Baseball as Workplace Documentary

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, might be the best baseball book ever written.

Recently I reread Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (after nearly 50 years!). Then I read Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, because I had heard several times that Brosnan’s book was the best (and first) book ever written by a major league baseball player. 

First, perhaps. But certainly not the best. Ball Four is better by the distance of a Mickey Mantle home run. The New York Public Library thought so too. In 1996 it named Ball Four one of its best books of the preceding century. Think of that. When Bouton died last year, his obituaries praised the work, which I hadn’t recalled as being so rich.

If Rotten Tomatoes rated literature, Ball Four would score 98. More about that later. First a little about Brosnan’s The Long Season: The Classic Inside Account of a Baseball Year, 1959 (available on Amazon in paperback, for $9.99 before shipping).

 Jim Brosnan wanted to be a writer more than he wanted to be a baseball player. Because he grew to 6-foot-4, he was pushed into sports, and he turned out to be good enough to pitch in the major leagues. He lasted nine seasons and was above average at that level (55 wins, 47 losses, a career ERA of 3.54, 68 career saves), but marginal enough to get traded three times in an era when better players tended to spend most of their careers with a single team. The Long Season is his diary of a season pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Cincinnati Reds.

The superficial parallels between The Long Season and Ball Four are remarkable: Each is a diary, written by a relief pitcher in the year he turned 30, during a season in which he was traded, in the final year of a decade, and both authors are named Jim B-something. Both describe having to negotiate one’s salary with the benefit of neither an agent nor fair labor laws. A handful of ballplayers and other baseball people turn up as characters in both books (Sal Maglie, Johnny Keane, Gabe Paul, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Julio Gotay). The resemblances end there.

 Sometimes we read for delight, other times for edification. When we’re lucky, a book provides both. The Long Season isn’t a chore, exactly. I enjoyed it because I love baseball history, but I spent more time stopping and looking up the records of and details about players who were mentioned in its pages than I spent reading the book. Brosnan was a talented writer. You feel him working hard at his craft. He did it well enough that when the Chicago White Sox, after Brosnan published his second book, put a clause into his contract barring him from writing any more of them, he retired from the game and made a living for the rest of his life as a writer.

 Brosnan smoked a pipe. That may perplex other baseball fans as much as it did me. Most of us (including ballplayers) have affectations, but smoking a pipe sure seems a long way from being a jock.

Brosnan is clever, but without being funny, and he is interested in many different things (all good writers are observant). But I can’t say he’s reflective. In 268 pages, his only mention of anything going on in current events (other than baseball news) is a brief reference to armed soldiers in the stands at a baseball game in Cuba—and there’s no hint why they’re there. 

From a historical standpoint, Brosnan taught or confirmed for me several things. In 1959, if a starting pitcher lasted only 4.2 innings and left the game with a lead that his team preserved, he could still get credit for the win—if the official scorer felt he deserved it. Pitchers brushed batters back way more frequently back then. With only eight teams in each league, ballplayers cared greatly about finishing in fourth place instead of fifth (the second division) because they earned a couple hundred more bucks for doing so. (Though a World Series share is a ton of money these days, players earn so much now the subject seldom comes up in the newspapers.) 

In 1959 the slider was called “the slide ball” as often as it was called the slider. The descriptions of the wind in Seals Stadium (the Giants’ home field their first two seasons in San Francisco) sound exactly like Candlestick Park: in one passage the wind nearly blows Brosnan off the mound mid-pitch. Teams regularly played Sunday doubleheaders; however, with Pennsylvania’s blue laws there was a Sunday curfew that meant the second game in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia would usually be suspended and resumed later in the season.

With only eight teams in the league, Brosnan found it convenient to keep his main residence in the Chicago suburbs (he was traded from the Cubs to the Cardinals, where he began the 1959 season); each year the Cards played 11 games in Chicago and 11 games in Milwaukee (a short drive), and his wife frequently drove from Chicago to St. Louis with their kids in tow. The book features tons of great players of color we’ve all heard of (Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Banks, Clemente, Aaron), but also great ones I hadn’t heard of and whom you might not remember—like Brooks Lawrence, Brosnan’s bridge partner, who played in the Negro Leagues until he turned 29.

 One thing I found myself pondering while reading The Long Season was how unusually competitive the National League was during that era. In 1958, ’59, ’60, ’61, and ’62, five different teams won the pennant (Braves, Dodgers, Pirates, Reds, and Giants, respectively), and for the first four of those five years this was among only eight different teams (and in the fifth year, the two new expansion teams had no consideration of winning the pennant). Then, after the Dodgers upset the streak by winning in ’63, the Cards won in ’64 (and until the final couple days of that season it looked as though the Phils would win it).

 The acclaim Brosnan’s book has received puzzles me. A New York Times reviewer, for example,  called The Long Season not only “one of the best baseball books ever written” but also “one of the best American diaries.” Longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley said The Long Season “changed everything” in baseball literature. That may be. Jim Bouton reportedly loved it; if he did, it probably served as some inspiration for him to write Ball Four. 

Jim Bouton had such an interesting career. He was invited to spring training by the Yankees in 1962 and given uniform number 56 because he wasn’t expected to make the team. He kept that number the rest of his career to remind himself how close he’d come to never making it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

All his “value” occurred in just two seasons: 1963 and 1964, his second and third years in the majors. He won 21 games in ’63 and 18 in ’64, but possibly even more impressive is what he did in the World Series. He didn’t pitch in the 1962 Series, though he was at one point scheduled to start Game Seven—until Game Six was delayed several days by rain, allowing both teams to realign their rotations. In ’63 when the Yankees were swept by the Dodgers, he started one of the games and lost, 1–0, to Don Drysdale. In ’64 he won both of his starts and earned two of the Yankees’ three wins. The victorious Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, who won twice and lost once and pitched to an ERA of 3.00, was named the Series MVP. But one could credibly argue that Bouton deserved the award. Career record across two World Series: two wins and one loss in three starts, 1.48 ERA.

However, in Bouton’s other eight seasons pitching in the majors, he wasn’t just mediocre: he was cumulatively below replacement level.

 Having so much success early and then hanging on for so long when he was at best a marginal major leaguer makes Bouton a sympathetic narrator. He worries in Ball Four how he’s going make a living when he can no longer play baseball. He recalls seeing 1954 World Series hero Dusty Rhodes driving a bus at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. 

Unlike Brosnan, Bouton loves the game. He’s a terrific writer (his prose feels effortless) who cares more about baseball than about writing. He was a huge New York Giants fan while growing up in New Jersey, and he’s often reminding himself how special it is to play in the majors.

 More than 500 pages of vignettes, Bouton’s 1969 diary of pitching for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros is poignant, laugh-out-loud funny, juvenile, and raunchy. He writes about infidelity, the culture wars, coaches handing out amphetamines to players before games, stars playing through hangovers, the patronage system of the coaching profession—and about workplace politics in a way that will resonate with anyone who has tried to negotiate a raise.

There are many tales of “beaver shooting”: the whole Yankee team, led by Hall of Famers Mantle and Whitey Ford, would climb onto the roof of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington at night because it afforded a great view of so many hotel rooms. One player drilled a hole in the back of a dugout wall so he could look, lap-level, at a woman sitting in the first row.

 I can’t believe players in 1969 were any funnier than the guys who played in 1959, but Brosnan doesn’t quote one teammate saying something that would make you laugh.

Bouton, by contrast, doesn’t leave anything out. When the Pilots are taking the bus to a game in Washington, they pass a building that has etched on its side erected in 1929. One player notes, “That’s quite an erection.”

The players are given a questionnaire to fill out about themselves for the press guide. One of the questions is what’s the most difficult thing about being a big-league baseball player? Mike Hegan replies: “Having to explain to your wife why she needs a penicillin shot for your kidney infection.”

 (Jokes about infidelity may be in bad taste, but they’re still funny—or there’d be fewer Irish folk songs.)

And when a young lady is flirting with one of the pitchers in the bullpen and asks him if he’s married, he answers: “Well, yeah. But I’m not a fanatic about it or anything.”

The book is heavily male and takes a view of women that fans of a certain television period piece about Madison Avenue ad executives would recognize. 

But Ball Four is also a time capsule that sets the reader down in a period of social unrest. Bouton sees what’s going on in the world beyond baseball and comments freely about it. When he was starring with the Yankees early in his career, someone organized a Jim Bouton fan club, and its members stay in touch with him throughout his just-hanging-on seasons. One of a hundred wistful moments in the book occurs when Bouton learns a fan club member has grown up and been sent to fight in Vietnam.

Baseball integrated well before the rest of the country did, but integration doesn’t mean equal treatment. Bouton observes that an African American player who falls short of greatness might be a career minor leaguer, while the equally talented white player makes it to the majors.

Bouton recounts an experience he had as a boy at the Polo Grounds in which he and a handful of other youths scramble from their seats to chase a foul ball. Bouton wins the race and grabs the prize. But a black kid, arriving an instant after Bouton, grabs the ball too and wrests it from Bouton’s grasp. Fair and square, thinks young Bouton at the time. Later, still a boy, Bouton reflects more on the event. He thinks to himself that the black kid, raised in an environment where he must fight harder for everything than Bouton does, wanted that ball more than Bouton did and that’s why he was able to pull it from him. This perception made me sheepish at having been unable to perceive the same thing at a similar age.

Bouton observes that the world’s 500 best baseball players are paid significantly less than what the top 500 people in most other professions are earning, and unlike the other professionals they cannot thumb their noses at their employers and take their services at will to another employer of baseball players. They may be heroes to the public, but the club owners treat them as property. After a decade or more of loyalty to one team, they can be traded against their will to another ballclub. But Marvin Miller has entered the scene as the head of the players union. And Bouton senses (presciently, we know now) that big changes are afoot.

 One of the treasures of the online version of Ball Four is its several afterwords: Ten Years Later, Twenty Years Later, Thirty Years Later.

Søren Kierkegäard lived to only 42. But that was long enough for him to observe that life is learned only backward but must be lived forward. Ball Four gives it to us both ways—as it was lived forward and as it was reflected on backward. I was 12 the first time I read Ball Four, and I read it straight through—the same way I read everything about baseball I could get my hands on at that age. But on the cusp of puberty, I couldn’t take it all in.

 This time around, I came to care deeply about Bouton, even though it’s apparent, partly from his book and partly from anecdotal stuff I’ve read elsewhere, that he was not a good husband to his first wife. In one of his afterwords, he puts this into a perspective that allowed me (if not everyone else) to forgive him those trespasses. He says that big-league baseball players are basically 15-year-old boys in 25-year-old bodies. He quotes basketball great Bill Russell explaining that most professional athletes have been on scholarship since the third grade. They don’t grow up nearly as fast as almost everyone else, because nobody makes them.

 I was 17 when I first learned how commonly major league ballplayers cheated on their wives. I am under the impression modern ballplayers don’t philander nearly as frequently, because of all the money in the game. Bouton has a line about how in the old days you just worried about getting the clap, whereas nowadays you worry about getting clapped with a $12 million lawsuit.

 Bouton was a devoted and sensitive father, though. He writes about his three kids and gives you a flavor of them. (Brosnan does not). He and his first wife adopted a Korean boy. He understands that his adopted son has separation anxiety when Bouton goes on road trips, because the boy had spent time in an orphanage. When Bouton gets ready to leave one time, he tells his son, “I’ll be gone this many days,” and he holds up the number of fingers. The boy says, “I don’t like that many days.”

 The afterwords are lovely desserts because, as the years pass, Bouton is still interesting and funny— but he’s also much more mature. His second wife, a behavioral scientist, sounds fascinating and delightful, and it’s clear Bouton dearly loves and respects her. She’s funny, too: After watching her first baseball game, she tells Bouton: “Obviously, one of the cardinal rules is: When in doubt, spit. Everybody spits. It’s like punctuation.”

 In the most bracing part of the third afterword (Thirty Years Later), Bouton describes his 31-year-old daughter’s death in a car accident. It’s horrible. Then he writes: “I’m sure it’s been difficult to read this, but I thought you should know. If you’ve come this far, 30 years’ worth, you’re practically family.” And he’s right.

 On the Seattle Pilots, Bouton, Mike Marshall (who would eventually earn a Ph.D.), and Steve Hovley were considered a little weird because they were intellectual. (Bouton would never call himself that, but he was.) Hovley would read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky in the clubhouse. He went to Stanford. Bouton tried to talk him out of playing winter ball (which the Pilots encouraged Hovley to do), because after having a good season Bouton reasoned that playing not as well in winter ball could only hurt Hovley in contract negotiations. Hovley said he thought he’d like the experience of spending the winter in a Spanish-speaking country, though. To Hovley, the notion that he’d have to play baseball while there was merely an afterthought.

 Hovley is my favorite character in the book, probably because he seems to be Bouton’s (except for his second wife). To pack for a road trip, he brings one change of clothes and a toothbrush. He rarely combs his hair. At one point the general manager calls him in for a meeting and tells him that young boys look up to major-league ballplayers as role models and he’d like him to start wearing a suit and tie to the park. Hovley is unfazed. He simply tells the GM he considers this nonsense, that he prefers people (if they’re going to judge him at all) to judge him by what he says and does, not by what he wears, and he doesn’t see how what he’s wearing from the parking lot to the locker room is going to affect anything.

 Bouton and Hovley defied their GM’s orders not to room together (as though this would have some synergistic negative effect on the club). They exchanged Christmas cards for 30 years after the morning Bouton got a call in Baltimore telling him he’d been traded to the Astros and he woke Hovley to tell him he had to leave for the airport to catch a plane to meet his new team. Hovley’s reaction: “You’re supposed to go to the Museum of Art this afternoon. You promised.”

 After 30 years of not seeing his Christmas card buddy face to face, Bouton describes with excitement his trip to Ojai, California, to visit him. Since retiring from baseball, Hovley has been a plumber (Stanford education!). Clearly, he’s perfectly content as a plumber. He doesn’t like people knowing he used to play major league baseball, because he moved on from it decades ago. (Most frequently asked question: “Why aren’t you rich?”)

During the visit, Hovley and Bouton go for a drive. They pass the Catholic school Hovley attended as a boy. Then they start talking about religion. And Hovley utters my favorite line from this 765-page bounty: “Religion is like baseball: great game, bad owners.”


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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

I was 14 when this book came out. Had to wait until I was in high school and had a job washing dishes so I could afford the paperback edition. Bouton’s missive was a precursor or trailblazer to a new cultural genre of the era: the tell all sports book. Soon after Ball Four was published, I can remember copy cat tombs like Meat On The Hoof (Texas Football), They Call It A Game (Bernie Parrish writing about the NFL), Out Of Their League (Dave Meggyesy about the NFL), FOUL (the Connie Hawkins story) just to name the ones I… Read more »

brooksie
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Member
brooksie

Really good article. Thanks.

loubrockholt
Member
loubrockholt

I would like to submit a recommendation for the audiobook of Ball Four. Not exactly sure when it was recorded but Bouton is much older at the time & unlike most audiobooks, there is unintended emotion dripping off his words. He makes himself crack up at jokes & stories, he pauses on things in brief contemplation, it is honestly the best audiobook I’ve ever listened to by a long shot.

Hank G.
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Member
Hank G.

If you are going to call Bouton a “terrific writer” whose “prose feels effortless”, you should at least acknowledge that he did not write the book alone. He had a co-writer, Leonard Shecter, who actually had the idea for the book, and turned Bouton’s tape recordings and diary entries into “Ball Four”. It’s very likely that the effortless prose you admire was Shecter’s.

haysoose92
Member
haysoose92

Hank, I would have thought the same, on the basis of early criticism of the book. Most reviewers were skeptical of Bouton’s talent. As Bouton acknowledged, Schecter helped him immensely in editing “Ball Four.” (They were best friends.) But a few things convince me that the voice and effortless prose are truly Bouton’s. First, when Schecter suggested a book project to Bouton, Bouton told him he’d been thinking the same thing for a while and had been keeping notes. Second, Schecter died in 1974, and the three afterwords (all written long after Schecter had passed) are exactly the same voice.… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

It’s sort of sacrilegious to say this, but I have mixed feelings about Ball Four. Players were screwed in those days by owners and, as a result, I never complain about a player today getting all he can. I think that’s the best part of the book. I read it when I was a teenager and have never read it straight through since, although I periodically skim it. Obviously, Bouton matured over the years; I knew someone who met him and really liked him and I think he would have been a nice guy to sit down and have a… Read more »