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A Q&A With the Late, Great Jim Bouton

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My friend Jim Bouton has passed away at the age of 80. A former 20-game winner and All-Star from the New York Yankees, Bouton was best known for the 1970 classic Ball Four, the most influential sports book of the 20th century. Ball Four told, with innocence and joy, about the real day-to-day life of a Major League Baseball player, warts and all. It included stories of Yankees legend Mickey Mantle showing up to the park hung over, and ballplayers, out of curiosity and boredom, having kissing contests with each other on the team bus. Bouton paid a heavy price for writing Ball Four: being shunned from the game that he loved. But after Ball Four, sports hagiography was never the same. I was fortunate enough to speak on several panels with Bouton—including one in Boston with historian Howard Zinn, where Bouton and Zinn, longtime admirers of each other, met for the first time—and through our interaction, we were able to set up this interview. It has never been published online, only appearing in my 2007 book, Welcome to the Terrordome.

—Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin: In the early ’60s, you’re an All-Star pitcher for the Yankees; in the late ’60s, you’re writing this incredibly transgressive book, and I just wanted to know if you ever thought about what role the 1960s as an era played in shaping your consciousness and outlook about the world.

Jim Bouton: Well, I think the ’60s affected everybody. Part of what was really good about it was that it just called everything into question—all the assumptions, all the rules, all the ways of doing things, and tossed them all up in the air, and forced everybody to take another look at questioning authority, and you know, it was really a necessary thing to do because we had just sort of inched our way and then leapfrogged into Vietnam without a lot of public discussion about it, taking the word of a handful of leaders….

That was the driving force. That and racism. Blacks were challenging the white status quo, and so there was all that going on. I don’t think any of us at the time—certainly not myself—thought this was going to be some sort of pivotal time in American history. When you’re living through history, it just seems like the most natural thing in the world. I don’t think it occurred to me that, “Gee, all these other people are kicking up a fuss, maybe I should write a book that does the same thing.” That thought never occurred to me, but you’re part of your environment. I don’t know if I would have or could have even thought of writing Ball Four during the Eisenhower years. Who knew? Who knows?

DZ: Speaking of the ’60s, I just interviewed someone who has wonderful memories of you—Dennis Brutus.

JB: Dennis is the greatest man I’ve ever met. I met Dennis because he was executive secretary of SANROC—the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee is what SANROC stood for. I was first contacted by a white weight lifter from their group. They contacted me because I had signed a petition in support of the Black South African athletes who were not able to—not allowed to—compete for spots on the South African Olympic team. The country of South Africa was about 80 percent Black and they were being represented by a 100 percent white team, and this petition was appealing to me as a Yankee baseball player and professional athlete in the United States, saying, “Athlete to athlete, is this fair? Not fair? We need fellow athletes to stand up for us and change this injustice.” If athletics means anything, it means fairness and it seemed like the simplest thing to do was to sign this petition—a no-brainer! And I just thought I’d be one of hundreds of signatures on it. But I wasn’t. It turned out to be about half a dozen, and very few of them were white. They wanted to have this press conference to announce that this group would be going to Mexico City to lobby the American Olympic officials to support a ban of the South African team until they fielded a racially representative team.

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Thanks !

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