A Q&A With the Late, Great Jim Bouton
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: 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.
DZ: What was your impression of Dennis Brutus?
JB: Well, Dennis was such a special person. It was such an obvious outrage, and yet here was a man who was very composed, very restrained, a beautiful speaker and writer. Even his penmanship was right out of the 1800s, with this elaborate flowing script. Even just a note from Dennis was really something. He had a sense of calm and reason and was therefore exactly the kind of opponent they must have hated because they couldn’t point to him as a screamer, a table-thumper, a rabble-rouser, or any other bullshit, you know. He was more cultured than they were, more refined than they were.
DZ: In the 1960s you had interactions with Muhammad Ali. What were your impressions of Ali and what do you think he meant to his time?
JB: I think Muhammad Ali…was one of the great men in history, and I don’t mean sports history—one of the great men in history. He was internationally beloved, for all the right reasons. He took a risk with his career, with his life. He put it all on the line and took a huge risk, paid the price, went to jail, and got his title taken away from him. Here was a guy willing to go to prison for his beliefs. How many of those are there around? Even today we’ve got absolutely gutless politicians, [who] like this guy Paul Bremer [former viceroy of occupied Iraq] now tells us in his book that he needed more troops at the time. Well, bullshit. Where was he when he should have said it? He’s no Muhammad Ali. What a lesson for people, to see this asshole Bremer behaving cowardly, with a history of people like Muhammad Ali who never behaved cowardly. So they’re not in the same category of human being as far as I’m concerned. That goes for all of those politicians who were gutless and craven and blind. I read about [JFK’s defense secretary] Robert McNamara going to go to Vietnam and find out what went wrong. He was what was wrong. Him personally. He doesn’t need to go anywhere to discover that. All those lives lost to find an “honorable” way out. It’s disgusting to think of those lives lost.
DZ: So you write Ball Four, and the ownership of Major League Baseball and a lot of players lose their minds when it comes out. What caused the mass panic and insanity? Why do you think your book spurred that?
JB: I don’t know. I think for them it was just one more nail in the coffin, just more questioning of authority. The whole edifice was shaking from all the assaults on it and this was just one more in stance—gee whiz, even in baseball! Not even baseball can be sacrosanct! That was part of it. I think baseball, football—they’ve always felt the need to be patriotic, to be on the side of America and might, supporting wars no matter what, and so that conservative bent, to have a break in their ranks: This was a little too much for them. And the truth of it is they hadn’t read the damn book. They would have realized if they had read it that the things that they claimed bothered them were just in the context of a larger story. Baseball fans easily absorbed this concept. So many people picked up that book to read it and get angry about it, started reading it, and were saying, “What the hell are they making such a big deal about?” I mean, that was the tone of 99 percent of the letters I received. “I read your book, I kept waiting for this, and waiting for that, and I never saw it. There was nothing in the book that turned me off of the game or the people involved or anything.” It was just a love letter. It’s just the opposite of what baseball was saying. The commissioner [Bowie Kuhn] said I had “done the game a grave disservice.”
DZ: There is a quote from David Halberstam about Ball Four that it is a book “so deep in the American vein it cannot be called a sports book.” How can it be the harmless “love letter” you describe and also have such an impact?
JB: You know, some of the things that were written about Ball Four are almost too deep for me. Sometimes when you create a piece of art, you think you’re doing this thing over here, and it turns out when you’re all done you’ve done this other thing over there without realizing it. It was only years later when I understood that my closely kept diary became an important piece of journalism because who could imagine it? But that wasn’t my intention. I wasn’t thinking of writing a revolutionary book or anything like that. We knew that the book was going to raise a fuss and that there were some things in there that had never been said in sports before, but basically we weren’t trying to do that.
DZ: But the fans liked the book?
JB: Not exactly at first. When the book came out, I was pitching for the Astros, and we were playing the circuit, we were in New York City to play the Mets. And my mom and dad were going to come from New Jersey to see me; I would only come to town a couple times a summer so we got them tickets to the ball game, and we were going to go to dinner after that ball game at Shea. So anyway the game goes on, and I get called in to the game, I get called in to relieve at Shea Stadium. So when they announced my name—this was right after Dick Young had written three consecutive columns about what a jerk I was. I was a social leper, Judas, and Benedict Arnold, and the book hadn’t been out yet, it was just basically excerpts and “Oh, he said all these terrible things,” so the fans were reacting to sportswriters’ early attacks on me, particularly from Dick Young.
So when I got called into the game, everybody at Shea Stadium booed. It was awful, being a Jersey kid and growing up in the New York area, to be roundly booed by a stadium full of people. It was pretty awful. After the game was over, I went outside and my mom was crying. She said, “Jim, maybe you shouldn’t have written that book!” I said, “Mom, the book’s not out yet, when it comes out you’d better read it, you’ll realize it’s not a bad book, this will all blow away, it’s only temporary, you’ve just gotta hang in there a little while longer.”
DZ: The part of the book baseball executives flogged you for was when you talked about Mickey Mantle, his drinking, and his, at times, prickly personality. I wanted to ask you, on the record, what your memories of Mickey Mantle were, and if you could talk a little about your last contact with him before he passed.
JB: I always had mixed emotions about Mickey. I liked one side of him very much, the teammate side. He was a great teammate, a lot of fun to be around, and great to have in the dugout. He played when he was injured, and he’d break a leg to win a ball game for you. If you were ever in a foxhole, you’d want somebody like Mickey in there with you to just keep going. Unlike Alex Rodriguez, who’d want to get in the other guy’s foxhole and hide.
But anyway, Mickey was a great teammate, he was a lot of fun, always joking around, telling jokes, playing practical jokes. So that part, I loved him. But then I would see him being rude to kids, telling them to get the hell out of there, slamming windows down on their pencils. God, I would cringe when he would do that. It wasn’t necessary. Just tell the kids you’ll do it later or say, “Hey, how you doin’?” sign a couple autographs, and then move on. There’s no reason to be nasty about it. And I’d see some sportswriters walk over to him for an interview, and he’d give them a look that would almost crack them in two. I thought he could have handled that a lot better.
He always said he was going to die young. Well, so what? There’s a lot of people out there with some disease and they think they might die, it doesn’t mean that you can mistreat people. It was a lack of perspective that not just Mickey had but a lot of guys. Take Roger Maris: He’s young, he’s healthy, he’s getting paid a lot of money, and he may or may not break Babe Ruth’s home run record. How much fun is that? You can’t say, as Maris did in 1961, “I don’t care whether I break Babe Ruth’s record,” and then lose your hair. You either care or you don’t care. But in any case, they could never step back and see, “Gee, I’m young, I’m healthy, I’ve got a great job, I’m making a lot of money, kids look up to me, what else do I want from my life at this stage?” Guys in their twenties just had no perspective. Both of them died too young, which is a damned shame because most older ballplayers realize they did have a good life, and have that perspective they never had when they were younger. I think Roger and Mickey would be the same today.
DZ: And you sort of got a taste of that with Mickey Mantle’s last contact with you, right?
JB: Yeah, it was—I think it was 1995, Mickey’s son Billy passed away. I sent him a note just telling him how badly I felt about Billy, and I had a nice memory of him running around the clubhouse in spring training, a polite little boy. And I also wrote in the note, “I’d like to take this moment to tell you that I hope you’re feeling okay about Ball Four,” that I never wrote it to hurt anybody, and that I always considered it an honor to be his teammate. I just wanted to say that to him. I sent this note to him, just a couple of lines. I never expected to hear back from him, Mickey’s not the kind of guy that ever reached out in that way.
Then about ten days later I walked into my office and my secretary is standing by the answering machine, and she said, “I want you to play this one for yourself” and I pressed the Play button, and it was Mickey in his Oklahoma twang. “Hey, Jim, this is Mick. Thank you for your note about Billy, I appreciate it. I’m OK about Ball Four; it never bothered me that much. And one more thing—I want you to know that I’m not the reason you don’t get invited back for Old Timers’ Day. I heard that going around and it’s not true. So anyway, thanks again, Bud.”
DZ: How did it feel when the Jim Bouton ban was lifted and you were eventually able to get back to Old Timers’ Day and don the uniform again in 1998?
JB: It was one of those overwhelming days, emotionally. The reason I was back was because my son Michael had written a letter to The New York Times—a Father’s Day sort of letter to the editor telling the Yankees that Old Timers’ Day was always a time for families and that he loved it when I was a player, he loved being part of it, and our family was always a part of Old Timers’ Day and we had lost Laurie the year before [Jim’s daughter, Laurie Bouton, died in a car accident] and he said, so it’s time to invite my dad back; he could use it—he could use all the help he can get right now.
It was just a beautiful letter. And The New York Times used it as their Father’s Day piece. They got a picture of Mickey and me, and a picture of Laurie and me, and they ran that—what choice did the Yankees have but to invite me back? So they did, and when I went back it was overwhelmingly emotional. I wasn’t sure how the players would respond to me, and I wasn’t sure how the fans would respond to me. These were Old Timers’ Day fans, these were Mickey Mantle fans, I was the guy who wrote those things about The Mick—how would they respond to me? And then there was the reason I was back in the first place—it was because Laurie had died, so I’m there for sympathy reasons, and I was proud of my son Michael for having written such a beautiful letter, so the whole thing was just one emotion after another. Of course, the first response of my teammates was great; they came over and hugged me and the guys were kidding around, it seemed just like old times, like I had just won my twentieth. So it was nice to be back. A couple of guys turned their backs on me, but the rest of the guys were great. And then the fans were marvelous. I was just washed away.