Saturday, May 05, 2012

Jim Bouton's Ball Four

I hadn't read Jim Bouton's Ball Four since I was a teenager in the 1980s, when a lot of the cultural references from 1969 went over my head but I had found it really funny. Reading it years later, it's even funnier. Bouton was once a Yankees ace, but arm trouble led him to take up the knuckle ball and by 1969 he ended up on the original Seattle Pilots team, and then the Astros after a trade. The book is his account of that season, by turns thoughtful and vulgar.

The key to Ball Four, as with Dirk Hayhurst's two excellent books, is the high level of honesty. He does not pull punches at himself, which makes the book real without being vindictive. He does not view himself or anyone else as exalted because they're major league baseball players, and always notes how what people are supposed to say (e.g. "I'm doing this for the team") often contradicts the truth ("I'm doing this to stay in the majors"). He skewers hypocrisy, but he's not a malcontent as he wants to stay on the team so swallows his pride when he feels it's necessary.

And it's so funny because he questions everything, especially things that aren't supposed to be questioned, like the eternal wisdom of managers and pitching coaches, who demand total control even if their decisions are illogical and/or contradictory. As he writes about his constant fight to be allowed to pitch more on the side, "What the hell was he talking about? Except that I knew. I was asking to do something unorthodox, and unorthodoxy does in baseball what heresy does in the priesthood."

It has a very well-deserved label as the classic book on baseball.

Trivia: Jim Bouton also invented Big League Chew, a staple of my little league days.


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