Jim Bouton: A truth-teller who showcased the value of voice in writing


My first copy (of many) of “Ball Four.” The best 50 cents I ever spent.

I found myself speechless last night when I learned of the death of the man who taught me to love voice in writing.

Jim Bouton, a major-league baseball pitcher in the 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 80, the victim of several strokes and a condition called vascular dementia.

I felt like I just got punched in the heart, a somewhat ridiculous notion given that I’d never met the man. However, I really felt like I KNEW him, a testament to his ability to write in a way that put his voice inside my head.

Bouton was somewhat unremarkable as a pitcher, compiling a record of 62-63, earning one all-star bid and one World Series title. He was, however, a remarkable storyteller and chronicler of a single season with the Seattle Pilots, a team that itself lasted for only one year. Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” told the stories of life inside the locker room, on the team bus and within the players’ lives in a way that had never been done to this degree before.

Others had written books that took people inside the locker room before Bouton came along and others wrote far more shocking locker room books after the publication of “Ball Four.” However, what made Bouton stand out, at least in my mind, was his voice and the way he spun his tales. The man had a way of making the reader feel like each story within the book was a shared experience from a close friend.

I came across my first copy of the book at a garage sale when I was about 20 years old. I had heard about “Ball Four” when I read a sports column a year or two earlier, so when I saw the rumpled paperback for sale, 50 cents seemed like a decent investment.

It was love at first read.

What struck me immediately was what struck Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam, who wrote in a review that “Ball Four” was “a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.” The opening line lets you into Bouton’s life in an unvarnished, honest and fearful way:

“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams…”

His dreams were those of a pitcher: To find his way back to the big leagues. To win games and become an award-winner. To beat his old team, the one that tossed him aside when he hit rock bottom. He freely admits that he doesn’t expect any of those dreams to happen, but he still wants to chase them. He wants to see if he has a little bit left in the tank.

The book doesn’t just chart the dreams of one man, but the realities of many men of that time. Ballplayers had been venerated through “milk and cookies” reporting, as Bouton noted. Their exploits on the field had been catalogued and deified while their exploits off the field had escaped notice in the press, with a wink and a nod from fawning reporters. The men engaged in all sorts of activities from popping “greenies” (amphetamines) to improve their play to “beaver shooting,” which involved spotting good-looking women in the stands during a game.

(Ballplayers cheating on their wives was a big reveal in “Ball Four.” The line that sticks out in my mind was Mike Hegan’s response to the question, “What’s the hardest thing about being a professional ballplayer?” Hegan: Explaining to your wife why she needs a shot of penicillin for your kidney infection, a clear reference to picking up an STI while on the road.)

Bouton took on issues of race, gender and fame in his book in a way that rankled the old guard of the game. He wrote about the heroes of the game, including Mickey Mantle, in such a way that he was cast out as a baseball pariah. (My edition was his 1980 update, which included his life after the original book had been published. He noted that the San Diego Padres burned copies of his book and left them for him in the visitor’s locker room. Pete Rose, who would later be banned from baseball for far worse transgressions than Bouton purportedly committed, once stood on the top step of the dugout and screamed at Bouton: “FUCK YOU, SHAKESPEARE!” Reporter Dick Young called Bouton a “social leper.”)

The irony was that the more often the baseball establishment tried to discredit and shame Bouton, the more frequently people bought his book to see what the buzz was all about. As I dug into the book, 20 years after its first pressing and 10 years after my edition had been published, I found myself transported to this incredible island of misfit toys filled with humor and strangeness. Each time I came across a passage I liked, I ripped off a small piece of my reporter’s notebook and bookmarked it. Eventually, the bookmarks so overwhelmed the book that that they essentially lost value.

“Ball Four” became one of about four books I tried to reread at least once per year, as it provided joy and new insights in each reading. At 20, the 30-year-old Bouton seemed like an elder statesman, a wizened truth-teller and inside source to me. When I read it at age 30, I saw Bouton as an every man, someone who dealt with family troubles, work hassles and a day-to-day life that was both remarkable and ordinary. When I read it at 39, I found myself focusing on the update, “Ball Five,” where he attempted a baseball comeback at age 39. The sense of longing and the sense of a need to scratch an itch, to right a wrong and to write one last chapter made sense to me, even though I’d never once thrown a knuckle ball.

The rereadings I did between now and then have actually shaped a lot of what you read here on the blog and in the textbooks I wrote for SAGE. I found myself focusing on a few elements of Bouton’s writing that gave it the vibe and feel that keeps me coming back to it time and time again. Here are three things I got out of it that I hope will inspire your writing as well:

VOICE: In writing the book, Bouton had to make notes about various situations as they happened on anything he could find. In the retrospective shows about his efforts, he displayed a trove of cocktail napkins, hotel stationary and plane tickets with pencil-scrawled bits of information. Once he was safely back in the confines of his home or his hotel room, he would use those notes to flesh out his thoughts by speaking into a portable tape recorder.

The “write it like you would say it” motif is a large part of what makes the book readable and engaging and gives it a true sense of voice. Although I don’t use the recorder trick to do so, I try to write like I would speak when I’m putting together almost anything that doesn’t involve academic research. (Academics don’t like voice. They want everything to sound like it’s being chronicled in a British accent by a guy with a bow tie and a stick up his keester.)

One of my students told me, “It’s weird but when I am reading the chapters, I hear your voice in my head.” I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, so I told her, “I hear voices in my head, too. My doctor says there’s medicine for that, but I’m afraid I’d get lonely.” I also figured that she could hear the voice because she HAD heard my voice in class. However, I ran into a student who was using the book for his class at another university and the first thing he told me was, “You sound exactly like I thought you would.”

Once you get good at the 5W’s and 1H and you can nail down a fire brief with the best of ’em, you get a little more license to write stories that require voice and feeling. The ability to use that voice, not for your own edification, but to tell stories that connect with your readers, can be a huge benefit for everyone involved. Start now by finding that voice and seeing how well it works as you tell stories.

HONESTY: Journalists are required to tell truth to power, regardless of the cost. Many of us, myself included, fall short in that area on a fairly regular basis. We don’t want to go into the corner and fight for the puck. We don’t want to ruffle feathers of sources that were decent to us or who might find a way to make our lives hellish. We don’t want to rock the boat. So, we don’t say what we see or dig into those darker corners for fear of what it might lead to.

In his life after baseball, Bouton worked as a television sports journalist for six years, where he found that telling truth to power or focusing on things the powers-that-be don’t want you to focus on led to just as many problems in media as they did in baseball. He was shunned by other journalists and players were all warned to “watch what you say” when they saw Bouton coming.

Bouton’s honesty cost him a lot in life. He lost his job in baseball, although Bouton critics would point out his pitching in 1970 had a good deal to do with that as well. He angered people in baseball so much that he wasn’t able to attend funerals for his former teammates and he never got invited to baseball events like “Oldtimers’ Day.” (As Bouton noted, “Understand, everybody gets invited back for Oldtimers’ Days, no matter what kind of rotten person he was when he was playing. Muggers, drug addicts, rapists, child molesters all are forgiven for Oldtimers’ Day. Except a certain author.”)

What struck me, however, wasn’t Bouton’s honesty about the world at large or about the escapades of his teammates, but his personal honesty. In the second edition of “Ball Four,” he talks about getting divorced and how scary it was for him. In his third update to the book, he discusses the death of his daughter, Laurie, who was killed in a car accident in 1997. In both cases, his vulnerability is as clear and prominent as it was in the original text.

He fears being cut and says as much. He worries about his teammates who are seen as nothing but bargaining chips to be shuttled around the league for other pieces of the team’s puzzle. He worries about money, security, family and more. He lets you in as a reader and that’s what makes his stories feel the way they do.

Most of what I write doesn’t have a lot of room for voice or this kind of honesty, but I push it where I can because as I’ve told anyone who will listen, I don’t just want to be a name on a book spine. It’s why I reach out to teachers who adopt the texts and respond to students who email me with questions. (It’s also why I actively try to thank the students who are given extra credit in their classes to find typos in the books and email me with their discoveries.)

Honesty breeds humanity and it makes for much better stories and connections between the reader and the author. Not every story will call for that, but it’s worth it to try when the opportunity presents itself.

HUMOR: The greatest compliment I can pay to anyone is to say, “You really made me laugh.” Bouton really made me laugh.

In some cases, it was with simple statements: “Did you know ethyl chloride can be fun?”

In other cases, it was with just crude stories, such as the time he explained how Ray Oyler caught a curveball right in the cup while warming up a pitcher in the bullpen. (Back then, the cup was a metal insert into the jock strap. Hitting someone in the cup was called “ringing the bell.”)

In most cases, it was just the way he told me about bits of life that helped me feel like I knew him. His adopted son from Korea was learning English and was doing well, although occasionally he would mix something up like burping and then saying, “Thank you.” His take on teammate Gary Bell closing the ninth inning of a game had a similar flair: “It was a minor miracle. He’s supposed to pitch tomorrow, he ran 15 wind sprints before the game and ate three sandwiches in the fourth inning. When he came into the clubhouse in the seventh to put on his supporter, he asked no one in particular if it was too late to take a greenie.”

(Bouton also wasn’t afraid to offer self-deprecating statements. He explained that he was such a poor hitter that his teammates nicknamed him, “Cancer Bat.”)

Back then and even today, people are far too serious. I can already hear people aghast at the idea of laughing at casual drug use or mocking a child who was learning a second language. Some people are perpetually offended and look at anything as a chance to pontificate on a point of extremely limited merit. What those people fail to understand is that some things can just be funny without leading to a higher discussion of larger issues.

I love funny things, even if not everyone can agree with what makes something humorous. It’s why I try to weave odd little Easter Eggs into the books. (You might notice that the phone number I use every time I need to reference one is 867-5309. If you don’t get it, look it up.) It’s why I try to use examples that are less stringent public policy and more “a guy in a onesie was arrested with his cat named Spaghetti.” Humor helps us remember things. It helps us learn. It also helps us enjoy life a little more.

If there’s one thing “Ball Four” taught me, that was it.

And that if you want to win, pretty much have to “smoke ’em inside.”

(If you want to understand that line, go read the book. It’s worth it.)



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