Ball Four

Okay, I finally finished reading Ball Four. (What can I say? I am slow reader.)ball four paperback

Even though I’ve read this book before, several times  — it’s probably been five or six years since last time — it was still an enjoyable, funny and entertaining read. Probably more so for someone my age, who remembers who all these guys were, Joe Pepitone, Don Mincher, Curt Blefrey, Tommy Davis, and all the rest.

This makes me wonder if a similar book could be written now? Yes and no, I think. Sure, it’s possible, someone could write a similar book, a diary of a sports season. And, to some degree, the players and the humor are probably about the same. But I don’t think it would be possible today to write anything that would have near the same impact that Ball Four had. The main reason, I think, is just the abundance of media these days, with billions of baseball blogs and commercial sites milking the game for all its worth. If there was a ballplayer out there today like Bouton, wouldn’t he just start a blog or a twitter feed? Everything is more immediate now, and hence, more piecemeal, delivered in rapid fire little bits that usually don’t always come together into a coherent whole. (Such as here, in AYOB.) People don’t want to wait, they want it now. Immediacy has taken precedent over quality. I suppose that’s just the dollar value speaking the loudest (as it tends to) — almost everythingmoney in professional sports these days is subservient to the advertising dollar. (OK, this is not confined to just professional sports.) Which ultimately is what makes those seats at the ballpark so unaffordable for so many. The baseball fan ultimately foots the bill.

Do ballplayers still write books about individual seasons? I check Amazon, and the answer seems to be no, perhaps not. I don’t see anything recent written by a ballplayer on the previous season. I see team calendars. I see a SF Giants picture book devoted to their championship season. I see a new edition of Ball Four. But nothing similar. Perhaps the diary-of-a-season-genre is dead and gone? A lost art form.

Speaking of the almighty dollar, one thing I noticed especially was the differences in prices between 1969 and now. WOW. When Bouton complains about the prices of things, it’s like he was raised in 1918, and used to go see a movie for a dime. It’s remarkable how much prices have gone up in only.. well, only 44 years. Okay, maybe not that remarkable. Ballplayers back then still could make pretty good money, especially if they were stars, but of course nothing comparable to what they make today. Money is a concern throughout the book for Bouton; rent deposits, moving expenses, cases of Gatorade. And Bouton at this time, probably like most ballplayers, is negotiating his own contracts with management, with no knowledge of what anybody else on the team is making. I think that is probably one of the big reasons why ballplayers made so much less back then. Most people don’t go into contract negotiations with a strong sense of their market value. Bouton tells the story of Johnny Sain, who was pitching with the Braves (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”) Sain was winning a lot of games, and told management that he wanted to renegotiate his contract.

We can’t renegotiate a contract during the season.”
“Well, you’re going to renegotiate this one,” John said.
“What the hell do you mean by that?” Quinn said.
“I’m suppose to pitch Thursday,” Sain said. “But unless you pay me what I wanted in the beginning, I’m not pitching.”

That meant it would be Spahn and rain and pray for a hurricane and then maybe a flood. So Quinn tore up his contract and gave him a new one, and John won twenty-four games. He used to say to me, “Now, don’t be afraid to climb those golden stairs. Go in there and get what you’re worth.”

Climb those golden stairs — that is great advice.

Other noticeable differences: players seem less educated back then, there are fewer college-educated players, and there seem to be more regional differences. Things have leveled out a lot since then, I think, and there are a lot more Hispanic players in the game today. Bouton was unusual, I think, in keeping track of his statistics as closely as he does. Not sure that that’s true, but that’s the feeling I got. This all takes place back in the days of the Reserve Clause, when ball players had no leverage against management, and that really comes across. There’s one episode where the players have a meeting to talk about what they should try to negotiate from management in the next contract, and it’s interesting to note how limited their demands are. Everyone, even Bouton, seems convinced that without the Reserve Clause, baseball would collapse.

Bouton has a pretty good season in 1969, overall, though undoubtedly frustrating for him. Though he pitched in 73 games, and with some success, he was rarely in a position to Jim Bouton - Astros 1970win or lose a game. He tended to come in after the game was pretty much decided, or for a short stretch in mid-game. Towards the end of the season he was traded to the Houston Astros, who were in the pennant race, and so he does finally gets to pitch in some games that mean something. He even gets to start a game, and he does well, going 10 innings, (who goes 10 innings anymore?) giving up nine hits, and 2 earned runs, while losing the game 4-2. It makes him wonder how his season, and the Astro’s season, might have been different, had he played for them all year.

In general, Bouton seems to have a lot of fun over the course of the year. There’s a lot of yukking it up out there in the bullpen, I guess. A certain amount of pressure as well.

“On the bus to the airport I thought about my season; 73 outings, and I graded 52 of them either good or excellent, and for the first time since 1964 I felt no gnawing emptiness at the end of the season. Only quiet fulfillment, the cool of the evening.”

During the winter he thinks back over the season, and remembers Jim O’Toole.

“Jim O’Toole and I started out even in the spring. He would up with the Ross Eversoles [in the Kentucky Industrial League] and I with a new lease on life. And as I daydreamed of being Fireman of the Year in 1970 I wondered what the dreams of Jim O’Toole are like these days. Then I thought, would I do that? When it’s over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.

Yes, I would. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Nice ending. Excellent book. I highly recommend it. Along with Bouton’s sequels. IN FACT, you can get the original, and all the sequels, AND a new (okay, published in 2000) 54 page epilogue, in Ball Four: The Final Pitch. I’m ordering my copy tonight. Signed by the Bulldog, no less.

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AND –  Hey, a nice little interview with Jim on NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me! A fun little interview from 2012… plus a quiz!

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