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Ball Four: Twentieth Anniversary Edition Paperback – July 12, 1990
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As a player, former hurler Jim Bouton did nothing half-way; he threw so hard he'd lose his cap on almost every pitch. In the early '70s, he tossed off one of the funniest, most revealing, insider's takes on baseball life in Ball Four, his diary of the season he tried to pitch his way back from oblivion on the strength of a knuckler. The real curve, though, is Bouton's honesty. He carves humans out of heroes, and shines a light into the game's corners. A quarter century later, Bouton's unique baseball voice can still bring the heat.
""Ball Four is a people book, not just a baseball book."" --Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
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Other reviewers on this site refer to "Ball Four" as "dated". I could not disagree more. Even though the book was largely written in 1969, it still has a lot to tell us about modern-day society, labor-management relationships, the role of sports in society, and politics. Bouton, as a 30-year-old ballplayer, was unusually observant, and, as he writes from 1969 -- the same year that "Mad Men" is up on TV now, as I write this review -- spokevery perceptively about the kinds of societal change that most of us enjoy watching Don Draper struggle with. Also, as an avowed left-winger, Bouton provides a perspective different to the majority of other baseball figures.
Reading "Ball Four", you can choose to just enjoy the more raunchy or R-rated material while ignoring the more social or political material. Or you can read up on the very early years of baseball's labor wars, and get your history lesson on the likes of Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller. Or, if you enjoyed the movie "Office Space", there's tons of material here about the short-sightedness of the management, which involved at least 7 increasingly muffled layers of supervision between the owners and the players of a single team. Bouton was a keen student of baseball history, and spends a fair bit of time talking about old players, and the guys he followed when he was a kid; he has the misfortune in 1969 to be coached by Sal Maglie, one of Bouton's childhood heroes but a truly inept pitching coach (as they say, never meet your heroes!)). But, not only that, Bouton figured into the very dawn of today's statistical-oriented baseball analytics --he realized that relief pitchers should be judged by inherited runners scored and baserunners-per-inning ratios, rather than purely by wins and losses. He was immensely valuable as a relief pitcher in 1969 -- his Strat-O-Matic card proves that -- but the Pilots ignored him and under-utilized him, because they weren't paying attention to the right information.
So, read "Ball Four" -- and its several updates, issued in 1980, 1990, and 2000. There's something amazing on nearly every page of the book and its supplements -- funny, titillating, insightful, of historical interest, or just plain mind-boggling. There are very few other baseball books that hit their targets so directly, or that are so eminently quotable. The book will be 50 years old soon, but it will never, ever, go out of date.
I read this in the early 1970's and so this is a re-read for me, nearly 40 years later. The book holds up pretty well even though, of course, it's somewhat dated. The players are different and so is the game of baseball. Athletes were paid relatively miniscule amounts compared to their later counterparts and they negotiated their own contracts and so money issues take a front seat.
To me, this book is a time capsule of players and the game I remember from my youth.
The odd thing is that, these days, this book seems pretty tame but back then, it was earthshaking. Absolutely loved what is widely seen as an icon in baseball literature.