Publish date:

TALKIN' BASEBALL

Author:

JIM BOUTON'S GREATEST LEGACY WAS HUMANIZING OUR HEROES

SOMETIMES, WHEN HE was alone, Jim Bouton would open Ball Four, his controversial 1970 memoir, to a random page and laugh. Not because his writing was particularly amusing, but rather because, he explained, "ballplayers are funny." That subtle observation, offered with characteristic restraint, was the driving force behind one of the most unforgettable books of the 20th century and perhaps the most important insight in the history of sports journalism. Bouton revealed the simple yet shocking truth that athletes aren't gods but mortals, often more flawed than those who aren't blessed with their particular gifts. And for that blasphemy, he would suffer.

Bouton, who died at his home in Great Barrington, Mass., on July 10, at the age of 80, was said to be the first fan to make the big leagues, the next-door neighbor who just happened to play pro ball. That, of course, undersells his distinguished career on the mound. Bouton was an All-Star, a reliable starter for the Yankees who won 21 games in 1963 and 18 the following year, plus two more in the 1964 World Series. You could be forgiven for forgetting these details; I certainly had. He leaves behind a far greater legacy as a literary trailblazer, or a pariah: a guy who bared his soul, critics be damned. He means something different to me.

Ten years ago, I published my first book, Odd Man Out, which chronicled my season as a pitcher on the Provo Angels, Anaheim's rookie-ball affiliate. I was a southpaw fresh out of Yale, selected in the 21st round of the 2002 draft, armed with a decent fastball, a shaky slider and a lousy pickoff move. I was no match for future big leaguers like Prince Fielder.

In the book, I document rampant misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia in minor league baseball. (All Hispanic players are referred to as Dominicans; an eccentric manager uses a sex toy for motivation.) It was another controversial baseball memoir, one that named names, albeit on a far smaller scale. Coaches and a few players accused me of lying about our experiences. One of my teammates claimed he'd never met me. Baseball's clubhouse omertà remained, 40 years after Ball Four.

In the midst of the blowback, I recalled what Bouton experienced. Owners were outraged by the unsavory stories. The Padres burned the book and left the charred remains in the visitors' clubhouse. Pete Rose once screamed, "F--- you, Shakespeare!" from the dugout. He was even banned from the Yankees' Old-Timers' Day until 1998, 10 years after his last major league season. If Ball Four appeared today, it would be dismissed as fake news.

Baseball's best writer never expected to be an outcast or a literary sensation; he simply wanted to tell his story. When I learned of his passing, I chose to honor Bouton's memory as I imagine that he would've wanted. I opened my copy of Ball Four to a random page and read, "Reported to spring camp in Tempe, Arizona today, six days late. I was on strike. I'm not sure anybody knew it, but I was."

Bouton was ultimately right about one thing: Ballplayers are funny. They're human, too.

Matt McCarthy is a physician and author of SUPERBUGS: The Race to Stop an Epidemic.