and wrote a newsletter, “All About Bouton,” and his relationship with the “chipmunk” writers. “The Chipmunks saw Bouton as their Sinatra, their Merry Prankster,” Nathanson writes. “An increasingly rogue spirit with a singular style.” (p. 109).

That style bought Bouton credibility post-baseball when he became a sportscaster for WABC and, later, WCBS. But not without some drama. Fellow sportscaster Sal Marchiano told Nathanson that Bouton “was more interested in promoting himself. That’s the bottom line, to me, about his broadcasting career. It was about him.” (p. 211)

Behind the swagger and ego, there was a gentler side to Bouton, Nathanson writes. He goes into greater detail about the 4-year-old Korean boy Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, adopted. Kyong Jo, who later Americanized his name to David, had trouble adjusting when he first entered the Bouton household. The boy was angry his birth mother had abandoned him and was convinced his adopted family did not live in the United States. The child said the family would take him to America, where he would go into stores and see aisles of toys, clothes and electronics. But when the family got in the car to go home, Kyong Jo said that place “wasn’t America at all.” (p. 115). Slowly, painfully, the boy adapted to American life. It’s a tender story rarely told about Bouton.

Other chapters revealed the twists in life that bedeviled him like the knuckleball he attempted to master. There was the tragic death of Bouton’s daughter, Laurie, who was involved in an automobile accident in 1997. In 1998, his son, Michael, wrote an op-ed to The New York Times on Father’s Day in 1998, asking the Yankees to invite Bouton to Old Timers Day.

Bouton remained a tinkerer and a hustler to the end. He hit it big with former minor league teammate Rob Nelson when they developed Big League Chew, which was bubblegum in a pouch made to look like chewing tobacco. “He was always on the lookout for the next big thing,” Nathanson writes. “Always in search of a new and different way to bring in income and have fun while doing it.” (p. 302)

Bouton is bolstered by Nathanson’s research, as he used newspaper and magazine articles to provide background. He also did extensive interviews with Bouton, his two brothers, his two wives — Bobbie Bouton-Goldberg and Paula Kurman — and Jill Baer, who had an affair with Bouton. Nathanson also talked with former teammates and journalists to present a more rounded view.

Bouton deserves space next to Ball Four on the bookshelf of sports fans and sports historians. Nathanson has done a thorough job of chronicling the life of a complex man who changed the game of baseball, not by what he achieved inside the foul lines, but what he observed on the field, in the clubhouse and on the road.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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