July 15, 2019

Hail and Farewell: Jim Bouton


The first edition of Ball Four, from 1970

Hello sportsfans.

It is our sad duty to report the passing of Jim Bouton—former New York Yankee All-Star pitcher, and perhaps the most famous literary chronicler of life in Major League Baseball. He died last week, at the age of 80, at home in Massachusetts.

Jim is immortalized in his 1970 instant classic tell-all memoir, Ball Four—which Sports Illustrated has ranked 3rd on their list of the 100 greatest sports books of all time.

In his New York Times obituary for Bouton, Bruce Weber writes of the book:

“Ball Four,” published in 1970, reported on the selfishness, dopiness, childishness and meanspiritedness of young men often lionized for playing a boy’s game very well, and many readers saw it, approvingly or not, as a scandalous betrayal of the baseball clubhouse.

But the book, which was Bouton’s account of the 1969 baseball season, seven years after his big-league debut with the Yankees, had a larger narrative—namely, his attempt at age 30 to salvage a once-promising career by developing the game’s most peculiar and least predictable pitch: the knuckleball.

The scandal and controversy surrounding Ball Four has to do with the fact that the book pulled back the curtain on the pretty extreme amount of womanizing, drinking, and drugging that took place during an average Major League season, among some of the game’s most revered figures. In fact, legend had it (as we wrote in a piece about an auction of the Bouton archives a few years back) that the book even got its author disinvited from Yankee Stadium’s yearly celebration of Old Timer’s Day.

It’s a whole lot of fun to read. Well done Jim! And godspeed.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.