Tony Dobrowolski | Bouton left big-league, if intense, local legacy
PITTSFIELD — If you lived in Pittsfield in the early 2000s and followed either minor league baseball or city politics, chances are, you remember Jim Bouton. He was almost impossible to ignore and equally hard to forget.
He was the main character, the flash point, if you will, in the new stadium controversy that polarized the city during summer 2001, and during a less controversial encore performance in 2004 that ended for Bouton and his group the same way the first one did. Despite two shots at the prize, with two different city administrations, the former New York Yankees pitcher and his group that wanted to bring a community-owned independent league baseball team to Pittsfield and renovate Wahconah Park never succeeded in their Don Quixote-like quest. But for better or worse, they did leave a memorable legacy.
Bouton died Wednesday night at the age of 80 at his home in Great Barrington. He had suffered two strokes in 2012, according to a family friend, and had been in ill health ever since. I had heard he was in poor health, but hadn't spoken to him in 15 years, since his group's second attempt to fix up Wahconah Park and place a team fell apart due to a dispute over whether the proposed renovations should be subject to the state's public bidding laws.
You might remember that The Eagle was drawn into this fight the first time because the paper's then-owner, Dean Singleton, wanted to build a new baseball stadium adjacent to the newspaper on South Church Street, and Bouton's proposal came shortly after a controversial proposal to establish a Civic Authority to run such a facility was defeated in a special election, a decision that left a lot of hard feelings. With those feelings still fresh, people quickly chose sides after Bouton came along right after the vote took place.
Now, Bouton's quibbles with The Eagle and just about anyone else who was in a position of authority in Pittsfield from 2001 to 2004 are well-documented. You can find them in "Foul Ball," the book he wrote that describes his version of the events surrounding the stadium dispute. (He released an addendum to the first book after his second attempt to place a team at Wahconah failed.)
I'm not going to rehash ancient history or open old wounds in this space today. If you want to find out what happened back then, buy the book, or look it up in The Eagle's archives, then draw your own conclusions.
In my experience, Jim Bouton wasn't just the quirky character who wrote "Ball Four," the book that opened the door on what really goes on behind the curtain in Major League Baseball. To me, he was more of an anarchist. (The Village Voice even referred to him once as "Baseball's Bolshevik.") He didn't just like to challenge authority, he reveled in it. He loved throwing grenades into foxholes to see what would happen and where the debris landed.
Bouton had a lot of chutzpah, but he also had a fun side and wasn't afraid to try something new. I first met him in a professional capacity a few years before the new stadium controversy started when, at his wife's request, he auditioned for a part in a dance performance featuring athletes that took place at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket. If memory serves, we ran a photo in The Eagle the next day with Bouton in midair doing some kind of a twirl.
But he also could be a very polarizing figure. Based on what I saw happen in Pittsfield, people either loved him or hated him. To his admirers, he was a saint. To his detractors, he was a pariah. There was no in between.
And if you were with him, then went against him, look out. Case in point: One of his ardent supporters is portrayed like a hero in the first version of "Foul Ball," but like a villain in part two in the wake of a falling-out.
When I interviewed this former supporter a few years later for a story I wrote about the future of Wahconah Park, he was still so angry at Bouton that he refused to say his name. These were the kind of emotions that dealing with Jim Bouton could engender when you flew too close to the sun.
Whatever you thought about Jim Bouton, whatever side you were on during the new stadium controversy, he and his group left two things behind in Pittsfield that I believe largely have been forgotten.
The first were his group's plans to fix up Wahconah Park. The city kept some of those designs for refurbishing the ballpark after his second attempt to bring a team to the park fell through, and it reportedly referred to them when the ballpark was renovated a few years later. Subsequent operators of some of the baseball teams that called Wahconah Park home often referred to variations of his group's original ideas as a way to bring in more fans.
The second was the discovery of that long-forgotten town bylaw that banned the playing of "base ball" within 80 yards of the town meeting house in Pittsfield in 1791, which remains the earliest known written reference to the sport in North America.
Bouton's friend, noted baseball historian John Thorn, discovered that long forgotten piece of legislation in the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield during Bouton's second attempt to place a team in Pittsfield. The city got a lot mileage out of that discovery — remember those red, white and blue 1791 baseball caps; the decorated plastic catcher's mitts placed in downtown Pittsfield; the two-year "Art of the Game" project designed to celebrate Pittsfield's baseball heritage; that zany idea to create a monument in Pittsfield to the sport? The city even threw a "Happy Birthday Baseball!" party in front of the Berkshire County Courthouse on Sept. 5, 2006, the 215th anniversary of the date the bylaw was issued.
One of Bouton's strengths was his ability to attract attention. Few did it better. That bylaw is now on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. In my opinion, that piece of legislation probably would still be buried in the Athenaeum's archives if he hadn't come along.
May that be Bouton's legacy to the city he once divided.
Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-496-6224.
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