By IAN WILSON
More than a few baseball players can say they were the author of their own demise.
But in Jim Bouton’s case, it was literally true.
The New Jersey-born pitcher, who inked a deal with the New York Yankees as an undrafted free agent, reached the pinnacle of baseball performance in the 1960s.
He broke into Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1962 with the Bronx Bombers by going 7-7 in 133 innings, while posting a 3.99 earned run average (ERA).
Originally slated to play Game 7 of the World Series that year against the San Francisco Giants, the rookie lost that assignment when the matchup was pushed back due to rain. Bouton received a World Series ring for his efforts, nonetheless, after Ralph Terry twirled a complete game, 1-0 shutout to seal the championship for the Yankees.
Bouton came back with a record of 21-7 and a 2.53 ERA in the 1963 regular season. The righthander also took the mound in the Fall Classic for the first time, lining up against Don Drysdale in front of a Game 3 crowd of 55,912 at Dodger Stadium. The result was a pitching masterpiece from both hill toppers. Drysdale went the distance and surrendered only three hits in the 1-0 Dodger win, while Bouton lasted seven innings and gave up just four hits. Sandy Koufax denied the Yankees back-to-back titles and completed the World Series sweep for Los Angeles with a Game 4 triumph over lefty Whitey Ford.
Bouton remained on top of his game the following season, compiling an 18-13 record, 11 complete games, and a 3.02 ERA through 37 starts. He saved his best stuff for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he defeated twice in the World Series. Aided by a walk-off blast by Mickey Mantle in Game 3, Bouton claimed a 2-1 complete-game win at Yankee Stadium. In Game 6, back-to-back homers from Mantle and Roger Maris, as well as a grand slam from Joe Pepitone, gave Bouton all the support he needed to earn an 8-3 victory at Busch Stadium. Despite his October heroics, Bouton and the Yanks lost to Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson in Game 7, marking the second straight year New York lost in the championship final.
“When I pitched in the World Series in ’63 and ’64 I won two out of three games and the only thought that went through my mind before and during the game was, ‘Please don’t let me embarrass myself out there.’ No thought of winning or losing,” Bouton wrote in his best-selling book Ball Four.
“If you told me beforehand that I would lose the game but it would be close and I wouldn’t be embarrassed, I might well have settled for that. I was terrified of being humiliated on national television and in front of all my friends.”
More often than not, it was opposing hitters who left the batter’s box humiliated by Bouton’s postseason prowess. His World Series stats reveal a pitcher with a 2-1 record, 1.48 ERA and 11 Ks through 24.1 innings of work.
What Bouton was certainly not afraid of, was speaking his mind and revealing the inner workings of MLB to the world.
The Yankees overuse of the power-pitching performer seemed to catch up with him during the late 1960s, as his effectiveness declined and he was converted from a starting pitcher to a reliever.
Signed by the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969, Bouton appeared in 57 games for the new American League (AL) franchise. Relying primarily on his knuckleball by this point, he logged 92 innings for Seattle and struck out 68 batters before he was dealt to the Houston Astros.
More importantly, Bouton started keeping a diary of his experiences with the Pilots and the Astros that served as the source material for Ball Four, which was published in June of 1970.
The impact of the curtain-peeling confessional cannot be overstated. With its conversational style and tell-all content, Ball Four dished on everything from dugout dialogue between players and coaches, womanizing behaviour, contract negotiations, drug use, and alcohol abuse. It provided readers with a glimpse into life as a professional athlete at a time when little was known about players beyond the box scores that could be found in local newspapers.
When it was originally published, 5,000 copies of the book were printed. There are now five million copies in circulation.
It’s a seminal work of sports literature that is widely considered one of the most important books in baseball history.
Despite its success and popularity among sports fans, Ball Four brought a backlash against Bouton from journalists, players who were identified in compromising situations throughout the book, and MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Calling the publication “detrimental to baseball,” Kuhn asked Bouton to sign a statement that declared Ball Four was a work of fiction. Bouton declined and found himself ostracized from the major leagues.
Bouton, who earned the nickname “Bulldog” for his determined approach on the mound, retired after pitching in 29 games for the Astros in 1970. He took a job as a sports anchor in New York. A sequel to the book that made him famous and infamous also followed, entitled I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally. He remained active, even taking an acting role in the Robert Altman-directed movie The Long Goodbye.
Bouton’s love of the game, however, persisted.
No matter how often he talked about sports on television, or wrote about baseball, his desire to get back on the mound and stare down opposing batters never waned. With that in mind, Bouton plotted his comeback and set out on an unlikely path back to the big leagues.
He got a glimpse of life with a Canadian team when he pitched for the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1969. During his seven relief outings at the Triple-A level that year, he picked up four saves in 10 innings. All of those saves came in Honolulu against the Hawaii Islanders.
A look north to get his game back on track may have seemed like an odd choice, but Bouton had a habit of doing things his own way.
STAMPEDING TO CALGARY
Calgary Herald readers who picked up the July 2nd, 1975 edition of the paper were likely shocked to learn that Bouton was coming to Cowtown that month to pitch for the Calgary Jimmies of the Alberta Major Baseball League (AMBL).
Bouton explained the decision to make his way to Calgary in a frank interview with reporter Ken Hull.
“When I left baseball in 1970 I really hadn’t intended to make it permanent … I figured to stay way maybe a year or two, let things cool down, and then get back into it,” Bouton told the Herald.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with my books. Statements that I was black-balled by the league for what I wrote are unfounded … I’ve always been one to believe that individual clubs want to win ball games so much they would pitch Charles Manson and play another rapist at second if it would help them win.”
The knuckleballer had been playing semi-pro baseball near his home in New Jersey when former Jimmies catcher Nick Testa connected Bouton with John Elick, the Calgary manager, and urged him to make his way to Alberta.
“It sounded like a great idea, and when I contacted John we worked out the arrangements,” said Bouton, who was planning a 10-day trip to Wild Rose Country and even mused about picking up a bat.
“I’m still a fair hitter, so if he wants me in the outfield, or just to sign autographs, I’ll be there,” he said.
“But I do understand from both John and Nick that it won’t be all that easy. I don’t intend to come down there for two weeks and strike out hundreds. I just hope I don’t embarrass myself and the Jimmies by getting hit all over the park.”
Elick noted that Bouton’s impending arrival spoke to the quality of play in the AMBL.
“I’ve been trying for years to convince people in Calgary that we do play an excellent brand of ball, not much lower than the big leagues,” said Elick, who was penciling Bouton in for tournament starts in Barrhead and Lacombe.
RED DEER DEBUT
After receiving a white-hat welcome in Calgary, Bouton made his first start in the AMBL against the Generals in Red Deer on July 17th.
He went five innings, faced 19 batters, gave up three hits, and walked one batter before handing the ball over to teammate Ron “Doc” Peterson.
Bouton’s only major mistake was a pitch to Al McKee, the cleanup hitter for the Generals, who hit a solo homer over the right-field wall in the second inning.
Despite that, Bouton was in line for the win until things unraveled for Peterson. When Red Deer put the tying run on second base with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Bouton tried to lighten the mood.
“Hey you guys, that’s my lead you’re playing with,” he quipped from the stands behind home plate.
Unfortunately for the Jimmies, the lead didn’t hold and the Generals prevailed 5-4.
“I felt pretty good – not great, but not bad,” Bouton told Hull after his start.
“The knuckleball wasn’t hopping as much as it should, in fact a couple got away from me and I was lucky they stayed in the park … I haven’t touched a ball for almost two weeks, and I’m actually surprised and pleased with my performance tonight.”
Elick was highly impressed by what he saw in his new celebrity hurler.
“He had them eating out of his hand. I would have loved to have kept him in but we agreed before the game Jim would throw four or five innings to keep something for the Calgary fans this weekend,” said the manager of the Jimmies.
Bouton’s catcher, who had never crouched behind the plate for a knuckleballer before, was also intrigued by his teammate’s ability.
“When it was on, it would drop a foot in the last three feet,” said Al Price, who went two-for-four on the night.
“Some of those batters couldn’t believe they missed it.”
Marty Coil, the playing manager of the Generals, offered positive reviews, as well.
“He had us under control,” Coil told the Herald. “Most of us were just guessing on the knuckleball.”
Bouton – who was joined on the trip by his wife, Bobbie, and their three children – made plenty of time for Hull and answered a variety of questions for the newspaper reporter.
His greatest moment in sport? The first time he put on a New York Yankees uniform.
“I arrived at the stadium hours before the game – nobody else was there but me and the pigeons. Well, I dressed quickly and went out to the mound where I told myself that even if I never dressed in a professional baseball uniform again, I was the luckiest and happiest guy in the world.”
In reflecting on his career to that point, Bouton said: “It’s all been fun, every day of it. In fact, that’s why I wrote my book – just to share some of the unbelievable things that happen to professional ball players.”
He spoke in defence of Ball Four and the criticism it received.
“I didn’t say anything bad in the book about the game, nor did I purposely intend to upset any players. What happened is the league commissioner called me in and told me never to write about baseball again. When that got out everybody assumed the book must have been against the sport – but it wasn’t,” said Bouton.
He reiterated the reason behind his trip to Alberta.
“I’m here because I love the game. If I didn’t enjoy playing, I wouldn’t be here.”
The 36-year-old pondered his future.
“Who knows? I’ve never planned anything in my life – not college, baseball or a TV career,” Bouton told the Herald.
“When I was in university I often wondered what I’d be when I grew up. Fortunately I’ve never had to grow up – for me, life is still an extended childhood.”
CALGARY CROWD PLEASER
As effective as Bouton looked in Red Deer, he saved his best stuff for the home crowd at Foothills Stadium.
Making his second start against Barrhead on a Saturday night, he unleashed a “masterful two-hit performance” upon the Cardinals. Bouton, who wore No. 10 for the Jimmies, switched gears early in the game when he discovered his go-to knuckleball wasn’t doing the trick.
“I only threw one knuckler and that went for a hit to the second batter I faced. After that I concentrated on the changeup, which for me is actually a palm ball,” Bouton explained to Hull, adding he was “too strong” to throw the knuckler.
“The knuckleball must be thrown delicately. If you are too strong, then the pitch comes off far too fast, and with disastrous results.”
Bouton called his changeup “the only pitch I have left that is as strong as when I threw in the majors,” adding “I’ve lost a lot off my fastball, my curve doesn’t hop like it used to, but the changeup is still there.”
More than 2,000 fans turned up to see Bouton pitch and watch his hallmark delivery that often resulted in his ball cap flopping off his head and falling onto the side of the mound. It was the largest crowd the Calgary diamond had played host to in three years.
“The fans are tremendous and you have one of the finest collections of young ball players I have ever seen,” said Bouton following the 7-0 victory, which saw him issue no walks and strike out three batters.
The next stop for Bouton took him to central Alberta for a mid-week appearance at the Lacombe Lions 26th annual baseball tournament and a date with the Berkeley, California Bears.
Sporting the powder-blue jersey of the Jimmies, Bouton was a bit less sharp than he was in Calgary but still good enough to pick up a 4-3 win. He yielded six hits, two of them home runs, while striking out eight batters.
The turnout was even better for this game, with 3,000 fans showing up to see how much gas Bouton had left in the tank.
“I’ve really been amazed at the calibre of play here, especially the defence,” Bouton told Edmonton Journal reporter Ray Turchansky.
“This is what baseball used to be like in the States twenty years ago. You could never get this many people out to a game of this calibre in the States now.”
Asked yet again about Ball Four, Bouton expressed no regrets about what he wrote.
“In fact, I keep remembering anecdotes that I forgot to include,” he said.
“I think that the book should be mandatory reading for journalism students, because it showed how writers had gotten so close to the institution of baseball that they weren’t able to report things objectively. After the book came out a lot of writers started writing facts and started looking for things.”
Bouton returned to the Stampede City for his final start with the Jimmies on July 25th. It was a rematch against the Berkeley Bears that served as the Friday night opener of the eight-team Calgary Major Baseball Tournament.
The top team in the tourney would take home $1,500, while the runner-up could expect a payout of $1,200.
“Tournament ball always brings out the best in players, and with a lineup like ours fans can expect major league performances,” said event chairman Russ Parker, who hoped the series would attract crowds larger than the record of 13,000 who came to watch in 1971.
The host Jimmies got off to a strong start on the field and at the gate, with 2,488 fans coming out to watch Bouton one last time.
Bouton went the distance yet again and allowed eight hits over nine innings – it was his second complete game in three days. He walked one batter while striking out two in the 6-2 win over the Bears, but he admitted his arm was sore during the first few innings.
“All I had was my changeup and after the second I told Forgie (pitcher Ray Forgie) he better get ready. But in the fourth I found the groove and everything started working again. I was having too much fun to give it up then,” he said.
During his four starts for the Jimmies, Bouton put in 32 innings of work, picked up three complete-game victories, surrendered five earned runs on 19 hits and allowed just one walk. He also stepped into the batter’s box and connected for at least one hit during his Alberta trip. The Jimmies, who paid for his vacation in exchange for his time on the mound, got their money’s worth.
“Three things happened here that made this trip a winner … the people, the scenery, and this ball team – among the finest people I’ve ever met,” Bouton told the Herald before hopping on a plane back to New Jersey.
“I like this team … they play ball like I do – every play gets 120 percent from every player on the club,” he added.
“I want to come back. In fact, if I have the Labor Day weekend off I’m seriously considering flying back to play with the Jimmies in the Kamloops tournament.”
The Red Deer Generals ended up winning the Calgary tourney, which drew over 9,000 fans to seven games.
MAVERICK ON THE MOUND
While Elick remained hopeful that the Jimmies would welcome Bouton back to their roster in Kamloops at the end of August, and possibly again in the summer of 1976, the reunion never happened.
Instead, Bouton signed a professional contract with the Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League. He led the Mavs to a 5-3 win over the Walla Walla Padres in his debut in front of 9,851 Oregon baseball fans and spoke of his desire to keep pitching.
“I’ll try and finish the season with Portland,” he said in the Aug. 11th edition of the Vancouver Province newspaper.
“I want to concentrate on baseball – only baseball.”
The story of the Portland Mavericks, including Bouton’s involvement with the team, was highlighted in the exceptional documentary film The Battered Bastards of Baseball.
Indeed, Bouton’s time in both Calgary and Portland helped him complete his return to the major leagues.
Bouton made five starts for Portland in 1975, going 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA and four complete games, and he returned to the Mavericks in 1977. During his second stint with the team, he made nine starts, put together a 5-1 record, and went the distance in five games.
The popular pitcher also gave baseball fans something else to chew on during his time with the Mavs. It was in Portland that he and teammate Rob Nelson invented Big League Chew bubble gum.
That pursuit didn’t prevent Bouton from working toward his ultimate goal, however, which was the chance to suit up in The Show again.
Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner helped him move closer to that reality when he brought Bouton into the organization in 1978. Bouton started with the Double-A Savannah Braves of the Southern League, where he made 21 starts and threw 150 innings.
The hard work earned Bouton a September callup to Atlanta, where he went 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA over 29 innings.
When he led the Braves to a 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park on Sept. 14th, it marked an eight-year gap between MLB victories for Bouton, who permitted only three hits through six frames.
It also left the Giants hitters feeling salty about their futility at the dish.
“He had nothing,” San Francisco third baseman Darrell Evans muttered to Atlanta Constitution scribe Ken Picking following the loss.
Infielder Bill Madlock went further in his abuse of Bouton, calling him “a joke,” and “a disgrace to baseball.”
Bouton, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 80, took the criticism in stride and laughed off the verbal jabs.
“It’s more fun to get them out when it makes them mad,” he admitted to Picking.
“This should silence my critics … the Giants are major league hitters. I’m sure they were trying to hit me. Either I was pretty good, or they weren’t so good. It was probably a combination of both.”
Added Bouton: “The players say more personal things about me because of who I am. I expect that. There are other ways to get batters out besides throwing the ball by them. I’m just a battler. Always have been.”
The game proved that Bouton remained a polarizing figure in baseball.
It also showed his detractors how capable he was of authoring his own comeback story.