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Gene's Blog: The life and times of a baseball renegade

Remembering a baseball renegade

Jim Bouton died this week. 

Who's that, you ask?

Only one of the more consequential baseball players of the era, thank you very much. He won 20 games as a Yankee starter in 1963 and 18 the next during his  before his fastball left him. Bouton's career would slide to the point where no one else wanted him, save the 1969 Seattle Pilots who picked him up in their expansion draft. They'd last just one season in the Pacific Northeast before moving to Milwaukee so, in essence, Bouton is an original Brewer. 

HIs season as a Pilot (he actually didn't last the who campaign, getting traded to Houston after the All-Star break) isn't remembered because of what he did on the bump, trying to prolong his career by mastering the knuckleball. No, his most notable work didn't happen with a sphere in his hand but instead when he picked up a pen, chronicling all that happened around him be it between the lines or, in some cases, between the sheets.

Bouton kept a diary and turned it into "Ball Four," a memoir that blew minds, sullied legacies, and pretty much ruined the concept of MLB players being bastions of milk-drinking, Wheaties-munching virtue. The book became a controversial, must-read best-seller while rendering its author a horsehide pariah, a "snitch" who'd blown the game's cover with tales of boozin', infidelity, and ineptitude.

Bouton turned and sprayed on Mickey Mantle, joking about the legend's many injuries and propensity for drink, revealing that the guy many saw as the pinnacle of All-American virtue was mean to fans and played hungover. Bouton revealed that a favorite team bonding experience on the road involved a climb onto a hotel roof so players could peer into the windows of unsuspecting female guests. He spilled the beans about married teammates having relations with women not their wives while the club was away. There was the steady ingestion of "greenies": pharmaceuticals that players thought sharpened their skill set, not to mention the pranks that included (but weren't limited to) a fake paternity claim against a teammate and the restroom re-decoration of a fellow player's birthday cake. Management fared no better in Bouton's accounting which included stories of front-office tight-wadedness (no surprise) and the pettiness of managers/coaches who allowed their favorites to skate while tormenting those who they didn't like. To a teenage kid in Sheboygan, this was eye-opening stuff. I was still collecting baseball cards and didn't think these guys even swore, much less pulled half the crap Bouton was saying they did. 

"Ball Four" is, by today's standards, mild stuff. Someone under the age of 40 picking up a copy today would wonder what the big deal was,  the concept of the sports hero blown to shreds in this era of ESPN, 24/7 sports coverage and social media. A player steppin' out these days or doing something clownish in a bar last night is outed within moments on Twitter and probably in the manager's office the very next morning. Little can be hidden, not with TMZ employing its entertainment coverage tactics on athletes.

Dial things back to 1969: newspapers were how we followed games, the box-scores a morning-after must-read. The networks--all three of 'em--served up but a lone "Game Of The Week" on NBC, and that was on Saturday afternoon. Authors served up sanitized bio's of baseball legends after they retired or died. The nearest you got to a star on the field was in a brief, post-game chat laden with cliches or in a TV commercial.

The tide started to turn with Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay." Before Bouton there was #64 of the Packers keeping a daily diary of what turned out being Vince Lombardi's last season in Green Bay. Riveting and revealing for its time, "Instant Replay" was also tame by "Ball Four" standards, the biggest shock no in locker-room revelations but more the fact that an offensive lineman could be so thoughtful and articulate. Kramer became a celebrity and is made a career out of being one of the more prominent faces of the Golden Years.

Bouton celebrated the fact that his tome made him a hated renegade/turncoat, someone who'd broken the game's unwritten off-field rules. Early editions of the book included negative comments from former teammates on the back cover, as well as those of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Few took issue with the events Bouton had chronicled. It was the fact he put them down in writing that chapped so many of the game's asses. It held a solid grudge against him for years--it took a half century or so before the Yankees would invite him back for the team's annual Old Timer's Game.

Bouton would follow up his original piece with "I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally" and a few other books but none had the same pop as the original. A broken-down NFL receiver would use a different tact to tell all about the NFL a few years later: Pete Gent's "North Dallas Forty" told the fictional story of a pro squad that was a metaphor for the Dallas Cowboys. Gent's work got turned into a movie that, while decent, couldn't get as granular and wasn't nearly as dark as the literature it was inspired by.

It would be hard to shock today's sports fan, at least when it comes to tales of athletic/personal misadventure. We can no longer be surprised, maybe just disappointed. Today's star can be tomorrow's bad guy. That's not to say every jock is a womanizing, drinky cad: the case could be made that today's ballplayers are a more virtuous breed. There are images to cultivate, brands to establish. There's drug testing. Hell, they don't even have beer in the post-game locker room any more. 

Bouton's work ripped the lid off the pastime like no previous work did. It came, for me, as the perceptions of the world around me were being challenged, bit by bit, by the realities seen and heard each day. As I grew old, there was always a copy of "Ball Four" nearby. I'd dip into it at a random point and start reading, much the way we do now when we catch a favorite movie halfway through on cable. I'd read it each winter, just to keep baseball fresh in my mind. A buddy ran into Bouton somewhere and, knowing how much I loved the book, got me his autographed business card (pictured above), a treasure that serves as my "Ball Four" bookmark. Oh, about that yellow blotch? Station web decorum forced me to block it out, but suffice to say it's one of the more infamous quotes, a profanity uttered by Pilots manager Joe Schulz when words otherwise failed him, a compound swearword starting with "s" and ending with a "k." 

Thanks for the candor and the laughs, Mr. Bouton, for the candor and the courage and inspiration.  You shaped my sensibilities, bolstered my appetite for the written word and the well--told story. And wow, you made me laugh out loud--hard. Rather than turn me off to baseball, you bolstered my love of the game as I'd keep watching it with far-different eyes. Hope you find your fastball again wherever you are, sir. And while you're there, remember to "pound that ol' Budweiser." 

On me.

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