My Favorite Baseball Book of All Time: A Book Report of Sorts

Over 42 years ago, the baseball world was shocked by the publication of Ball Four by Jim Bouton, who wrote about his season as a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots (now Milwaukee Brewers) and the Houston Astros during the 1969 baseball season.

Jim Bouton was once a top New York Yankee prospect and pitcher. He could throw pretty hard and had a bulldog mentality, which led to his not-so-surprising nickname, Bulldog. In 1963 and 1964, he won 21 and 18 games (with a 4.5 and 3.8 WAR and ERA+ of 140 and 120 in those years.) Over the next 4 years, his career was a reflection of the troubled times of the vaunted Yankees who dropped off after a 40+ year run (!) as he suffered a lot of injuries and lost his 90+ mph fastball. In 1968 desperate to cling to baseball, Jim Bouton turned to the knuckleball which he threw as a kid. He toiled in the minors in Seattle to control "Knucksy." FYI his catcher at the time was John Olerud's dad.

In 1969, he was picked by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. The rest as they say was history.

The book was controversial at the time. Everyone in the baseball establishment hated it because it showed baseball as what it was, not what they wanted it to be. Many players hated it or were told they hated it. Hank Aaron was very vocal about it and was embarrassed on national TV when confronted by Bouton on a talk show and admitted he never read it. Jim Bouton made himself into a pariah, but it changed sports writing forever.

I loved it when I first opened the battered copy of the book in my high school library. It was one of those books I couldn't stop reading once I opened it. Who doesn't want to read about life in the majors (even if it was written the year I was born)? I found that he wrote about sex, of stupidity, swearing, drinking, fighting and even racism in the book. Some of it cringe worthy, some of it hilarious. It also gave some insight into the rise of the players union. To me, the eye opening part is that if the owners had been a touch more generous then the players union wouldn't have become the toughest and richest union in sport.

He writes about former pitching coach Sal Maglie (he loved as a fan, but loathed as a coach), legendary pitching coach Johnny Sain (loved), Joe "Pound Budweiser" Schultz (he sympathized the position he was in) and then baseball commish Bowie Kuhn. Also looks at in depth the manager/coach/player relationships. How old school baseball rubs up against new ideas (especially Mike Marshall.) Trust me, not much has changed there especially with the rise of SABRmetrics and the internet.

He also spent part of the season in Vancouver, which was the Triple A baseball team of the Pilots. The location was perfect for Seattle and is what Toronto and Buffalo are going to be next year. At the time, the PCL had a team in Honolulu (the Angels AAA affiliate.) If you thought Las Vegas was rough for travel, imagine how bad things would have been if the Jays had their AAA team in Honolulu? From what is mentioned in the book, it might have been harder to get the AAA players to leave Honolulu than worrying about the long travel times.

When compared to today's books? Jim Bouton wrote in the late 70s: "The books that have come after mine make BALL FOUR, as an expose, read like THE BOBBSEY TWINS GO TO THE SEASHORE." It is quite tame by today's standards, but it is also a lot more insightful and thoughtful than the typical jock book.

The later editions tell of how the media reacted, Jim's life post baseball including sportscaster and part inventor of Big League Chew, the tragedy he suffered when his daughter died in a car crash in 1996 and his "return" to the Yankees when his sons successfully lobbied to have him appear in the Yankees oldtimer game in 1998.

He also made a comeback to the majors (as a knuckleballer) in 1979. He made five starts, winning one of them. His stats were to say the least not pretty (BB/K of 21/10!) but amazing considering he had not pitched in the majors for 8 years and was 39 years old. The closest I've ever seen was Dave Stieb's return in 98.

I do recommend Ball Four for those who want to understand what life and economic climate was for ball players was like before free agency and how the game changed in the 60s.

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