Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Bouton shook up baseball

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NEW YORK— I first became a baseball fan in 1947 when I inherited my father's passion for the New York Giants, and rooted for home run hitter Johnny Mize ("The Big Cat"), catcher Walker Cooper and ace pitcher Larry Jansen. My father and I were probably closest when we engaged in sports talk. We would often speak about baseball while listening raptly to Russ Hodges broadcasting the Giants games, and a few years later watching them play on TV rooting for my favorite Willie Mays and other stars like Monte Irvin, Sid Gordon, and Sal Maglie.

I was such a fanatic fan that I sometimes embarrassingly cried when the Giants lost, especially when I thought they were going down to defeat in the famous 1951 playoff game with the Dodgers. When I saw them losing in the ninth inning I abruptly fled our apartment in tears and did everything I could to avoid hearing the final score. However, later that evening I discovered that Bobby Thomson had miraculously hit a homer to win the game. I was ecstatic about the outcome, but even at 80 I feel foolish that the game had meant so much to me when I was young.

Through the years that intense passion has disappeared. I now find it hard watching more than a few innings, but I still need to root for the Yankees, Mets, and because I have a sentimental streak, the long gone San Francisco Giants, who left New York in the '50s. Though watching the games rarely excites me, I still look closely at box scores, trades between teams, and the sports reporters' analysis of team weaknesses and strengths.

Finally, it's more the gossip, rituals, lore and statistics that surround baseball than the game itself that interests me now. I enjoy more reflecting on and talking about the game than experiencing it. One more thing: I never played baseball, but I pitched a great deal of softball (not fast pitch) in Central Park until my early 50s. It was a sport whose slow rhythms and modest physical demands were perfectly attuned to my ordinary athletic gifts and the fact I was entering middle age.

ANGERED PLAYERS

I have never been an avid reader of baseball books, but I have read some that provide a penetrating look into different aspects of the game. Some of the best of the non-fiction ones I have read were: "The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence Ritter, "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn, "Baseball's Great Experiment" by Jules Tygiel, and the one I liked best, "Ball Four" (Turner Publishing 2014 edition) by Jim Bouton, a long time Berkshire resident.

Bouton died at the age of 80 in July, and I remember reading his book with pleasure when it came out in 1970.

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It was then a best seller, written as a diary of his next to final season (1969) as a resurrected knuckeballing reliever with two major league teams. One, the Seattle Pilots, was an expansion team, the second, the Houston Astros, he joined following a late-season trade. The book also recounts stories from his best baseball years (he was 21-7 with six shutouts in 1963) with the New York Yankees. His years with the Yankees supplied him with tales about idolized stars like Mickey Mantle, who was a practical joker, a heavy drinker, and often cruel to kids who wanted autographs and reporters who looked to get stories, or Roger Maris who never hustled to first base.

It was a controversial book that engendered anger from some players (one team burned the book) and from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who saw the book as "detrimental to baseball." And the Yankees refused to invite Bouton to their Old-Timer's Day until 1988.

Bouton never treated baseball as a sacred American rite. He was both wary of authority and of conventional pieties, and felt his book changed sports reporting, so "it was no longer possible to sell the milk and cookies image again." Hehe hoped reporters would no longer indulge in "indiscriminate hero-making." So his ballplayers swear, drink, swallow amphetamines, have sex with groupies, and in no way serve as larger-than-life role models for America's youth. They are flawed, but so are the coaches, who he sees dispensing the clich d and obvious as if it was wisdom, and general managers, whose wrangling over contracts he viewed as trying not to pay players what they were worth. It was a time when the reserve clause, which was a part of every contract, bound players nearly irrevocably to their teams, and free agency, which allowed players to get paid large sums of money, was in the future. Bouton was always passionately on the side of achieving justice for the players in their struggles with ownership.

Bouton could be funny and sarcastic when writing about baseball. For example, he could later state: "We were like farm animals compared to today's players who are treated like thoroughbreds." He liked to provoke and had a touch of malice. But he also put a premium on irreverence and was perceptive both about his fellow ballplayers' behavior and the nature of a game that he loved playing.

Bouton's book clearly influenced contemporary sports writing. Scanning the sports pages today, one can read a number of incisive articles analyzing the role of race, labor relationships, and business practices that rarely appeared in the '60s. However, that's not to say that bland, banal profiles of athletes can't still be found on the same pages.

Bouton was a unique athlete, an idiosyncratic, independent figure who had a voice and mind of his own.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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