In Memoriam: Jim Bouton

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Jim Bouton Seattle Pilots

Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees pitcher who blew open professional baseball with his groundbreaking Ball Four, passed away yesterday. He was 80.

Bouton had experienced plenty of health problems in recent years: he was diagnosed with vascular dementia after suffering a stroke in 2012, and in 2017 he was diagnosed with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, according to The New York Times.

Ball Four was the tale of Bouton’s partial season spent with the Seattle Pilots, an otherwise unforgettable 1969 expansion team that played one season at Sicks’ Stadium before being sold out of bankruptcy court to Bud Selig and Edmund B. Fitzgerald and moved to Milwaukee. Bouton, who won 21 games for the New York Yankees in 1963 and 18 in 1964 (while pitching 271 innings in the regular season and winning two games in the World Series) before blowing out his arm, had looked to the knuckleball in an attempt to resurrect his career. Ball Four detailed that attempt at redemption, pulling the curtain back on how baseball players acted behind the scenes and exposed them as human beings–some selfish, some stupid, some arrogant, some gracious. His was not necessarily the first book to expose the game–Jim Brosnan did so earlier, just in a less sensationalistic way–but at a time when player autobiographies were largely hagiographies and beat writers were hesitant to expose bad behavior in clubhouses and hotels, Bouton’s book was a revelation, loudly decried by the baseball establishment. He dared to show Mickey Mantle as a human being, not a superman.

Today, of course, reading about yesterday’s clubhouse shenanigans is a throwback to a much more innocent time: popping pills is quaint when compared to steroid usage. Read Ball Four today and it’s less a tale of clubhouse drama and more a poignant story of Bouton’s efforts to stay relevant in the major leagues, an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that made him the toast of the town after winning 21 games for the Yankees in 1963. He spent another season with the Houston Astros after being traded from the Pilots, and then made yet another comeback in 1978 with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves. He never failed to be involved in something interesting, whether it be developing a sitcom based on Ball Four or working on Big League Chew, the shredded gum created when Bouton was attempting yet another comeback with the outlaw Portland Mavericks. A later book, Foul Ball, detailed his attempt to bring independent baseball to Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park (now a summer-collegiate venue). He later made up with the game, appearing in a Yankees Old-Timer’s Day game in 1998.

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