“Ball Four’s” Characters Revisited: On to Houston

Ball Four still resonates 45 years after it was originally published.

Ball Four still resonates 45 years after it was originally published.

While Jim Bouton is best remembered for writing about his days with the Seattle Pilots, he also spent part of 1969 writing Ball Four while throwing knuckleballs for the Houston Astros. On Aug. 24, in a waiver wire trade, the Pilots dealt Bouton to the Astros for right-handers Roric Harrison and Dooley Womack, the latter his onetime teammate with the New York Yankees. That trade, which made few headlines at the time, opened the door for Bouton to experience (and write about) a completely new set of teammates.

Pitching with the Astros over the final five weeks of the 1969 season, Bouton played with another variety of original characters. The diverse group included jokesters and pranksters (like Norm Miller and Doug Rader), rough and tumble types (Curt Blefary), bigtime talents (Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn), and even tragic figures (like Don Wilson). Bouton also played for a manager whom he liked (Harry Walker) but who sometimes grated on the players in his clubhouse, particularly those of African-American descent.

In the second of a two-part series, let’s examine the whereabouts of those 1969 Astros of Ball Four, many of whom would have become forgotten if not for the pen of Jim Bouton.

Curt Blefary (first baseman): Bouton admired Blefary for his toughness. “If I had to be in a foxhole,” wrote Bouton, “I’d like him in there with me. He’s the kind who picks up hand grenades and throws them back. He’s a perfect Marine.” Bouton also praised Blefary for his willingness to room with a black teammate (Don Wilson), a rarity at the time.

Traded later to the Yankees for Joe Pepitone, Blefary seemed like a perfect fit for New York, but he flopped in the Big Apple. In May of 1971, the Yankees traded him to the A’s, where he impressed Charlie Finley with his bat, his versatility, and his willingness to play anywhere. But he wanted to play more. After Blefary issued a trade-me-or-play-me proclamation, Finley obliged, sending him to the San Diego Padres for Ollie Brown. The Padres released Blefary after the 1972 season, ending his major league career. The Braves gave him a look in the spring of 1973, but he failed to make the team, accepted a minor league assignment to Richmond, and then called it quits after seven games.

Unable to find work in baseball after his playing days, Blefary felt he was blackballed because of his outspoken tendencies. He also struggled with alcoholism, and bounced from job to job, working as a bartender, a truck driver, a sheriff, and even as a private investigator.

In 2001, Blefary succumbed to pancreatitis at the age of 57. At his request, his ashes were scattered at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Joe Morgan (second baseman): Bouton wrote little about Morgan, the only one of his 1969 teammates to make the Hall of Fame. A good player with Houston, “Little Joe” became a great one after being traded in the blockbuster deal that brought Lee May to Houston. In 1972, Morgan led the National League in on-base percentage and runs scored, helping the Reds reach the World Series. By 1975 and ’76, he had become the best player in the league, winning back-to-back MVP awards. By the time his tenure in Cincinnati ended in 1979, he had led the league on-base percentage four times while making the All-Star team all eight seasons.

Morgan returned to Houston via free agency and had a solid season in 1980 before signing with the Giants. In 1983, he joined the Phillies and became an integral member of the so-called “Wheeze Kids;” he helped an aging team win the pennant before he closed out his career in Oakland.

After retirement, Morgan became a color analyst on ESPN’s Sunday Night Game of the Week. In 1990, his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, he easily won election to the Cooperstown shrine.

Denis Menke (shortstop): As with Morgan, Bouton wrote sparingly about Menke, a versatile player who had arguably his best season in 1970, when he hit .304, posted an OPS of .833, and played six positions. The following year, the Astros switched him to first base to make room for young Roger Metzger at shortstop.

Like Morgan, Menke left the Astros as part of the blockbuster trade with the Reds. Earning his first World Series berth in 1972, Menke played two seasons at third base before he went back to Houston to finish his career in 1974.

Known as a patient hitter and smart player, Menke became a minor league manager. He eventually returned to the major leagues as a hitting coach, most notably serving the pennant-winning Phillies in 1993.

Now out of baseball, Menke lives in retirement in Florida.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Doug Rader (third baseman): On Sept. 24, Bouton wrote these words: “In the dark of the airplane Doug Rader was saying that he feels he’s living out of time and out of place. He thinks he would have been much happier as a Tahitian war lord, or even a pirate.”

Though Rader was known for his outlandish statements, constant pranks and his bizarre behavior (he would sometimes answer the doorbell while completely naked), he also had a tough, old school streak to his personality. He was a terrific third baseman, winning the Gold Glove every season from 1970 to 1974. After a down year in 1975, the Astros traded the “Red Rooster” to the Padres.

Rader hit well to start the 1977 season, but the Padres opted for youth and sold him to the expansion Toronto Blue Jays. He finished the season as a third baseman and DH, but failed to make the Jays out of spring training in 1978.

Rader turned to minor league managing, abandoning much of the hijinks for a more serious approach. He later managed the Rangers, White Sox and Angels, but never reached the postseason. He then became the first hitting coach in the history of the Florida Marlins before retiring in 1994.

Marty Martinez (infielder): The versatile Martinez caught Bouton in one game, but struggled so badly in handling the knuckleball that Harry Walker took him out in the middle of a batter. After the game, Martinez approached Bouton and apologized to him for missing so many of the pitches.

After playing two more seasons in Houston, Martinez moved on to the Cardinals in a trade for catcher Bob Stinson. Early in 1972, the Cardinals rerouted him to the eventual world champion A’s, but he wasn’t around long enough to savor their title victory over the Reds. That’s because the A’s traded him later that summer to the lowly Rangers, denying Martinez his only postseason appearance.

Fortunes turned better for Martinez after his playing days. He became a Latin American scout, coach and infield instructor with the Mariners and displayed a keen eye for talent, signing players like Edgar Martinez and Omar Vizquel. Marty Martinez emerged as an institution in Seattle, where he became known as “Baseball Marty.” In 1986, the Mariners rewarded him by handing him the managerial reins for a day. Mariners players were thrilled that the beloved Martinez received his chance, even if only for one game.

After leaving the Mariners’ organization, Martinez tried to return to baseball, but no one would hire him. And then in 2007, at the age of 65, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He left behind a wife, Faye, and a legacy as a hardworking baseball lifer.

Jimmy Wynn (center fielder): Bouton wrote relatively little about Wynn, but did say that he was one of the Astros veterans who made an effort to integrate the team’s black and white players in social settings.

The underrated Wynn remained a quality center fielder and prime slugger through most of his final four seasons in Houston before being traded to the Dodgers for Claude Osteen. Despite a severe shoulder injury, he hit 32 home runs and drew 108 walks, leading LA to the pennant.

Wynn’s performance took a tumble in 1975, prompting a trade to Atlanta for Dusty Baker. After another off year, he signed as a free agent with the Yankees, where he hit a home run on Opening Day but otherwise struggled, prompting his midseason release and a final spin with Milwaukee.

Still known as “The Toy Cannon,” Wynn remains connected with the Astros as a community outreach ambassador and as a postgame analyst on TV.

Norm Miller (right fielder): On Sept. 16, Bouton wrote the following words about his roommate: “Norm Miller says that it has long been his ambition to sit in a laundry bag. He thinks if he did, and pulled the string tight over his head, it would be very quiet and peaceful.”

After appearing in a career-high 119 games in 1969, the offbeat Miller would see his playing time recede over the next few seasons. He remained with Houston as a utility outfielder through the first month of 1973, when the Astros traded him to the Braves for sidearming reliever Cecil Upshaw. Miller would last only parts of two seasons with Atlanta, his career cut short at age 28 by back problems.

In 2009, Miller published his autobiography, titled To All My Fans From Norm Who?. Still funny and outgoing, he now works as a weekend sports talk show host on KILT Radio in Houston.

Johnny Edwards (catcher): Bouton described Edwards as one of the team’s leaders. “Johnny Edwards… told us that we had to keep busting ass. Edwards said he was disturbed to hear guys talking about next year. He said that’s bad. He said we shouldn’t write ourselves off. He said we got to win it this year.”

The Astros didn’t, but Edwards remained a defensive stalwart and solid platoon player through 1972, when he posted an on-base percentage of .358. He then settled into a backup role, giving way to younger catchers Skip Jutze and Milt May over his final two seasons.

Edwards retired after the 1974 season, but not before helping to save the life of Roger Metzger, who had swallowed his tongue during a pregame collision at the Astrodome. Edwards pulled the shortstop’s tongue out of his mouth, allowing him to breathe again.

After his playing days, Edwards became an engineer and served as the operations manager of an oil and gas company in Houston. He now lives in retirement in Texas.

Bob Watson (catcher/outfielder/first baseman): On Sept. 18, Bouton wrote: “Bob Watson’s name was on the lineup card but he couldn’t play. Seems he was catching some weirdo knuckleball pitcher the other day and the ball took a strange hop in the air and hit him on the finger. He’s been taking whirlpool treatments, but the finger is still fat and he can’t grip a bat.”

It turns out that Bouton’s knuckleball delivery broke Watson’s finger, an incident that may have influenced his eventual request not to catch anymore. The Astros agreed, making Watson a fulltime outfielder/first baseman by 1973.

Watson became an All-Star before being traded to Boston in the middle of the 1979 season. He hit .337, but left the Red Sox to sign a free agent contract with the Yankees, whom he helped reach the postseason in 1980. He finished his playing days as a backup with the Braves, retiring in 1984.

In 1993, Watson became the Astros’ general manager, the second African-American GM in big league history, after the late Bill Lucas. In 1995, Watson would move on to the Yankees; in one of his first (and best) moves with New York, he hired Hall of Famer Joe Torre as manager.

Watson is now retired, having stepped down as baseball’s dean of discipline in 2010.

Larry Dierker (starting pitcher): On Sept. 13, after Dierker pitched a 13-inning no-decision that resulted in an Astros loss, Bouton wrote, “He just sat there in the locker room, listened to the game go down the drain and never once so much as flinched. Which is why Paul Richards, when he was with Houston, said of Dierker: ‘He’s a cold-blooded, fish-eyed son of a bitch.’ ”

A 20-game winner in 1969, Dierker would go on to have one of the most successful careers among Bouton’s teammates. He would remain with the Astros through 1976, when he pitched a no-hitter.

That winter, the Astros traded Dierker to the Cardinals for catcher/outfielder Joe Ferguson. Dierker struggled through an injury-riddled season before drawing his release the following spring.

Dierker made a smooth transition to the broadcast booth. Then, though he had no prior managing experience, the Astros turned to him to manage in 1997. Over the next five seasons, Dierker led the Astros to four first-place finishes. But there was difficulty along the way. His 1999 season nearly ended in tragedy, as he suffered a seizure that required emergency brain surgery. He bravely returned after only a month, guiding Houston to another division title.

Like Bouton, Dierker turned author. He has written two books, including the autobiographical This Ain’t Brain Surgery. In 2013, Dierker left the Astros’ organization, ending an association that had begun in the mid-1960s. An avid member of SABR, he now works as a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Don Wilson (starting pitcher): Of all the Astros who played with Bouton in 1969, perhaps none had a sadder fate than Wilson, who was portrayed as having a cutting sense of humor. On the field, Wilson was an accomplished power pitcher, with his best days coming in the early 1970s.

Pitching over 200 innings each year from 1971 to 1974, Wilson posted ERAs in the range of 2.45 to 3.20. By the end of 1974, the Astros had every reason to believe that Wilson was still in his prime.

Off the field, Wilson had clashed with managers Harry Walker and Leo Durocher. He also became more outspoken. Still, no one could have predicted what would happen on Jan. 5, 1975.

That day, Wilson’s body was found in the passenger seat of his Ford Thunderbird, which had been left running in his garage. Some of the carbon monoxide from the vehicle also seeped into the Wilson house, killing his young son. At first, news reports indicated that Wilson had committed suicide, but the coroner’s report concluded that Wilson died accidentally from carbon monoxide. According to the coroner, Wilson was legally intoxicated, leading to speculation that he may have fallen asleep after turning on the car. Wilson was just 29.

Fred Gladding (relief pitcher): Bouton wrote this physical description of the hefty reliever: “Fred Gladding, called Fred Flintstone, doesn’t look like a baseball player. He doesn’t even look like a pitcher. He looks like a green grocer who’s been eating up a good bit of his profits.”

Gladding certainly didn’t look the part, but he could pitch and close out games. After a solid season in 1969, Gladding saved 18 more games in 1970. By 1971, he had redefined himself as a finesse pitcher. He struck out only 17 batters against 22 walks, but still lowered his ERA to 2.10. He put up similar numbers in 1972 before concluding his career in 1973. Always popular with teammates, Gladding gained such notoriety in Houston that the Astrodome’s scoreboard operator displayed a character from The Flintstones whenever he entered a game.

After his playing days, Gladding worked briefly with the Tigers as a pitching coach (where he tutored a young Mark “The Bird” Fidrych) and also put in some time as a minor league instructor.

The Astros’ former relief ace passed away on May 21, 2015, at the age of 78.

Manager Harry “The Hat” Walker: Bouton treated Walker favorably in Ball Four. “I think the reason the club has done as well as it has is Harry Walker. I’m told he can be a pain, but a ballclub like this needs a Harry Walker… So Harry drives and harasses, reminds everyone how to run the bases, how to hit the ball, to watch for this, watch for that, and keeps everybody agitated and playing better baseball.”

The talkative Walker remained at the helm of the Astros through August of 1972, when he was fired despite the team’s respectable second-place standing and replaced by Leo Durocher. Walker would never again manage in the major leagues. In 1979, he started the baseball program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he enjoyed success until his retirement in 1986.

Assessments from other Astros players have not been as kind as Bouton’s. Two autobiographies, by Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn, have portrayed Walker as a racist who applied a double standard in his treatment of the Astros’ African-American players.

In 1999, Walker died in Birmingham, Ala. He was 82.

It is inevitable because of the long passage of time that a number of the Astros (and Pilots) made famous by Bouton are gone now. In addition to Blefary, Martinez, Wilson, Gladding and Walker, Julio Gotay, Gary Geiger, Don Bryant, Bill Henry, Jim Ray and Ron Willis from the Astros are deceased. So are many of the Pilots: Don Mincher, Greg Goossen, Ray Oyler, Mike Hegan, Jose Vidal, Billy Williams (not the Hall of Famer; an outfielder who played just four games), Jim Pagliaroni, Merritt Ranew, Gene Brabender, George Brunet, Steve Barber, Fred Talbot, Miguel Fuentes, Jerry Stephenson and manager Joe Schultz.

For the most part, those who remain with us are well into their 70s and in the years of their retirement. Only a handful remain active in the game, and even in those cases, the years of baseball activity are dwindling to a scant few.

No matter their fates, all of these Pilots and Astros, Bouton included, have become recognizable and permanent figures who still help us to re-live an earlier era, when the game was simpler than it is today but more complex than we had been previously led to believe.

All these years later, many of us still care about the characters of Ball Four. And I suspect we always will.

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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87 Cards
8 years ago

I enjoyed the update…Makes a fellow proud to be an Astro; makes me motivated to hit it up the middle and break up the double play.

8 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

To elaborate (from memory):

Now Harry Walker is the one who manages this crew
He doesn’t like it when we drink and fight and smoke and screw
But when we win our game each day
Then what the fuck can Harry say?
It makes a fellow proud to be an As-tro.

Tramps Like Us
8 years ago

Missing at the end of the Paul Richards’ quote about Dierker was that “he said it approvingly.”

Great to read these updates. I read Ball Four as a wide-eyed 14 year old. It changed my perspective of baseball forever.

I know it was Rader who wiped a booger on Jay Alou’s arm, resulting in his throwing up right there on the bench once he’d realized what had happened. Is Rader also the one who put the most realistic “fake” turd they’d ever seen on the birthday cake? Or was that someone else?

8 years ago

Ball Four is still my favorite baseball book and one of my favorite books of any genre. In fact, it’s really not fair to call it a baseball book, as it’s more about the camaraderie of the clubhouse. Thanks for the updates, it brought back many good memories of reading the book.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Ball Four was an important book not so much for what it said but because it was the trailblazer in a new genre of tell all books that sought to rip the veneer off of the pro sports’ PR machines that successfully portrayed the players and teams as something that they were not. I recall reading books that came later but part of the same mold: Dave Meggyesy, Bernie Parrish, Larry Merchant, Meat on The Hoof (can’t remember the author), and then a few novels (Semi-Tough, North Dallas Forty). Soon the anti hero movies (The Godfather, Taxi Driver) followed and so did the money to the point where the market became so saturated that what was iconoclastic in the 60’s and 70’s became ho hum in the 80’s. I remember reading about Mantle hitting a home run still stinging from a night of revelry and thinking it was scandalous and then 15 years later reading about cocaine use with certain MLB players and only glancing at the headline in utter boredom.

John C.
8 years ago

Morgan did get some face time in “Ball Four,” including one of my favorite dugout stories. After Morgan had struck out, another player did the “announcer routine” with him in the dugout, pretending to put a microphone in front of Morgan as he asked:
(ballplayer): Joe, what pitch did you strike out on?
Morgan: That was a motherfucker curve
(ballplayer): Joe, what’s the difference between a normal curve ball and the motherfucker?
Morgan: Well, your normal curve ball you can pick up out of the pitcher’s hand; it breaks a bit down, a bit away. Now, your motherfucker, see, that’s different. It looks like a fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand but the next thing you know it’s rolled off of the motherfucking table and it’s motherfucking strike three.
(ballplayer): Thank you, Joe Morgan. Back to the booth.

Hilarious. It makes me smile even now.

I built a shrine to Charlie Metro in my basement
8 years ago

Seems like about half of of Bouton’s former teamates from the Pilots and Astros eventually got traded to the A’s. Maybe Charlie Finley was a fan of the book.

8 years ago

Bowie Kuhn hated the book – what better recommendation could there have been!

8 years ago

My favorite Astro story is Harry Walker’s at bat in the old timers game. As the players were yelling at the Walker to follow his own advice about hitting the the middle, Harry hit the ball up the middle for a single. He then proceeded to break up the double play for the next batter, prompting Doug Rader to remark, “Son of a bitch. Every year Harry gets a hit up the middle and breaks up the double play.”

This isn’t about the Astros but who can forget the Ted (F***king) Williams batting practice stories. Also the fact that Teddy Ballgame was named the MFL manager of the year.. Best sport book and the funniest book overall that I have ever read.

8 years ago

I read Ball Four as a 13 year old who had just fallen in love with baseball. I thought the book was hilarious and loved it!! It was and is a classic book. I just reread it a few years ago and it was as funny as it was then, but maybe I am still13…

8 years ago

Tramps Like Us: I’m sure it was Rader listed as the perpetrator of the “terrific fake turd”.
Our family were five (I was 7 at the time) of the listed 26,389 attending the Dierker 13 inning game, which I remember Niekro starting for the Braves. I only remember wondering what happens on the scoreboard when they run out of room for zeroes (they slid off the first 3 innings). The Astros scored a couple in the top of the 13th off Upshaw, then the Braves probably nailed the coffin on the Houston season with three in the bottom. Three days earlier they had been two back of SF (though in 4th), now they were 4.5 behind Atlanta in 5th, then they lost another 3-2 to the Braves Sunday, with our neighbor Mr. Wilhelm picking up the win and the Beeg Boy Rico Carty driving in all the Atlanta runs.

8 years ago

Bouton also said Morgan spoke up that whenever a hot black chick was spied the white players would say hey there’s one for you Joe, asking something along the lines of why would he only be interested in black women, or the white players not interested. That, along with the anecdote Joe C. relays above always made me think there’s more to Morgan than the “get off my lawn” old-schooler of Fire Joe Morgan’s ire (although I loved Fire Joe Morgan).

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Wobatus

What’s ironic about that is that guys like Morgan and Frank Robinson (who Bouton discusses in a later book about managers) were considered to be outspoken and so forth, but in later years became classic “old school” types. For example, Bouton said that Robinson would never manage because he was considered too militant and anti-establishment (the book was written in the early 70s; it’s called “I Managed Good but But, Boy, Did They Play Bad.” Not only was Robinson the first African-American manager but he ultimately became the exemplar of the old school baseball establishment (which obviously changed over the years); indeed, he worked for MLB.