Jim Bouton, the legendary Yankees pitcher and author of Ball Four, died yesterday at the age of 80.
I had the honor of interviewing Bouton for a website that I used to run called American Polymath. In addition to being a fantastic interviewee, Bouton was generous with his time and couldn’t have been more gracious to a young sportswriter.
Below I present my interview with Bouton in full, as it appeared in July 2009 on American Polymath. Rest in peace, Jim, and thanks again.
In the first of our monthly interview series, American Polymath editor Clayton Trutor chats with Jim Bouton, author of the greatest book ever written about baseball, Ball Four (1970). Bouton spent a total of 10 seasons in the big leagues, primarily with the New York Yankees (1962-1968). Edited by sportswriter Leonard Schecter, Ball Four is a diary of Bouton’s 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots. The book describes the world of big league baseball, including its warts. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn aimed to discredit the wildly popular and critically acclaimed book by demanding that Bouton sign a statement that said his book was entirely fictional. Bouton refused and was soon out of big league baseball, aside from a brief 1978 comeback with the Atlanta Braves.
Bouton has subsequently written several other works on his continued involvement in baseball, including Foul Ball, a memoir of his efforts for Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts without relying on public money to finance the project. Bouton is also one of the inventors of dugout staple Big League Chew. Clayton and Jim spoke by phone in June 2009.
Clayton Trutor: If you were playing in the big leagues today, how do you think you would fit in the locker room.
Jim Bouton: I’d still be weird. I would insist that my union agree to a strict performance enhancing drug testing program with “one strike and you’re out” penalties to protect those players who don’t want to have to take drugs to compete for jobs. I would not wear pajama pants, gold chains or earrings. And I would not celebrate a win as if I had just discovered a cure for cancer.
CT: What contemporary ballplayers can you relate to the best?
JB: Derek Jeter seems like a classy guy. And I’ve always liked scrappy little guys like Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox and Grady Sizemore of the Cleveland Indians.
CT: What aspect of your career are you the most proud of?
JB: That I went from a high school bench warmer with the nickname “Warm Up Bouton” to pitching for the Yankees five years later.
CT: Prior to when you were approached to write Ball Four, had you done much writing on your own?
JB: When the Yankees sent me to the minor leagues in 1967, the editor of Sport magazine, Al Silverman, suggested that I keep a diary and write about the experience. The result was a story that appeared in the magazine entitled “Returning to the Minors.” To my surprise the only things they changed were some punctuation.
Then in 1968 the Yankees traded me to the Seattle Pilots for a bag of batting practice balls. The Pilots were stockpiling players for their new expansion franchise, which would begin play in ’69. Since this looked like the end of the line for me, I decided to write the book my friends had always said I should write. So I started keeping notes in the summer of ’68, while pitching for the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League.
That fall, Len Shecter, the former New York Post sportswriter and then Look magazine sports editor, was writing a story about our adoption of a Korean boy. During a lunch meeting one day Shecter said, “you should write a book about your experiences.” I said, ‘it’s funny you should say that because I’ve already started.” He volunteered to edit the book and found an agent.
CT: What brought about your trip to the Mexico City Summer Olympics in ’68?
JB: Like a number of athletes in various sports I got a form letter from SANROC (South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee) asking us to sign a petition demanding that South Africa, a black majority country, be banned from the Olympics for fielding an all white team.
It seemed like a no-brainer to me so I signed and sent it in. It turned out that I was one of the few white players to sign the petition and I was invited to the press conference to show that SANROC was not limiting its pitch to just black athletes. After that I was asked to travel to Mexico City to lobby the USA Olympic Committee.
CT: Is this when that segregationist was the head of the USOC?
JB: Yes, Avery Brundage. And Dennis Roby was the head of the US Olympic Committee. I figured this would be easy to get done. I’m a Yankee pitcher. The US Olympic officials will be glad to see me, and once I pointed out the obvious unfairness of having an all white team from South Africa they would do the right thing. Nope. It was like a private club of wealthy guys who somehow got control of our Olympic sports. None of these officials represented the beliefs of a majority of people in America. The Civil Rights Act had just been passed, so why not civil rights for black South African athletes?
The officials knew I was coming and they were ready for me. Not to welcome me but to run the other way. When Roby saw me walking toward him in the Grand Hotel in Mexico City, he set a new Olympic record for 100 yards across a carpeted lobby, jumping into an elevator in the nick of time.
But our SANROC group made an impact. We weren’t able to get the Olympic officials to ban South Africa from the 1968 games, but they were forced to vote them out of future games until they fielded a representative team.
CT: Compared to Mexico City, the number of people as engaged as you were in Beijing, for a number of reasons, seemed relatively small. Do you think contemporary athletes have any impetus to be politically active, with the whole corporatization of sports, let alone say anything interesting? The language used at press conferences is filled with all these professionalized buzzwords.
JB: I haven’t followed it closely enough to comment beyond saying that I’d like to see more high profile athletes get involved in social issues. It seems like they aren’t as involved as they could be, but the same can be said for my day.
CT: How do you think the recent exposés of steroids, like the Jose Canseco books or Game of Shadows or the Selena Roberts’ book on A-Rod, compare to Ball Four in terms of their social significance?
JB: I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Ball Four was called controversial when it first came out, but people developed a broader perspective on it.
CT: Selena Roberts’ new book alleges that A-Rod in “pitch tipping.” Did you have any sense that pitch tipping took place in your day?
JB: No. That wasn’t going on. I’m pretty certain.
CT: What impact do you think steroids should have on Hall of Fame voting and inductions?
JB: I think the writers who do the voting are handling it well. They’re factoring in the possible or likely use of steroids, which is why [Mark] McGwire didn’t get the number of votes he would have gotten otherwise. It’s something that has to be judged over time. I think baseball needs to evaluate the impact of steroids on performance. A scientific inquiry could determine what impact steroids have, if any, on pitching and hitting, and what period of time it covers. This could lead to an adjustment of certain records. If it’s determined, for example, that steroids impacts power hitting by 15%, then the home run records would be adjusted accordingly. The steroid adjusted home run number would appear in a parenthesis next to the actual number of home runs hit. The same could be done for pitching.
The above could be done under the supervision of a blue ribbon panel of doctors, trainers and statisticians, given two years and a budget of $10 million (the cost of two utility infielders). Only time would tell which numbers are legitimate. Just as the passage of time eventually removed the imaginary asterisk next to Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs in 1961.
CT: A blue ribbon panel? And not George Mitchell?
JB: I think you need to have a much more far-reaching group. The Mitchell Report was more about who was taking performance enhancing drugs and where did they get them. My proposal would not be punitive. It would simply be for discovery. And George has his hands full now trying to save the world.
CT: How would you divvy up the blame for the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball?
JB: I blame both the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball equally. In Ball Four, I wrote about the time Whitey Ford brought some DMSO, Dimethyl Sulfoxide, into the locker room and we rubbed it on our shoulders. Why? Because it was supposed to reduce inflammation in horses. Whitey had picked some up at the race track. This was insane.
There was no supervision, no doctor, no trainer. We just slapped the stuff on our bodies with no clue whether it was good or bad for us. I wrote that “if there was a pill that would guarantee a pitcher would win 20 games, but take five years off his life we’d all be taking them.”
It was clear way back then that players needed to be protected from their competitive instincts. Instead, the baseball establishment ignored the problem. Now they have a perception problem as well as a health problem. More games have been unfairly (and in some cases illegally) impacted by performance enhancing drugs than by gambling. In a game that thrives on statistics, nobody believes the numbers anymore.
To regain any credibility, baseball needs to do something dramatic and believable. One strike and you’re out would restore a lot of credibility to the game.
CT: Do you feel like there was any kind of tacit expectation that you use those kinds of drugs to continue performing during your career?
JB: No. The drugs of my day were amphetamines. We called them greenies. They were not performance enhancers. They were performance enablers – at most they allowed you to play up to your normal ability. Players would take them after staying out all night. They did not make you bigger or faster or stronger. Greenies are nowhere near the same category as steroids.
CT: What’s your take on Steinbrenner’s new taxpayer financed monstrosity?
JB: The amount of public money spent on sports arenas is a national disgrace. School kids are taking classes in stairwells, and school activities like band are being eliminated but we have enough money to build new stadiums — often replacing 30-year-old stadiums that had been built to replace previous stadiums!
CT: Who are your all time favorite sports writers?
JB: Lenny Shecter of course. Also Stan Isaacs, Vic Ziegal, Jerry Izenberg and Jim Murray. Current favorites would include Jim Caple, Frank DeFord, Pat Jordan and Rob Neyer, with a special nod to political/sports writer Dave Zirin.
CT: In particular, your relationship was strong with that new generation of 1960s New York sports writers?
JB: Yeah, they [were] a new type of writer more interested in the personalities than the statistics. The old guard didn’t like them very much. They used to get a lot of static from guys like Dick Young and other curmudgeons who resented their new way of looking at sports.
CT: Beyond the box score?
CT: What are your favorite ballparks in America?
JB: I haven’t been to that many since I played. Except for Fenway and Wrigley, most of my favorites are gone: Tiger Stadium, the original Yankee Stadium, Sportsmen’s Park, Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, the Polo Grounds. I hated those round sugar bowls they built in the ‘60s like Riverfront Stadium. I knew they were doomed at the time. You can’t put a square ball field into a round stadium. You end up with large half-circles of empty space. A football field didn’t fit either. The closer you got to the 50-yard line, the further away you got from the action.
CT: Do you like the new retro ballparks?
JB: Camden Yards is interesting, but it still looks more like a movie set than a ballpark. And it’s hard for me to get excited about publicly financed stadiums of any kind, which they all are now.
CT: What are your favorite minor league ballparks?
JB: Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Grayson Stadium in Savannah. Memorial Stadium in Greensboro, North Carolina. And Parker Field in Richmond, Virginia, which they tore down. I had the pleasure of playing in all of them.
CT: What did you study at Western Michigan?
JB: Spanish, oil painting. My adviser said, ‘it’s going to take you six years to get a degree. What’s your major? What do you want to be?” I told him that’s what I was going to college to find out. I also took some business courses, economics, public speaking, logic.
CT: What do you think of interleague play?
JB: It takes away from the World Series, but the fans like it. And the wild card is a big hit. Give Bud Selig credit for that, at least.