40 Years After 'Ball Four,' Baseball Still Breaks Hearts

Jim Bouton's diary, Ball Four was first published in 1970 and has been acclaimed as one of the best books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library. It's the diary of an aging, fading baseball pitcher, playing for a team that will disappear after a year, struggling to hold on to his knuckleball and the game that has him by the heart-strings. Host Scott Simon speaks to Bouton about the scandals that have plagued Major League Baseball since his bestseller was published.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

What are some of the great published diaries? Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, Kenneth Tynan. Then there's the diary of an aging, fading baseball pitcher playing for a team that'll disappear after a year, struggling to hold on to his knuckleball, and the game that has him by the heart-strings.

That book, "Ball Four," by Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Shecter, was first published in 1970. It's been acclaimed as one of the best books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library. The book made a number of revelations that seem tame today: that young baseball players on the road look at young women; that some great players, like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, didn't drink wheatgrass at night; that players popped pills, and baseball executives could be craven and deceptive.

"Ball Four" has been republished every 10 years or so, and may be for another century. It also made the Seattle Pilots survive far longer in literature than they did in real life.

Jim Bouton joins us now from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jim, happy anniversary.

Mr. JIM BOUTON (Author, "Ball Four"): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: To remember the reception, the furor, really, that surrounded "Ball Four" 40 years ago - and it must be said that it was less among people who'd been your teammates in the 1969 season on the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, but players on other teams and sportswriters who thought you'd kind of violated the privilege of the locker room.

Can we carefully remember what Pete Rose used to shout at you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOUTON: Im pitching in Cincinnati, and this is shortly after "Ball Four" came out, and Pete Rose is standing on the top step of the dugout and he's screaming at the top of his lungs: (Bleep) you, Shakespeare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOUTON: I couldnt help but laugh.

SIMON: Well, I mean Im sure the remark hurt you to the quick. But that being said...

Mr. BOUTON: Well, coming from Pete Rose, I really appreciated the literary reference. I mean can you imagine? He knew who Shakespeare was.

SIMON: Was it in a way, that remark, kind of emblematic - forgive me for using that phrase - of the sense of humor that was all part of what you loved about baseball?

Mr. BOUTON: Yes, it was. I've always thought that traveling around with a baseball team was one of the most fantastic things a guy could do. And I learned this my first year in the Minor Leagues when I signed a contract, and this was 1959. And one of the great things about the Minor Leagues back then is everybody was signed right out of high school. There was no draft so you could sign whenever you wanted to, but you had to have your parents' permission cause you couldnt sign a contract unless you were 21.

You're traveling around with this bunch of guys from all parts of the country, unpolished, did not have the homogenizing experience of college. And they're cocky cause they're - they were great. They were the best players that ever played in their town or their country or their state. And here they are with all their regionalisms and their prejudices.

I mean when you had a guy from Brooklyn and you got a guy from Alabama, you got Brooklyn, you got Alabama. Now throw them all together and they're competing, not just against the other team, but they're competing against each other for opportunities to play. And for most of these guys, for the first time in their life, they're failing. I mean they hit .600 in high school, .500. You know, they never lost a game when they were pitchers, and now they're struggling. And to see how they reacted to adversity and each other was very comical.

And I came home from my first summer in the Minor Leagues, and I was telling my friends and family what it's like to be a professional baseball player. And they would all say the same thing: You should keep notes. Maybe you'll write a book one day. And so it was always in the back of my mind that I would try to sort of capture that lifestyle.

SIMON: It's also instructive how little money you and general managers used to haggle over. You earned what - $15,000?

Mr. BOUTON: It was pitiful. I was eight years in the Major Leagues, won some World Series games, won 20 games. My average salary for eight years: $19,000. And, you know, we all wanted to be ballplayers and so, you know, we signed.

SIMON: Alex Rodriguez earns $62,000 every time he comes to bat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now, I mean you were...

Mr. BOUTON: Thats a little high. I'd say I'd give him like 58, 59 - somewhere in there.

SIMON: I mean you were always an advocate for player's rights and the free agency system. But you absorb a statistic like that and you wonder, have salaries become twisted?

Mr. BOUTON: Here's the way I look at it. For a hundred years, the owners screwed the players. For about 30 years, the players have screwed the owners. Theyve got 70 years to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOUTON: Scott, they're bargaining for their talent in a free market. Nobody forces them to pay this money. The owners only pay it because they believe they're going to get that money back. It's an investment. Its free market.

SIMON: What, in your judgment, is better and worse about baseball today?

Mr. BOUTON: I can't stand celebrations. These guys celebrate home runs like they just discovered a cure for cancer. And then they come in from home plate -and this is a, this is a, you know, this is a Thursday night game, doesnt mean anything. And they go to the dugout and the fans are demanding a curtain call -a curtain call because the guy just put his team ahead by one run. Oh, and then they're trotting around the bases. This is a whole ritual, with the hands up in the air and pointing here and pointing there, and then kissing jewelry, all of that stuff. Come on. Give me a break. You hit a home run, go in there, sit down and shut up, because it's been done before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I re-read the ending to Ball Four the other night, which is, I think, one of the great endings of any sports book. And its you leaving the team, not certain whats going to happen in the offseason - its the Houston Astros - and youre gripping a baseball. You just pick it up and you say, you see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.

Mr. BOUTON: Yeah, thats something that you realize, you know, later on, toward the end of your career. And by that time, the book had been mostly written or talked into the tape recorder of the actual process. And I had become a much keener observer of my teammates, and I think a better understanding of my relationship with the game.

As an author that summer, I began to look at my teammates in a new way. I did not I no longer saw them as teammates or competitors for opportunities to play, but I saw them as characters, as I got to really listen to people and watch them carefully and have a whole new appreciation for them.

SIMON: A day-long celebration of Ball Four"'s 40th anniversary will be held at the Burbank Central Library Auditorium next Saturday, September 18th.

Jim Bouton, author of "Ball Four," thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BOUTON: Thank you, Scott.

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