Touring the Bases with…Jim Bouton
â€œYou 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.â€
Former major league pitcher Jim Bouton ended his controversial book Ball Four with those lines in 1969 and the nation has been in his grip ever since. The book was a best seller and was named one of the â€œBooks of the 20th Centuryâ€ by the New York Public Library, but its success didnâ€™t come without a price.
When his career ended in 1970 (he made a brief comeback in 1978) the former Yankee hurler affectionately known as â€œBulldogâ€ was exiled from Yankee Stadium due to the bookâ€™s candid revelations about baseball playersâ€™ off field activities and how the Yankees front office conducted its business.
Only six years earlier at the age of 25, Bouton was coming off consecutive seasons in which he won 21 and 18 regular season games, respectively, earned a spot on the American League All-Star team in 1963 and beat the Cardinals twice in the â€™64 World Series. He copped only sixteen more wins over the rest of his career, played for three different teams after leaving the Yankees, attempted a comeback as a knuckleballer in 1978, and became a pariah for breaking one of baseball’s cardinal rules by exposing the privacy of baseball clubhouses to the general pubic.
Bouton’s son Michael wrote a letter to the New York Times in 1998 asking that the Yankees let bygones be bygones and invite his father back to â€œThe House That Ruth Builtâ€ for Old Timersâ€™ Day. The Yankees acquiesced and Bouton returned to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 28 years.
I learned in 2002 that Bouton was trying to convince the Seattle Mariners to host an Old Timers’ Day for the old Seattle Pilots, so I contacted him about granting me an interview and he graciously accepted. The following is a transcript of our conversation five years ago:
Mike Lynch: What motivated me to contact you was an article I read in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated that said you and Mike Fuller, who dedicated a web site to the Pilots, are trying to convince the Seattle Mariners to host a Pilots/Mariners Old Timers’ Game next season (2003) at Safeco Field. Why don’t you talk about that a little bit and explain what steps you’ve taken to make this happen.
Jim Bouton: Well, first of all some of the Pilots that I’ve talked to about this, guys like Gary Bell, Tommy Davis, and Steve Hovley, they would love to have an Old Timers’ Day and we’ve always talked about it as being sort of a fantasy thing, but where would we have it, you know, the team only played in Seattle one year, then they moved and became the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers don’t remember their connection to Seattle, and the Mariners are a completely different franchise, so we’re sort of a team without a town.
But we really belong in Seattle, it’s a port, and we’re the Pilots, and the Pilots ship needs to come home. So we want to come home to Seattle for just one more time in port and then we’ll go away and we won’t ever bother them again. But it’s really, I think the right thing to do; there wouldn’t even be a Mariners if it wasn’t for the old Pilots, because when the Pilots left, the city of Seattle sued Major League Baseball and, uh, as part of the settlement they promised them a new team. So we sort of, uh, we were there at the birth of the Mariners. It would be a nice gesture, I think, for Major League Baseball to recognize the one and only Seattle Pilots.
ML: Have you talked to the Mariners about this?
JB: No, I haven’t spoke with them yet, um, I understand other people have suggested it in the past, but they haven’t really shown much interest, so what I’m trying to do is to put together, you know, a group of interested parties who would be able to benefit from an Old Timers’ Day at Safeco Field next year.Â There’s a local charity I’m talking with, ARC, of King County; they provide services for developmentally disabled people, and I’m trying to have them be part of the Old Timers’ Day weekend where they would be running a charity golf outing that would include the players, for example.
ML: That would be great.
JB: Yeah, so that might be on a Monday, Old Timers’ Game on a Sunday or a Saturday, you know, just a nice weekend that would get the players in town, all expenses paid, and maybe some money at a card show. I’ve been speaking with some card show promoters to see if we could put a package together and then present this to the Mariners.
ML: Now about Lou Piniella, he didn’t officially play for the Pilots, but he would be invited?
JB (laughing): Oh yeah, he’d definitely be invited because he was close enough to being a Pilot, and he would have been a Pilot, except he was too good. The management saw in Spring Training that Lou Piniella had a lot of talent and so they got rid of him.
ML: And Diego Segui played for both teams, so what do you do with him, throw him in a really ugly uniform, or…?
JB (laughing): Yeah, I don’t know, he’d have to wear…we’d definitely stick him with a Pilot cap with all the scrambled eggs on the brim. He’d have to do that. But it would be a wonderful time and, you know, of course Lou would be there as a Pilot.
ML: What can fans do to support the idea?
JB: Well they can call the Mariners and say they would come to a ballgame. I mean if the Mariners knew they could get an extra 5,000 people at the game then they might do it.
ML: Speaking of Old Timers’ Games, you were finally invited back to Yankee Stadium in 1998 after a 28-year exile caused by Ball Four. What was it like to step on Yankee Stadium’s hallowed ground again after all those years?
JB: Well a combination of things, feelings; part of it was feeling, you know, happy to be back and, uh, the fans responded very well, they cheered and the players welcomed me back, so that was nice. There was also a sense of vindication that I should have been back a lot sooner; it seemed like 28 years was an awful long time to be sitting in the Principal’s office for throwing spit balls. And then there was a tremendous feeling of pride for my son Michael who wrote the letter to the New York Times that got me invited back. And, you know, Michael’s letter was very poignant and referred to the death of my daughter Laurie, and so I felt tremendous sadness for the fact that Laurie couldn’t be there to see that, knowing, however that it was her passing that partly made it possible, so, you know, it was just a jumble of feelings going back and forth.
ML: I was very sorry to hear about Laurie, by the way.
JB: I appreciate that.
ML: Do you hold any grudges against the Yankees for treating you like a pariah?
ML (laughing): You don’t hate ‘em like the rest of us?
JB (laughing): No, no, I don’t hate ‘em.
ML: When you came up in 1962 they [the Yankees] were loaded with guys like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, uh, were you in total awe of the talent in that clubhouse or intimidated at all?
JB: No, I wasn’t intimidated; I felt I had some talent too and I made the team in the spring because I earned my way there and so I wasn’t in awe. I felt sort of like a kid in a candy store in a sense of being side by side with these guys and having them as teammates that was kind of fun and took some getting used to. I remember coming home from my first day at Yankee Stadium and I was living with my parents at the time and here I am sitting at the dinner table talking about Ellie, and Whitey, and Yogi, and ‘”The Mick” came over and said this and so then Ellie said to me,’ you know like I’m on a first name basis with these guys (laughing).
ML: Did you see the movie 61?
JB: Yeah, I saw that.
ML: With the release of that, a lot of attention has been paid to the Maris/Mantle relationship. From what you saw or heard a year later was there any truth to the rumor the Yankee players were secretly rooting for Mantle during the home run race?
JB: Oh, I don’t think they were secretly rooting for…well, they might have been secretly rooting for him [Mantle] in the sense that he was a closer friend because he’d been with the team for many, many years; Roger had just joined the team, so in that sense, yes, but they weren’t rooting against Roger. They might have been rooting for Mickey just as, um, any group of 25 guys.Â Players are going to have their favorites, but it doesn’t mean there’s a rivalry necessarily, you know, just favorites.
ML: At the time were you rooting for anybody in particular?
JB: No, I was pitching in Amarillo, Texas in the Texas League; I was more concerned about my curve ball than I was about, uh, Babe Ruth’s home run record.
ML: Now you made the 1963 American League All-Star team and threw one hitless inning in a 5-3 loss. Do you remember the three batters you faced and what was the overall experience like?
JB: Somebody told me the other day I faced [Dick] Groat, [Ken] Boyer, and [Julian] Javier, three Cardinals; I got ‘em out 1-2-3 of course…
ML: Then you faced ‘em again a year later…
JB: Yeah, in the World Series. It was a fun experience; I remember, you know, hanging around the lobby of the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Cleveland, that was when the Statler-Hilton had a chain of hotels, and, you know, hoping somebody would recognize me and ask me for my autograph.
ML: Now in 1969 when you joined the Pilots they had quite a cast of characters whose exploits were chronicled, of course, in Ball Four; You had a manager, Joe Schultz, whose best piece of advice to a pitcher was ‘give ‘em some low smoke and we’ll go in and pound some Budweiser.’ Was it more fun playing for a Yankees organization that was in the Fall Classic your first three years in the league or was it more fun playing for the Pilots, who were less talented but seemed to have a lot of personality?
JB: Well, I mean, it was two different kinds of fun; I mean, playing for the Yankees was a lot of prestige involved with that, you know, and so you felt like a big shot, and, you know, there was pride, and pride of accomplishment, and so those were the feelings there. The Pilots, I mean, we were just, you know, hangin’ on; it was a bunch of guys trying to salvage what was left of our careers, you know, most of the guys, we were all over the hill, so it was a more fun time, it was a sadder, more forlorn, more pitiful time, but yeah there were certainly more characters there.Â And for a book? I think a book about the Yankees wouldn’t have been as good as the book about the Pilots because of the fact that the guys were more interesting and more open about themselves than the Yankees ever were.
ML: Well I reread Ball Four last night and it also sounded like you were…or maybe the whole team was a little frustrated too, when you were with the Pilots.
JB (laughing): With the Pilots?
ML: Yeah. Almost like there was a lack of communication and you were trying to hang on and you didn’t know what was going on and…
JB: Well the management didn’t know what it was doing, so that made it hard for the players; it was like a revolving door, players coming in and out. I think there were more than 50 guys who spent time on the 25-man roster; that might not have ever happened in the history of baseball.
ML: Geez, no kidding. You testified in the Andy Messersmith arbitration case, reading passages from Ball Four that revealed how owners and general managers took advantage of the reserve clause when negotiating with players. With the advent of free agency, salaries have escalated into the stratosphere. In Ball Five, which was written 10 years after Ball Four, you wrote: “And speaking of money, you may be wondering what I think about these enormous salaries being paid to players today. Aside from thinking I was born too soon, here’s how I feel; a million dollars a year is a lot of money to get paid for hitting a ball with a stick. Based on contribution to society ballplayers are grossly overpaid. My position is that while the players don’t deserve all that money, the owners don’t deserve it even more.”
Does it pain you to see irresponsible owners like Tom Hicks shell out $252 million for one player or are you of the opinion that players should grab as much money as they can?
JB: I can’t think of a better way for awesomely wealthy individuals to share some of that money with kids off the street.
ML: So as long as they contribute back to society…
JB: They don’t have to contribute anything to society. Is Tom Hicks contributing anything to society? Let him give some of it to a kid from the Dominican Republic.
ML: In your book you talked about racism in baseball or at least the underlying tension between black players and white players. Do you think baseball has come a long way in 30 years or do you think the scarcity of minorities in big league front offices still proves that baseball has yet to pull its head out of its ass?
JB: Well I’m not part of baseball anymore so it’s really hard for me to comment about how far they may have come as far as racial attitudes are concerned, but it’s pretty clear that a failed, old white guy has a better chance of being a manager than a black player.
ML: Right, the “old boy network?”
JB: Right, no matter how good a player he might have been.
ML: You won 39 games from 1963 to ’64 and two more in the World Series, but in your first start in an Astros uniform you went 10 innings before losing 4-2 on a two-out, two-run Al Oliver double. Despite that loss was that your most satisfying start, especially since you’d been trying so hard to prove how effective the knuckleball could be?
JB: Yes, the one against the Pirates? Yeah, that was probably one of the most satisfying games of my life. I struck out 11 guys…
ML: Yeah, you struck out 11 guys and walked four…
JB: That’s the most players I’ve ever struck out in a ball game in my life and I did it with a knuckleball. I was trying to make that point to prove that this was a pitch that I could be a starting pitcher and, uh, they should give me a chance and that’s the game that proved my whole season, proved…
ML (laughing): Your whole existence as a knuckleballer?
JB: Right. It proved my season that I devoted to trying to prove that point.
ML: You noted many instances where guys were still pitching in games that went longer than nine innings; in fact, you wrote about one game that lasted 13 innings and Larry Dierker threw 12 of them. What do you think about today’s pitchers going only six or seven innings even when they have their best stuff?
JB: Well the reason they do that is because the pitching depth is better than it used to be and when a starting pitcher loses a little bit, they’re better off having a fresh guy come in, so it’s a much more intelligent handling of the players. It also preserves their careers a lot longer. They’re less likely to get burned out if they’re pitching five and six innings each time they go out there. So they get longer rest and they have fewer innings that they’re pitching and so it just makes more sense to do it the way they’re doing it today.
ML: Seeing shows like Oz, Sex in the City, and The Sopranos rise to popularity on HBO, do you think Ball Four would be successful today without the restrictions regular TV put on the short-lived TV series in the mid-70′s?
JB: I don’t know, ah, it was partly the restrictions, but it was also the lack of writing ability; we weren’t able to find writers who were familiar enough with the sports experience.
ML: Now you guys wrote the opening script, right, the pilot?
JB: Yeah, but, I mean, I’m not a screenwriter and yet I was the best writer we could find and I’d never written a screenplay before in my life, so that gives you an idea. One of the reasons why it had so much good military writing on television with Hogan’s Heroes and, uh, M*A*S*H, and all those shows, Sergeant Bilko, etc. was because most writers had spent some time in the military, so they were able to write that experience. And of course most writers grew up in a family so we had a lot of family and living room sitcoms, but not too many writers have ever played professional baseball, so we weren’t able to find guys that had that experience.
ML: Are you going to be taking part in the All-Star festivities (2002) or are you just going to be at the game?
JB: No, I’m just going to be out in Seattle, speaking on a cruise on Monday.
ML: So you won’t actually even be at the game?
JB: I may be at the game.
ML: Did you ever think you’d see the day the city of Seattle was actually rabid about baseball?
JB (laughing): No. That would be great. They don’t even need Mt. Rainier anymore.
ML: Have you been to Safeco yet?
JB: Yeah, it’s a great ballpark.
ML: It’s gorgeous; it’s a hell of a lot better than the Kingdome.
JB: Sure is, not to mention Sicks Stadium.
ML: I never went there so I wouldn’t know.
JB: Well, you can see our bullpen on my web site. Go to my web site. As a matter of fact, you can send anybody there. Jimbouton.com, and check on the icon where I’m tipping my cap for Old Timer’ Day at Yankee Stadium and you can go to Seattle from there.
ML: Great! Okay, well our 20 minutes is almost up, so I have one last question. In Ball Four you wrote that Mike Marshall was trying to convince pitchers that lowering the mound actually benefited them because they were closer to home plate (Bouton laughs). After 30 years of increased offense is it finally safe to say that Mike Marshall is officially full of shit?
JB (laughing): I don’t really have a good answer for that.
ML (laughing): Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and hopefully we can talk again sometime in the future.
JB: Okay, very good.
ML: Thanks a lot, Jim.
JB: Thank you, Mike. Bye now.