"Ball Four" is a diary that covers the year of a baseball player, in this case Jim Bouton, who spent the 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots and then the Houston Astros. Entertaining on many levels, "Ball Four" also serves as a mirror of the times -- in the late 1960s, many established concepts and ideas, in politics, music, mass media, and sports, were being shattered. Baseball, always about five years behind the curve, was always thought of as a game that was played by wholesome, All-American men. They were our heroes. Ball Four, however, sheds new light and revealed, for the first time, that baseball players, even some of the game's superstars, are human.
Bouton tells all, in, by today's standards, a tame fashion. We read about everything -- ballplayers cheating on their wives, playing with hangovers, racial problems between teammates, players taking uppers before a game, etc. Bouton is a very insightful writer and presents the material in a humorous manner, the humor, or barbs, is directed at his teammates, managers, coaches, and, in many instances, at himself.
Baseball was outraged when the book first came out in 1970. Many players and baseball executives considered Bouton a turncoat. But the years have shown that Ball Four was a groundbreaking book, one that set the standard for tell-all books to come. These other books, however, have never reached the level of excellence of Bouton's "Ball Four."
on August 17, 1999
As far as I'm concerned, Ball Four is easily the best baseball book out there. I've read about 45 baseball books and nothing compares to Bouton's masterpiece. I've read this book four times and it still hasn't gotten old yet. I'm sure I'll read it at least ten more times and I doubt that I will ever get tired of it.
What makes Ball Four better than any other baseball book is that it allows its readers to see the game from a player's perspective. Never has a book given such an up-close, in-the-locker-room look at baseball. Of course, Bouton himself is brilliant. I love his sarcasm and his biting wit. Ball Four might have been a pretty good book even if it had been written by a poor writer; Bouton, though, is an excellent storyteller and his attitude is what shapes the book. If you consider yourself a fan of the game, you will buy Ball Four immediately. It has given me great joy time and time again.
on April 5, 2008
Jim Bouton is a very bright man who probably could have been a scientist if he didn't go into baseball. In the 1960s when he played nobody wrote colorful exposes of the behind the scenes and road trip life of major league ball players. Bouton was the first with this book. It ended many friendships with teammates and probably broke up his marriage. The book might seem tame by todays standard. Alcohol was the players drug in those days and no one was shooting up steroids back then. But the book was racy, groundbreaking and controversial in its time much like Canseco's books are today.
You will also see that it led to several other books by Jim Bouton and even one by his ex wife (another analogy to Canseco whose ex wife also wrote a book). Bouton was a great pitcher but alas for only the period from 1961-1964. 1963 was his best season but even though he pitched well in that world series the Yankees got steamrolled by the Dodger staff with Drysdale and Koufax leading the way. After retirementhe came back to pitch for the Seattle Pilots expansion team in their first year. He had developed a knuckle ball and that allowed him some limited success. Bulldog Jim wrote a book about that experience too. He had a trick when he pitched for the Yankees. He wouldd deliberately wear a very loose fitting cap that would usually fall off his head as he delivered the pitch. This was distracting for the hitters. But in his day Bouton had a good fastball and a deceptive changeup and he was part of a great pitching rotation in 1963 that included Ford, Downing and Terry.
Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" is, without a doubt, the best book ever written by a professional athlete and is arguably the greatest baseball book of all-time. Dozens of kiss-n-tell sports novels have dotted the bestseller lists since "Ball Four's" publication in 1970, but none are as funny or revealing as Bouton's expose. All however, owe their very existence to "Ball Four" which shook the moral foundation of our national pastime upon its release. Bouton forever stripped away the All-American image of the professional sports hero with his humorous -- and sometimes X-rated -- locker room tales. Many, including then Commisioner Bowie Kuhn, felt that Bouton had forever tarnished baseball's image with his less than flattering portrayals of some of the game's biggest stars.(Namely Bouton's former Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle). Jim Bouton, in 1970, was Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of the baseball establishment. Truth be told, Bouton merely humanized the professional athlete. Many players--especially Bouton himself --are portrayed as being uncertain of their abilities and fearful of losing their jobs in the highly competitive world of major league baseball.(Such insecurity is best exemplified when Bouton is traded in mid-season from Seattle to Houston and lives to tell us about it!) Overall, "Ball Four" is one heckuva book. Bouton's sense of humor is absolutely side-splitting and his sensitivity, at times, is downright moving. This is a fantastic, groundbreaking novel which no sports fan should be without. Six Stars!!
on April 23, 2001
When "Ball Four" was published in 1970, Jim Bouton was attacked by players, sportswriters, and the owners for revealing the secret, sordid underbelly of professional baseball. Which should be enough right there to get you to read this thing. But in "Ball Four," Bouton also reveals the humanity of baseball, the fear, the hate, and the fun, which makes it one of the classics of baseball literature and a must read.
Basically, "Ball Four" is a diary of the 1968 season written by a journeyman middle-relief knuckleballer. Before injuring his arm, and turning to the knuckleball, Bouton was a fireball pitcher for the New York Yankees. In his rookie season in 1962, Bouton won two games for the Yanks in the World Series. He played with Mantle and Ford. Then his arm went dead, and he found himself back in the minors, where he taught himself to throw the knuckler. The Yanks didn't think much of him anymore and traded him to the expansion Seattle Pilots (which left Seattle after a single year for...get this...Milwaukee), where he earned a spot as a spot starter and mopup long relief man.
The book reveals the personalities of the players and managers and owners. It tells what the players do on the road, in the bullpen, in the minors. It reveals the petty nature of the coaching staff, who are usually all old-time baseball men, not very clever, not prone to trying new ways. It talks about the dicey contract negotiations by players in the days of the reserve clause, when average players made an average wage.
Bouton travels in the world of boys. The players are mostly kids in their 20s, not educated, and spent their formative years in baseball. They like pranks. They like women, but they don't know either how to talk about them, or how to talk with them. Most of the time, they just try to look up their skirts. They drink. They sneak in past curfew.
But Bouton also works in a competitive business market. Pitchers hide their arm injuries for fear of being sent down. Players fume over bench time. Coaches think small, because to be creative and new means being out of a job. And baseball is all these guys have. They have nothing else to turn to.
Certainly in light of recent ballplayer behavior - think of the Pittsburgh cocaine scandals, Strawberry and Gooden, and the thuggish, drug-addled violence associated with football and basketball - "Ball Four" depicts a harmless and almost nostalgic view of baseball. But it still stands as a baseball classic for its honesty, its authenticity, and you wonder how much has changed since 1968.
In the end, the players, owners, and writers should have celebrated the publication of "Ball Four." Sure, it did spawn a string of subsequent tell-alls, and it did forever swing aside the curtain shielding the ballplayer from public scrutiny, but this is a modern age, and we want heroes with all their flaws. Who is it more fun to root for on the field, a straw dummy propped up by a marketing machine, or a man?
on December 31, 2005
Ball Four is a good and important book to own. If one mark of a good book is its ability to provoke reactions, and often contradictory reactions, then Ball Four is a fine book.
What really makes the book a worthwhile read is the way that it reflects a time of momentous change in baseball. I'm not sure if younger fans can truly appreciate how rapidly things were changing in baseball back then. America experienced a broader social revolution throughout 1967 and 1968, but it really took until 1969 for it to work fully its way into baseball. If you look at the baseball cards from 1967 and 1968, they're bland grey items whereupon the players all look like crew-cutted astronauts. Come 1970, 1971, and beyond, everything is different: sideburns, Afros, wild psychadelic colors. Ball Four came out at the leading edge of these changes, and it captured festering tensions between baseball's old guard and a skeptical generation of young players.
Ball Four is widely hailed as a great classic. It's not quite as pathbreaking as its reputation, however. For one thing, it had a predecessor earlier in the decade, The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan, another "kiss and tell" book written by an active player. Brosnan's previous book is better written and more insightful. Ball Four created more of a sensation, but mostly because it was slummier -- it revels a bit more in the drinking and carousing than does the previous book. Because of this, Ball Four upset the baseball establishment a bit more, and it titillated young readers a bit more. Other aspects of the book were equally shocking (back then, anyway): for example, the portrayal of many authority figures -- coaches, managers, and baseball executives -- as dunderheads. This was an anti-establishment book in many respects.
Baseball was changing on all fronts, and these changes are well reflected in this book. Bouton pitches for the Seattle Pilots, in their first and last year of their existence, and the first season of the newly created league divisions. You also read of the attempts of baseball players to create a union, and the divisions among players this caused. You've also got the new turf parks, such as the Houston Astrodome where Bouton finishes up his season. And there are all of the social changes: the sexual revolution, the hashing out of racial issues, and perhaps first and foremost, the generation gap.
Bouton captures all this and more. Having said all that, my enjoyment of this book is limited by the fact that Bouton's own perspective is often arrogant and intolerant, in much the same way that he derides the older coaches and managers as being. You get the clear sense while reading him that the 1960s generational wars were caused not only by an older generation stuck in its ways, but equally by a younger generation that assumed it was automatically right and that they had nothing to learn from anybody. For example, Bouton persistently quotes his managers and coaches only to show how stupid they are. Now, there is such a thing as stupidity among the old, but all rebellious kids usually think that the older generation has missed a beat. Sometimes they're right, and sometimes not. Bouton's always convinced he's right, but there's little reason to believe he always is.
A typical battle between Bouton and his pitching coach Sal Maglie concerns Bouton's attempt to survive on the knuckleball. Sal Maglie gets on his case about it, and discourages him from throwing the knuckler exclusively. Bouton is convinced that his other stuff is basically gone, and the only way he's going to hang on is if he relies on the knuckler, and he wants to be left alone to concentrate on that pitch.
Let's just examine this from both sides for a moment to get a sense of whether Bouton's contempt for Maglie is justified.
When Bouton came up, he was a very successful pitcher with the New York Yankees. But although he had a reputation for having a young, live arm, the stats show that he was never really an overpowering pitcher. In 1964, he struck out only 120 men in 271 innings, while winning 18 games. Historically, pitchers don't get by on finesse like that for very long. It's not at all surprising that a few years later, Bouton no longer had hard enough stuff to get major league hitters out. Bouton's self-assessment in Ball Four seems to be justified: he probably doesn't have a good enough fastball or slider by 1969 to make it as a major league pitcher, and unless he gets the knuckler to work, that's it for him.
Now let's look on the other side. If there were ever a guy who knew something about such a situation, it was Sal Maglie. Maglie's emergence as a good major league pitcher was delayed by his "outlaw" years in the Mexican league. Like Bouton, Maglie wasn't overpowering -- in his finest year he struck out only 146 in 298 innings. But unlike Bouton, Maglie was very successful in his 30s. When Maglie tells Bouton that a key ingredient for success of an older pitcher is not walking too many hitters, he's onto something. Bouton gave up 12 gopher balls in only 92 innings with Seattle in 1969, and if you're that vulnerable to the gopher, you've got to keep the walks down. Most importantly, Maglie had accomplished what Bouton was trying to do -- not with overpowering physical gifts, but by assessing his own situation accurately; there was something to learn there.
The point is not that Bouton is right or Maglie is right, but that there are two good perspectives here, and if Bouton weren't so full of himself, he might be able to pick up what good things Maglie had to offer him, combining them with his own valid insights. Instead, Bouton spends the whole book making fun of Maglie and anyone else in a position of authority, refusing to learn anything from anyone older.
Bouton is a hero to everyone who has ever been fed up with their teachers, their boss, or "the establishment" at large, because many readers find it cathartic to read someone's rantings against stodgy authority figures. But in the final analysis, Bouton isn't necessarily all that brighter or more insightful than those he critiques: he's just as closed-minded, he just has a different opinion. He's not Galileo; he's not even Bill James. He's just a guy speaking his mind, always candidly, often rudely, and only sometimes with a valid point.
Ball Four is a worthy read because there's no other book quite like it; Bouton is always brutally honest about his feelings, and he conveys the full flavor of a turbulent era in baseball history. The book was considered sensational at the time, but it's not such a prurient interest anymore: now it's useful mostly to convey what all the fussing and fighting was about back then. But in the end it's a fallible set of perspectives by a very fallible individual.
My prospective 12th grade English teacher wasn't too impressed with my choice of an "all-time favorite book", but in 1971, "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton was it. Growing up in central New York state, I'd been a Yankee fan for my entire childhood, and remembered Bouton pitching for the Yanks in the World Series in the early '60s. In "Ball Four", Bouton touches on those days, in the process demythologizing some of my heroes--Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in particular--but I wasn't bitter; I was fascinated with the stories of how my athletic heroes behaved as human beings.
Even better were Bouton's diary accounts of his days as a reliever with the Seattle Pilots, a one-year team that quickly moved to Milwaukee and exists today as the Brewers, and with the Houston Astros (featuring future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and managed by Harry "The Hat" Walker". How else would I remember that the manager of that team was Joe Schulz, a crusty old baseball lifer whose two favorite "words" would be sure to get this review removed from view (the first started with F and ended with T, the second started with S and ended with K). As an ex-Cardinal, Schulz exhorted his players to "get the win and go in to "pound that B...weiser". As a 16-year old I also viewed with great hilarity the crude humor of ballplayers on the road--a phrase I still use today came from a ballplayer told that a game would start at 9:30 a.m, "Nine thirty? H..l, I'm not done throwing up by that time of day!" After a bumpy bus ride, another player offers to buy the bus. I'll leave it to you to guess why. In response to Walker's niggling managerial style, the Astros composed their own theme song "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be an Astro" ("if we win our game each day, what the f... can Harry say/it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro!")
Bouton also takes us through his pitching season--outing by outing--you get a feel of how seriously ballplayers evaluate each game (at least Bouton did), and at Bouton's level of "last man in the bullpen", how tenuous their hold on a major league position is. Maybe there was more to this now famous book than Ms. Trapnell gave it credit for in 1971.
on September 17, 1996
When my house cleaner threw my coverless, dogeared copy of Ball Four in the trash, I promptly fished it out. It's anyone's guess why a 41-year-old God-fearing female and lifelong Yankee fan would rank that book as a must-save, but I do. The book that "tore the cover off the biggest names in baseball" didn't make me think any less of my heroesÐit simply made all of them-Mantle, Maris, Tresh, et. al.-a little more human. Beyond that, it's a very funny book. The quality of "earthiness ... and non-sequitor" that Jim Bouton claims he's trying to capture is all there.
The older I get, the more I read Ball Four not only as a book about baseball, but as a book about our times similar to (would'd have thought it) Samuel Pepys diary. Bouton freely discusses race, religion, and sex, but not to the point that the reader gets bored with any of them.
Beyond everything else, it is a picture of Jim Bouton. It's all there, his insecurities, his faults, his self-serving attitude as well as his honesty, intelligence, and humor. I've heard very little about Bouton since 1970 when my brother and I read Ball Four and thought it necessary to keep it from our parents. But I feel as though I know Jim. And I feel nothing but kindness toward him.
on August 2, 2005
In 1970, baseball was hit with two ground-breaking events that shook it from its complacent stance left over from the days of FDR. First, Curt Flood began his challenge to the time-honored reserve clause when he tried to block his trade to Philadelphia. And second, the publication of a relief pitcher's season diary with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, a book that challenged the image of ballplayers forever.
That book was "Ball Four", and it was the view of a memorable 1969 season for Jim Bouton, the author and a former star pitcher with the Yankees. Now down on his luck and struggling to remain on a major-league roster, Bouton decided to document his trek from the dungeons of the minor leagues to the full-fledged ecstasy of pitching a major league game successfully.
It's the stories along the way, however, that made baseball squirm...
Seen through the light of post-Watergate "destroying the heroes" (and through the troubling trend of post-9/11 to build them back up), "Ball Four" seems on some levels like "been there, done that". But seen through the context of the time it came out, it shook the foundations of the game and caused a major scandel for Bouton and kept him from being invited to Old Timers' Day in New York.
Bouton was a former phenom whose fastball secured him a spot on the Yankees roster in the early Sixties, but by the time of the 1969 season he was struggling to find a new pitch to accomadate the sore arm that he acquired in place of that fastball. Here documented is his struggle with mastering the knuckleball, easily the most difficult pitch to control. Also, Bouton has money problems that his bosses aren't eager to resolve. Before Curt Flood's post-season trade disputes began, Bouton is seen fighting tooth-and-nail for a measly $1000 at a time, and his trade from Seattle could very well have had something to do with that (or his insistance on investing in a new product on the market, something called "Gatorade" which was supposedly better than soda for ballplayers).
Bouton also discusses the times he's living in, and how baseball chooses to ignore them. Race relations, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and all the issues that defined the Sixties never seemed to touch baseball, but Bouton gets under the skin of his teammates and his coachs by embracing some of the youth culture around him. Some of the funniest passages describe his reactions to the constant stream of country-and-western music at the back of the team bus, where he tries to "fit in" with the guys.
Bouton is remarkably honest for a ballplayer, spicing his diary with revealing passages about himself, his past, and the pasts of those around him. That's what brought him before the auspices of comissioner Bowie Kuhn to "deny" what he wrote as being true. His discussions about Mickey Mantle (whose alcoholism eventually killed him) was seen as a Benedict Arnold-esque turn in 1970, but now we all know Bouton was telling the truth.
Bouton's struggles with control both on the field and against his bosses make "Ball Four" a revelation, as it shows old-time baseball as the antiquated institution it is. He also revels in the fact that he's not a typical jock, and many of the teammates around him who may have been angered by tales about their own faults actually emerge as more sympathetic figures than they would have in the typical hagiograpchic sports screeds. Here they're real human beings, not the God-like figures of yore.
Jim Bouton went from being a good pitcher with arm problems to a truth-telling Judas who wrote himself out of the game. But when the book you pen is "Ball Four", it might very well be worth it. Bouton will be remembered for his masterpiece of sports literature far longer than the critics who took him to task for that. You couldn't ask for a better won-loss record.
on February 17, 2002
Unlike most sports-themed book, written by the athletes who seem to always be willing to glad-hand themselves, this terrific account into the year in the life of a ballplayer is irreverent and uncompromising. As a former ballplayer, Jim Bouton played hard but always lived by a higher code. Never willing to place himself in a compromising situation, he nonetheless becomes a somewhat outspoken critic of what baseball had become (remember, this book was written during the 1969 season, well before free-agency and the Enron-esque manner by which MLB seems to handle itself as an organization these days). Yes, he does seem harsh on some teammates, past and present, and doesn't fail to criticize himself on many occasions either. But he ultimately reveals himself to be a fan of the game, warts and all. It's easy to understand why this book generated so much controversy. It still manages to convey an important message that athletes and their sport are, at the end of the day, completely fallible. Despite the somewhat shallow character baseball players and managers reveal throughout "Ball Four", you still get the sense from Bouton that you wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. And, more than anything, it destroys the myth that the game was so much better back in the "good old days."