Memories of an encounter with the late Jim Bouton
He made his debut in Major League Baseball on April 22, 1962 at age 23 for the New York Yankees. He pitched three innings against the Cleveland Indians, giving up one hit and no earned runs in a 7-5 loss. He got a no decision that day.
On September 29, 1978, he pitched in his last Major League Baseball game. He pitched three innings, allowed six hits and six earned runs against the Cincinnati Reds in a 7-2 loss for the Braves. He gave up a home run to Pete Rose in the bottom of the second inning to break up a scoreless contest early.
Jim Bouton was in Major League Baseball from 1962 until 1970. His best season came in 1963 when he went 21-7 on the mound for the Yankees. A year later, he was 18-13 and won two starts in the World Series that the Yankees would lose. He got back to the show in 1978. I met him a year earlier when he was with the Double A Knoxville White Sox of the Southern League. He was attempting a comeback and was developing a knuckleball. I met him at Golden Park in Columbus on an afternoon when the Knoxville White Sox came to play the Columbus Astros. I cannot tell you the date of the game nor the score. All I can tell you is that Jim Bouton was friendly, humorous and serious over the hour or so that we spoke.
I had never even known who Jim Bouton was until my father handed me a paperback book one day out of the blue. I had not asked for the book and I do not know why my father gave it to me. Perhaps he found it at the Main Post Bowling Alley where he worked part time while still in the Army and saw it was about baseball and gave it to me. He knew I loved the sport. I do not know if he even knew what the book was about when he gave it to me. But, I read it cover to cover more than once.
The book was Ball Four by Jim Bouton. It was basically a diary Jim Bouton kept during the 1969 baseball season while he played for the Seattle Pilots of the American League. It was also interlaced with stories of his days with the New York Yankees. It was controversial, truthful and a bit raunchy at times. For the most part it was funny. And, it broke down a wall of secrecy that MLB wanted kept between its teams and its fans. After the book came out, MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted Jim Bouton to sign an affidavit saying the book was fiction. Jim Bouton refused. His reward for his open honesty was a non-official ban from baseball. That was one of the worst kept secrets of Major League Baseball.
Ball Four told of players drinking, taking drugs, having sex and pulling practical jokes. It embarrassed a sport that held its players up as role models for every kid playing baseball from Little League to College. Every baseball fan – especially youngsters – had a favorite player and tried to imitate him. Parents were not exactly pleased when they found out Jim Bouton had mentioned some of those players in his book.
I found one of my baseball heroes mentioned in the book – Joe Pepitone. He was a first baseman for the Yankees and the first player to use a hairdryer in a MLB locker room. The other Yankees players pranked Joe one day by putting talcum powder in his hairdryer. When Joe used the hairdryer, he became white as snow and red with embarrassment as the other players laughed at the result of their prank. There are other stories in the book that I cannot mention here. If you want to know what they are, buy the book or one of its updates,
Anyway, I met Jim Bouton for an interview at Golden Park. When the team arrived, he was not among the players getting off the team bus. I asked where he was and was told he traveled alone. He arrived about half an hour later in a Cadillac convertible and alone. He asked me to do the interview in the locker room as he prepared for the night’s game. He even told my little brother who had tagged along to come into the locker room.
When the interview concluded, I asked Jim Bouton to sign my copy of Ball Four. He took it, looked it over and said he would not. I asked why and he said I had cost him too much money. He said there was no way the book could have gotten into the ragged out shape it was in if I had been the only one who had been reading it. He laughed at the look on my face and then signed the book. He even signed a baseball for my little brother. He then suggested we take a photo together. We did and then we parted. When I developed and printed the photo later, it was slightly blurry, but not so much that its subjects are unrecognizable.
That was the only time I ever met Jim Bouton, but he made a lasting impression and gave me a story to tell for the rest of my life. I will never have the chance to meet him again. Jim Bouton died on July 10 – just a few days ago – after weeks of hospice care for cerebral amyloidal angiopathy, at age 80.
Jim Bouton was a mediocre pitcher in the big leagues at best with a 62-63 win-loss record. He was a better writer and sportscaster. But his legacy will be shredded bubble gum – Big League Chew. He is one of the inventors of the product that is sold in packets like chewing tobacco. I doubt kids will ever give up bubble gum and as long as they sell Big League Chew, Jim Bouton will continue to live on in the mouths and hip pockets of youngsters.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for
The Citizen of East Alabama.