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Bouton Baseball

His life and hard times in the major leagues, where he learned to throw the knuckleball as well as a few well-timed curves. Batter up!

Jim Bouton's Ball Four is probably the best baseball book ever published. It is more realistic than any popular sports novel. It is less tendentious than the mythopoeic fictions of Bernard Malamud and Robert Coover, both of whom use the sport to convey some more general Theory of America. It is also superior to the realistic baseball novels of Ring Lardner (You Know Me Al) and Mark Harris (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, Ticket for a Seamstitch). Lardner and Harris--like anyone who writes traditional fiction, I suppose--exploit their subject, transforming it into a moral universe inhabited by their characters, and so in the end tell us very little about baseball. Bouton has a moral outlook, too, but it is voiced candidly and can be dismissed at will; just because they are so artful, Lardner and Harris seem to be the more insidious.

This may just be a roundabout way of indicating that one reader has preferred journalism to fiction in recent years, perhaps because he prefers his own visions to anyone else's. Bouton's book makes excellent raw material. It is far truer and meatier than the as-told-to puffs ascribed to this or that season's hero, and more serious than the histories of journeymen sportswriters like Dick Schapp. Its closest competitors are Veeck--As in Wreck, an old as-told-to by maverick club-owner Bill Veeck and sportswriter Ed Linn, and two diaries by another brainy pitcher of some skill who spent a lot of innings jawing in the bullpen, Jim Brosnan. Brosnan's books, The Long Season and Pennant Race, were almost as good around 1960 as Bouton's is in 1970. But 1970 is not only our own time, it is also an especially propitious time to write an honest book about baseball.

Those book buyers who also like sports find themselves in a quandary that is doubly perplexing at this apparently apocalyptic moment. The problem has to do with self-justification, and it is worst for baseball fans. Baseball players are often characterized as men playing a boy's game, and if they are like Bouton each of them eventually asks himself: Why am I doing this? Bouton offers three reasonable replies: he likes being famous ("ego trip" is his term), he wants financial security, and he loves to play. But what do men watching a boy's game have to say for themselves? True enough, they don't while away the best of their lives, as players do. Yet every summer they find themselves before the tube--less obsessively than football fans, but only because games are so frequent--and perusing statistics in the sports section. War is raging, culture culting, and the literate baseball fan takes time to note that Roberto Clemente no longer has enough appearances to qualify for the National League batting title.

What makes it even more discomforting is that our former National Pastime has become square. McLuhan and his minions in the big media have almost delegitimized it, and with reason. Baseball is an old-fashioned game. Its pace is so slow that it is now chic to claim to enjoy the gossip of the game more than the contest itself. As a parallel, its images seem inconclusive: that dramatic pattern of tension and relief appears irrelevant, as they say, beside the stop-and-go violence of football or the continuous energy flow of basketball. Perhaps most damaging of all is the way the sport relates to the rest of society. Baseball represents the stodgiest side of Middle America. Black players in all sports suffer economic discrimination at star level and simple exclusion at substitute level (there are disproportionate numbers of white fringe players) but only in baseball does the black player put on such a wool-headed mask. There are no Walt Frazier threads or Emmett Bryant burns among black baseball players, and no Johnny Sample insubordination, either. Until Curt Flood stood against the reserve clause, there weren't even any black leaders, only superstars. This reflects the reactionary prejudices of the old-time capitalists who control the game. Because baseball has been big business for so long, its politics remain in the 50's, when any spokesman was expected to be white and studiously unflamboyant. If black baseball players shuffle a bit, it is only because their white counterparts refuse to shake the fox trot, much less their asses. Only a year ago the club owners tried to ban long hair--which meant nothing shaggier than thick under the cap. Not everyone obeyed, but no one thought to protest.

Embarrassment over all this and more has intensified the enthusiasm reviewer fans everywhere seem to feel for Ball Four. It's as if we all want to say, See, we may love an anachronism but at least we're honest about its flaws. Everyone has to convince himself that his feeling for the game is critical and intelligent. Actually, Bouton appears to have a similar motive, and it is not entirely attractive. The Literate Baseball Enthusiast wants to prove he's not Joe Fun, and Jim Bouton wants to prove he's not Ray Oyler. He's not, of course. This book is a convincing demonstration of Bouton's articulate independence. But it also demonstrates his insecurities, the flaws beneath the flaws, the flaws that LBE shares with JB.

But it's still the best baseball book ever published. Like Brosnan's work, it is in diary form, but Brosnan was confident enough to edit himself and probably lost spontaneity by doing so. Bouton's method was to take notes every day, referring to them as he recounted into a tape recorded at night. Then his tapes were transcribed onto 1500 double-spaced pages. These were reduced to 520 by Bouton and sportswriter Leonard Shecter. The result has the haphazard, colloquial feel of a real diary, yet it never rambles or even repeats itself. Themes recur naturally, long patches of description are interspersed with laugh lines, and in the end the book coheres without seeming formal or calculated.

Bouton was blessed with a peculiarly microcosmic season, especially in the context of his history. He had once been one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball, winning 21 and 18 games for the champion New York Yankees of 1963 and 1964. In 1965 his arm went, and by 1968 he was pitching for Seattle in the Pacific Coast League and ready to quit. Suddenly, in the final two months of the season, his knuckleball began to break, and when he opened the next April with Seattle, it was one of the American League's new expansion clubs. Soon, however, he was sent to the minors in one of those arbitrary player shuffles that bad teams substitute for victory. There he pitched luckily and well, and so back to Seattle, which was fighting it out half-heartedly with three other clubs for third (or sixth) place in a six-team division. On August 26, he was unexpectedly traded to the Houston Astros, an older expansion team involved in a five-team race for the National League Eastern Division championship. Three weeks later the Astros were out of it. Bouton's 1969 typified the round of the peripheral hero, which is what most major leaguers are for most of their playing days. Not so groovy: a lot of basically inconsequential games, some intense stress, and always the threat of oblivion on the other side of the glorious memories.

If Jim Brosnan had been luckier he might have provided the same sweep, but because he was writing a decade ago he could never have come up with Bouton's details. These are illuminating. What a relief to hear baseball players say fuck just like we always knew they did. And such folkways: beaver-shooting, a good healthy American voyeurism that is apparently the pastime of the national pastime, and greenies, which is what all the players who speed call their pills, and five different ways to say "throw at him." Bouton deflates reputations, too--Mantle, Berra, Williams. And his characterization of the Seattle coaching staff offers the kind of insight that makes perfect sense after the fact. Busybody Eddie O'Brien, half truant officer and half pep leader, seems likely enough, but platitudinous Sal Maglie stretches the credibility--until you consider how many men command respect from a distance and crumble close up. On the other hand, maybe Bouton holds a grudge against Maglie.

In fact, this is likely, because Bouton is the kind of iconoclast who is so insecure in his chosen isolation that he seems to delight in making other men look foolish. To an extent, this may be salutory. Even the most skeptical fan forgets that those names in the newspapers and figures on the screen are as frail as you or me, and this oversight is compounded by the daily dope from journalists whose living depends on acquiring more dope tomorrow. But it's hard to say how essential such an illusion may be to the continued power of the game. The baseball men who complain most bitterly about this book never claim it is untrue, only unfair--because it examines baseball's errants so steadfastly--and injudicious--because it reveals what the kids are better off not knowing. Unfair it isn't: Bouton obviously loves baseball and despite his snittiness he describes his fellows with generous appreciation. But injudicious? I don't know. Theoretically, a player is judged by what he can do on the field--the game itself is the thing. But even more than other sports baseball requires not just technical esteem but an investment of emotion, and emotion is best invested in people, however faultily perceived. I don't think the glowering visage of Sal Maglie will ever fill me with awe again.

More distressing than any individual revelation, in any case, is what Ball Four reveals about players in general. The most unpleasant fact about baseball is the psychic set it seems to instill in its professional practitioners, a set that transcends the sort of criticism Bouton and his admirers value. No doubt his descriptions of the intermittent "pettiness" and "meanness" and "stupidity" of his fellow players are right on. But what is more appalling, in its way, is the camaraderie they share.

Since Bouton conceives of his book as an expose of sorts, it's not surprising that sex plays a large part in his narrative. And it would be foolish to maintain that attitudes similar to the ones he describes don't prevail in men's dorms and Army platoons and on assembly lines. Nevertheless, the crude lack of feeling in all sexual references that don't have to do with his own wife is, if not shocking, at least noteworthy. Bouton's deadpan is confusing here. Does he really think there's nothing, er, odd about all that homosexual badinage? How about the jocular custom of directing sexual insults at a teammate's wife? It would appear that none of this fazes him, for however much he disdains the political views of his teammates he clearly gets lotsa yuks from their horseplay. Perhaps just such redirected aggression is a necessary release of the tension that must arise when you are trained to muster all of your individual competitiveness in a team effort. The only alternative is love, and that would seem impossible among men who are above all competitive.

For that is the paradox that all professional sports present, available to anyone interested, along with the jokes and the info, in this book. I think it is likely, though by no means certain, that man is possessed by drives toward territoriality and aggression that are every bit as somatic as his heart and liver. If so, sports will continue long after more destructive kinds of competition have withered away--which assumes for the moment that they don't destroy us first. I think it is likely, too, that our insight into the real life of the great athlete will grow deeper and deeper. The athletes of the future will be able to refine the competitive impulse in syntheses more beautiful than anything we can imagine now. But the cost of that refinement for them may well be an emotional hypertrophy that could reveal Bouton's problems as trivial. Such a contradiction, I think, may lie at the root of the anxiety so many left-wing sports fans feel about their enthusiasm today.

There must be other possibilities, and it may be that the anxiety I describe is more personal than I think it is. In any case, you'll never get anything like that from Mark Harris or Robert Coover. Read Bouton. He knows more than he knows.

Fusion, Spring 1971