Author and former major league pitcher Jim Bouton recently passed away at age 80.
He wrote one of the the most important and controversial sports books of the 20th century, a diary that led to fame, a little fortune, depression, loss and a second chance at love. More importantly, his book, “Ball Four,” led me into my teenage years with a new appreciation of language, colorful phrases, creative cuss words – and baseball.
Bouton wrote a combination diary of his 1969 season and memoir of his years with the Seattle Pilots, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. It turned into a book, then a sitcom, then a career in TV, followed by several successful comebacks, personal tragedy, peace and then ultimately, a living hell.
He died from a disease that resembles dementia, a hell no one deserves. Between his career and death, he was an entrepreneur and inventor who perhaps is best known for jointly creating “Big League Chew,” shredded bubblegum that resemble chewing tobacco, sold so kids wouldn’t use the real stuff. It would sell into the millions of pouches today.
Bouton’s diary was what sold me. As a youth I could never imagine professional baseball players swearing, drinking, taking drugs and generally misbehaving. All I saw on the field were “some milk-cheeked rookies,” as Mr. Bouton described, or grizzled veterans. As a kid, all I saw were my heroes. They were good, solid, upright citizens who liked a good beer and a hot dog after a game.
Bouton’s book changed the way we viewed baseball. “Ball Four” described the other side of baseball that was never seen before – a candid narrative of players cheating on their wives, star players performing hung over and routine drug use among players, including Bouton himself.
Up until then baseball carried a certain image for America. And that did not include racism, kissing on busses, infidelity and playing for unbelievably low wages. It was baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. Not baseball, amphetamines and martinis in the clubhouse.
Sure, some ballplayers made good money back then, but were limited to when and where they played until the arrival of free agency. Ballclubs could do whatever they wanted with them. Very few players complained, certainly not publicly.
Bouton threw a change-up and exposed all that.
He brought down the curtain of pro baseball. It was all addressed, and Bouton was blasted, berated for it. He was accused of telling fables, except the tales he told were true.
Bouton wrote the way people talked. And I made a promise to myself after reading his work as a kid to one day write like that, the way people talked.
He also took chances. He was threatened with violence on more than one occasion. He survived. His life will someday be told on the big screen, and even if the movie carefully and fittingly describes his life, it will be another Forrest Gump.
I have followed his life and career since I was 11 years old. His books are life altering, at least to me.
Everything he did wouldn’t fit into 10 columns. And this isn’t an obituary. Let’s just say, he will start to be recognized for what he did: writing one of the greatest books about baseball and its consequences while living an incredible life and changing so many lives along the way.
Todd Nuttman is a Kent resident who contributes to the Kent Reporter.