Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Jim Bouton tied to Pittsfield's baseball history
When word came that Jim Bouton had passed away earlier this week at the age of 80, I was hit by a flood of memories.Some were not so good. After all, the battle over Wahconah Park, a proposed new stadium and the future of baseball in the city of Pittsfield created rifts in our community. I am not certain that they have all healed, even some two decades later. It was a protracted and contentious discussion, more like an argument.
It was far more complex than just debating Wahconah Park vs. a new baseball stadium. It certainly did not help that the arguments got personal on both sides.
It led to more than a decade of scorched-earth baseball. Try as they might, a series of owners in a series of leagues could not heal the rift.
What the Pittsfield Suns and the Goldklang Group have done in giving Pittsfield baseball is something that might not have happened, had the aforementioned debate not occurred.
Jim Bouton is, of course, the author of the classic "Ball Four," a book the New York Public Library put on its list of books of the 20th Century. It was the only sports book on the list.
Bouton did, however, do two things to bring the community together. Were it not for Jim Bouton and baseball historian John Thorn, Pittsfield's current place in baseball history might not be known. Bouton also created a one-off event at Wahconah Park that was as joyful as anything I had ever seen there.
In July, 2004, Bouton helped orchestrate a vintage baseball game between a group of players known as the Pittsfield Hillies and a group known as the Hartford Senators.
It all stemmed from the discovery of a Pittsfield bylaw back in 1791 that banned "base ball" within 80 yards of the new meeting house in downtown Pittsfield.
"Pittsfield provided the first example, in its ordinance, of baseball by that name being banned," Thorn said. "While we had an earlier citation that Princeton (N.J.), in 1786, in a diary, of a game called baste ball, which was truly nearly a variant of spelling, the orthographic honor goes to Pittsfield. If it was banned in 1791, it wasn't invented in 1790."
Thorn, who is Major League Baseball's official historian, said he had made the discovery in a history of Pittsfield.
"When Bouton and I were in the same room in a courthouse in Hackensack, N.J., to do an ESPN trial of whether the Yankees were good for baseball or bad for baseball," said Thorn. "I mentioned it to Jim, who I had never met before, that this Pittsfield thing might interest him. I knew he had an interest in vintage baseball and he lived in the Pittsfield area. He was electrified by this news."
Thorn said Bouton helped discover the documents that were being stored in the Berkshire Athenaeum and at City Hall.
"The two documents even had various spelling of 'baseball,' one with a hyphen and one as a single word," Thorn said, when we spoke last week. "Bouton's tremendous enthusiasm for this and my long established interest in the origins of baseball, provided us a way to keep getting together. Before long, we were incredibly fast friends."
The discovery of the documents led to the 1791 hats that showed up all over Pittsfield, celebrating the city's spot in the history of the national pastime.
That also led to the vintage baseball game.
It was televised on what was then ESPN Classic, and the Pittsfield Hillies were a veritable who's who of Pittsfield and Berkshire County baseball luminaries.
Chuck Garivaltis managed the team. Joe Zavattaro was one of the coaches. Bouton himself played and pitched for the Hillies, and was joined by greats as Bob Moynihan, Terry Bishop, Sean McMahon, Mike Massery, and Shaun Sottile, just to name a few.
It was the biggest crowd Wahconah Park had seen, because with really short fences, hundreds of fans were able to congregate in the outfield to watch.
It would also be fair to say that the vintage game eventually led to the Can-Am League's Pittsfield Colonials wearing turn-of-the-century style baseball uniforms during their two-year run at Wahconah Park.
Jim Bouton also provided Berkshire County's Yankees fans — of which there are many — with an emotional moment to remember.
Because of "Ball Four," Bouton had kind of been persona non-grata around Yankee Stadium. Writing about the inner workings of a MLB clubhouse in the 1960s could do that for you.
But after his daughter Laurie died in a car accident, his son Michael wrote a letter published in the New York Times about Bouton returning for an Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium. In 1988, Bouton was back in pinstripes.
"Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse man, never issued No. 56 again. He just felt it was in disgrace," Appel said when we spoke last week. "It made us feel good that Jim came back. A couple of years ago, he came back one more time for Old-Timers' Day."
Bouton received what Appel described to me as a hero's welcome upon taking to the Yankee Stadium diamond for the 1988 game.
Jim Bouton was not a great pitcher. He did not have enough longevity to earn that. But he had two seasons as a Yankee that were absolutely stellar.
In 1963, he was 21-7, and lost a 1-0 decision to Hall of Famer Don Drysdale of the Dodgers in the World Series. In 1964, Bouton was 18-13 and beat the St. Louis Cardinals twice in the World Series.
"For a couple of years, he was an elite pitcher in Major League Baseball. There are a lot of guys who don't make it on a 20-year journey," Appel said. "For those two years, he was magnificent. He was very colorful to watch.
"He had this great nickname 'The Bulldog.'"
Bulldog was apropos because Bouton battled his way back from arm injuries, made a comeback throwing a knuckle ball, and ended up with one of the most eclectic lives one could live.
He was a baseball player, an author, a TV sportscaster, an entrepreneur, an actor who created a situation comedy based on his book "Ball Four," and an acclaimed public speaker.
Appel will be at the Emerson Resort in Mount Templar, N.Y., on Wednesday, talking all things Yankees and probably Jim Bouton. Anyone looking to make a long weekend of Mariano Rivera's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, could make a side stop.
But for those of us who are baseball people, it was something Jim Bouton wrote at the end of "Ball Four" that really describes the hold the game has on us.
"You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball," Jim Bouton wrote, "and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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