John McCoy/Daily News staff photographer
Paula and Jim Bouton, right, visit with Jean Hastings Ardell and David Kipen, left, before Saturday’s panel discussion in Burbank on the 40th anniversary of the release of “Ball Four.”
For those who missed Saturday’s day-long tribute by the Baseball Reliquary to Jim Bouton, “Ball Four” and the 1969 Seattle Pilots, it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for those of us based in Southern California — kinda like the Pilots’ existence.
We were only able to capture a small slice of it with our Sunday column (linked here), but realized afterward we had only really started to pound the Budweiser.
This 40th anniversary of “Ball Four” was not just a chance to thank Bouton in person for what he was able to accomplish, but an experience that is worth savoring for years to come.
Space and time put a limit on what we could cover on the website and in the paper. That’s the beauty of the blog.
Among the other things we’ll take away from our day in Burbank with fellow Bouton admirers:
== In Bouton’s follow-up to “Ball Four” called “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally” (1971, where he writes that he got a $40,000 advance, unlike the pro-rated $10,000 he got from the publishers at World Books for the one that really set the bar high), he mentions briefly on page 167 that the tentative title for “Ball Four” was “Baseball Journal.” The idea was actually a spin-off of the “Instant Replay” book Dick Schaap helped the Green Bay Packers’ Jerry Kramer write in 1968 (linked here).
When asked how the title “Ball Four” came into being, Bouton explained Saturday how he and editor Leonard Shecter were at the Lion’s Head Tavern in New York, the famous literary bar near Columbia University, having just turned in the finished product into the publisher:
“We went to have a drink to celebrate this piece of cardboard we had just turned in, and we’re thinking, ‘Now what are we going to call the damn thing?’
“We were talking about the need to have a downbeat title. This isn’t a story about how somebody just won the World Series. It’s about struggling, about difficulty. What’s the toughest thing for a pitcher — a knuckleball pitcher in particular — it’s to get the damn ball over the plate. It’s walking guys ….
“So we’re talking about all this, and there was a lady sitting at the bar. She was very drunk. And she was listening to our conversation. And at some point, she leans over and says, ‘Whyyyyy don’t you caaaaall it Baaaaallllll Foooouuuuurrrrrrr?’
“And we said, ‘nawwwww.’
“Finally we couldn’t come up with anything. And I was walking Shecter back to his hotel before I went home to New Jersey, and then Shecter says, ‘You know, Ball Four isn’t a bad title.’ So we owe it all to this woman at the bar.”
John McCoy/Daily News staff photographer
== Bouton’s explanation on how the book happened:
“I caught lightning in a bottle … all I had to do on this team was keep my eyes open and my ears open. Half the book is quotes. The other guys — they’re the funny ones. I just happened to be there. I learned early in the process if I write the quotes down, I’d forget. Even three minutes later. … I started with note pads and would write what’s handy, a popcorn box, air sickness bags … a piece of toilet paper. I really owe it to my teammates.
”They only printed about 5,000 copies. They figured no one wanted to read a book about the Seattle Pilots. But when the baseball commissioner (Bowie Kuhn) suddenly everyone wanted to read it. It was banned in Boston. That was great. So they had to print another 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 … so I owe it to Bowie Kuhn.
“I also want to thank the sportswriters who turned me into a social leper. They were angry I was now telling stories that they thought they should be telling. Dick Young of the (New York) Daily News did three consecutive columns about ‘Ball Four’ and it was pretty tough.”
== On how his parents reacted to the book when it came out in June, 1970:
“I was now pitching for the Houston Astros … and we were in New York City, and we were playing the Mets. My mom and dad, who lived in New Jersey, came out and were in the stands. And lo and behold, I get called into the game (to pitch). And the fans at Shea Stadium, all they’ve heard about me or ‘Ball Four’ were what they read in Dick Young’s columns, so when the announcement came, ‘Now pitching … ‘ there was tremendous booing … 30,000 people booing … I didn’t mind. I figured they’ll read the book and realize it’s not a bad book. But as the game was over, I went outside the park, and my mom and dad were waiting for me. And my mom was in tears. ‘You shouldn’t have written that book!’”
“So again, thanks to the sports writers who called attention to this awful book.”
== Bouton on how baseball is still askew over honoring Bowie Kuhn:
“Baseball is still being its baseball self. They’ve figured out how to get Bowie Kuhn into the Hall of Fame. Why? Because he presided over the greatest economic boom in the history of baseball. Yet, it was (labor union chief) Marvin Miller’s contributions that led to the economic boom. Because Kuhn didn’t get any of his policies through. They were all Marvin’s policies. But he was 0-for-37 against Bowie Kuhn. Yet, here’s Kuhn in the Hall of Fame and Marvin Miller’s not. Someone wrote: ‘It’s like having Wile E. Coyote in the Hall of Fame but not the Roadrunner.’
“This is why we need the Baseball Reliquary. It points out these truths about baseball. And I’m honored to be in the (Shrine of the Eternals) third group. And it’s one of the great honors of my life. I’d rather be in the Baseball Reliquary than the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
== Bouton, on the reaction to players seeing him taking notes all the time to collect material for “Ball Four”:
“(Teammate Fred) Talbot once said to me, ‘Writing notes like that is worse than whispering.’ They just thought I was going to write a sports book. I was actually writing about Talbot arguing with another player about which part of the South was dumber. The South part of the South or the North part. So to the sportswriters who claimed I was making stuff up — I’d have been a great novelist if I could make that kind of stuff up. It was so brilliant, so fantastic and original. It had to be verbatim conversations. Nobody can think like that.”
== Panelist David Kipen, recalling how as a 7-year-old in 1970, the last book he read before “Ball Four” was “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss:
“I wanted to replace Willie Davis in center field for the Dodgers (at that age). That was my career ambition. And then I read ‘Ball Four’ and it really didn’t make me want to be a ball player. It didn’t dissuade me … the coach of my high school team did that. But this book just overtook me at the time. I had a green spiral notebook and I started writing down notes about all my fourth-grade classmates. But their exploits weren’t quite as eventful as ‘Ball Four’ … ”
== Kipen on how he sees “Ball Four” fitting into other baseball literature:
“I think Mr. Bouton brought a kind of truth-telling and comedy to it that nobody else had seen before. It looks obvious in retrospect. You could almost say baseball writing now is more hushed-up. We have less than an idea of what goes on in the locker rooms because now the writers don’t have the access. So before, the writers had great stories and wouldn’t tell them. And now they don’t have the stories so they can’t tell them to us.”
== Kipen, asking Bouton on what he read growing up and what were his writing influences considering all the writing Bouton did to connect with the reader “that can’t be bought or taught … who were you soaking up so the rest of us could soak you up years later”?
Bouton: “I didn’t read very much. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I’ve read more than 20 books in my whole life. … I read a lot of the Chip Hilton sports stories — where the ballplayer worked at the grocery store to support his widowed mother. I realized ballplayers were doing the right thing for society and all that. They were All-American heroes. Good guys and did good things for their family and communities. And this was idea of what players were like.
“I signed my first contract and I’m in Columbia, South Carolina for a camp with six of the 14 Yankees farm teams, guys with uniform numbers like 109, and it was fascinating to see these characters, none of them were anything like Chip Hilton. They were high-school educated kids, still had regional prejudices and biases, guys from Alabama playing with guys from New York, no one’s polished, the only thing in common is having baseball skills. And they were stars from where they came from.
“And here thrown together, before competing against another team, competing with other players for the chance to play. It’s tremendous tension, who’s going to make the team, I should be on the team … and then the game start and for the first time, they’re failing. They hit .600 in high school and now hitting .242 and .186. I can’t tell you how many tearful phone conversations I heard from players calling their fathers trying to explain how they were as good as the others but were hitting so bad. How they dealt with adversity, it was with sarcasm and practical jokes.
“I was telling my friends and family after my first season in the minor leagues about what it was like, and almost every time, they’d say, ‘That’s funny … that’s fascinating … you should keep notes and maybe write a book someday.’ So it was always in the back of my mind.
“So I’m with the Yankees, hurt my arm, get traded to Seattle for a bag of batting practice balls, and I’m in the minor leagues, I’m thinking, ‘If I’m ever going to write that book, this is the year.’”
John McCoy/Daily News staff photographer
== Hollywood director Ron Shelton on where he was when “Ball Four” came out:
“I was in the Texas League (playing) for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs … and I couldn’t believe it. I loved every line of the book. I was stunned how some of the guys in the locker room were upset by it. I told them, ‘This is celebrating what we do. Don’t you get it?’ This is what sports is about. And it’s the good part. There’s no sanctity of the locker room. Because I was outspoken against the Vietnam War and roomed with a black ballplayer, it made me a crazy Marxist to some.
“I don’t know how many times I read it, but I sure bought enough copies to give to people and obviously, without a direct connection, it gave me permission to do what I’ve been doing in this ‘next’ career.”
== Asked by panelist Jean Jean Hastings Ardell about the last line of Bouton’s book, how he thinks “baseball is changing” … is that still true?
Bouton: “I’m not close to the clubhouses any more, so I don’t know too much about the mood of today’s players and how they are politically. It’s hard to tell. The thing that bothers me most about baseball today is the use of public funds to fund their vast stadiums, that don’t need to be built.
“Here, Yankee Stadium is torn down for a new Yankee Stadium, a smaller stadium, so fewer people can go, kids in high school taking classes in stairwells, teachers who aren’t getting paid, but a new subway stop is constructed near Yankee Stadium at the cost of a billion dollars — tax payer money — so people who go to Yankee Stadium can get off the subway, go right into the stadium, and after the game is over, go back to the subway and don’t have to set one foot into the Bronx where they might spend something with the local merchant. The home of Yankee Stadium is the poorest county in all of New York because it never benefited from the Yankees being in town, like at Fenway Park. That’s the biggest crime.
“(George) Steinbrenner’s tax break almost exactly offsets on a monthly basis the bonds payment. So the stadium is a wash for him. And now he’s up for the Hall of Fame? Who’s money did he spend? He’s mastered the art of using public money, going back to shipbuilding where in Tampa they went bankrupt twice and twice got bailed out by public money. He knows how to tap the money for his own businesses. And now they’re talking about him to be in the Hall of Fame?”
== Bouton on the process of editing the book down from 900 type-written pages with Shecter:
“Lenny was a very iconoclastic and acerbic sports writer at the New York Post for many years. He did a book with Roger Maris long before this, and Maris insisted a lot of stuff be taken out because he didn’t like what was there, so Lenny vowed he’d never write a book again with another ballplayer.
“I assured him that if he helped me, I wouldn’t be shy with what went on, I wanted to share the nonsense and some of the awfulness that went on in baseball, so we had this shared vision.
“He was a great editor. He was never with me, never met any of the players. He had a way of getting rid of stuff, seeing what worked. And the stories were the stories. He was good at the timing of things. He arranged the contract with World Publishing. He died shortly after the book came out. I was very heartbroken. And every time there’s something about ‘Ball Four’ I think of Lenny and how he’d have a great time with this. He was so proud of the book when we handed it in. So much time spent fine tuning it. By the time we handed it in, it felt like cardboard.
“When we handed it in, I said, ‘I don’t think the book is that funny.’ And he said, ‘I don’t think so either. It’s too dry.’ Then the publisher came back with a long letter from their lawyers … demanding we remove 48 different things from ‘Ball Four.’ And that’s when we knew we had something. We didn’t remove any of it.”
Bouton said the lawyers wanted “almost all the sex stories” removed, as well as stories about pep pills … “all the things you thought that were really funny.”
== Bouton, explaining how sportswriters either loved it or hated it, and some “tried to cover for me” and blamed all the backlash of “Ball Four” on a dislike for Shecter, who “misled” Bouton:
“Shecter was shunned from the start. I couldn’t wait to meet him when I was a rookie. The first thing players would say to me was, ‘Watch out for that f—in Shecter.’ I thought that his first name. He’s this little squat, comical guy, with a big mustache and a big smile on his face. I loved him from the beginning. We hit it off from the beginning. He loved that I already had a fan club at the beginning.
“The principles I learned from Lenny about brevity and clarity and truth and making something honest always stayed with me. I owe a lot to him with my writing.”
== Bouton on the difference in the media covering baseball in his day, especially between New York and Seattle:
“They all felt a loyalty to the team. They lobbied for that job, they liked baseball, so they saw their job as something of helping out the team. It was interesting to see in the press box, in those days, the ’60s, how they considered themselves to be extensions of the team’s public relations department. Their travel and hotel was paid for and sometimes they had envelopes in their mailbox with cash in it. If there was a fight on the team, you’d never read about it. ‘Readers shouldn’t know about this.’ If there was an argument on the bus, someone like Shecter would get off and phone it in (to his paper), while the other guys would agree, ‘we’re not going to write about this. .. we don’t need this.’”
== Bouton, on whether he’d have a chance at even a greater book if he did it with the Yankees of the 1960s rather than the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros of the 1969 season:
“I was a marginal character in Seattle. If I was star, or even a regular player, I wouldn’t have the same perspective. It’s the viewpoint that really is the key here. If I hung out with Whitey and Mickey and Roger, I’d have shared their view of things and I couldn’t have the same perspective. I’ve always thought about books: If the president of the United States writes a book and the doorman of the White House writes a book, read the doorman’s book. He’s got the viewpoint.”
== On whether it’s true there’s a musical version of “Ball Four” on the drawing board:
Bouton: “The first act is me getting sent to the minor leagues. The second act ends with a big dance number on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel to the song, ‘Shootin’ Beavers.’”
== On Bouton’s short run as transferring “Ball Four” to a CBS 1976 sit-com that lasted four episodes from Sept. 22 to Oct. 27 (his name in the show was Jim Barton):
“It’s a long story, you can read more in ‘I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,’ but I hated the whole process of trying to do a television show, acting all day, then with writers until 2 in the morning fixing what didn’t work in the script. It was too much. It wasn’t an enjoyable process.”
== Bouton on how the truth was in his time they’d play for nothing, but still weren’t being paid as well as the owners who continued to reap the benefits of their abilities:
“Here’s the way I look at it: For 100 years, the owners screwed the players. For 30 years, the players have screwed the owners. The players have 70 years to go.”
== And, in closing, the poignant opening words to the event delivered by documentary maker and Reliquarian Jon Leonoudakis (pictured here, asking Bouton to show him how he held his knuckleball):
“To a young lad of 12, ‘Ball Four’ turned all those god-like baseball players on my Topps trading cards into real, dimensional, flawed and funny people, leaping to life off those flat cardboard slats like escapees from Superman’s Forbidden Zone. My eyes grew the size of manhole covers reading about the hi-jinks taking place on the roof of The Shoreham Hotel and further ‘recreational activities’ with Baseball Annies.
“As an older lad of 52, I’ve re-read the book in all just about every edition many times, and, while I still laugh like hell reading about the brilliant pranks played on the likes of a Fred Talbot, its humanity is what resonates. I enjoyed reading about the relationship Jim had with his father, watching his children grow up, his struggles with divorce, finding new love, forming a new family, the heartbreak of losing a child, and returning to Yankee Stadium for old-timers day after a banishment of almost 30 years. That’s an Odyssey Homer could get behind.
“This book captures what it means to be human, to live, love, and experience life with all its peaks and valleys. It’s a remarkable journey, and I look forward to hearing from the man responsible, and to thank him for this wonderful gift: joining us today to celebrate and savor this milestone with him in person.”
That’s probably what made me want to go down the path of what “Ball Four” meant to the 175-or-so people who attended the event, rather than focus on any other angle.
== The Reliquary’s “Ball Four Turns Forty” exhibition at the Burbank Central Library (110 N. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank) will continue to be on display through Oct. 1. The Pilots memorabilia is amazing on its own, but the photo scans of some of Bouton’s original notes that were written on scraps of paper are remarkable pieces of literary history.
== KCAL-Channel 9′s Gary Miller, who did a piece on the event for the 10:30 p.m. Sports Central broadcast Saturday, has a longer piece set for Friday’s Dodger pregame show at 6 p.m. prior to the Dodgers-Arizona contest on KCAL.
== During our story last year on Greg Goossen, we had a blog posting on Jim Bouton (linked here) talking about the 40th anniversary of him playing for the Seattle Pilots.
== Copies of the documentary “The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight into History” can be purchased through co-producer Steve Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org.