Jim Bouton’s Major League Baseball career was short-lived. After a 7-7 rookie year, he went 21-7 in 1963 and 18-13 in 1964, helping to lead the New York Yankees to two World Series appearances. A sore arm in 1965 derailed Bouton. From 1965-1968, he compiled a 9-24 record before being traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots.
During the 1969 season, as he attempted to master the beguiling knuckleball for the Pilots and the Houston Astros, Bouton kept notes on the musings of everyone he encountered, from Mickey Mantle to Harry Walker. With help from former journalist Leonard Shecter, those musings became Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues, first published in 1970. Alternately hysterical and heroic, the book broke ground by describing the behind-the-scenes, un-saintly exploits within professional sports. As Baseball Reliquary executive director Terry Cannon wrote: “Ball Four was the stick of dynamite that blasted ballplayers off their pedestals, showing them not as sacrosanct and heroic figures but as flawed and often inglorious men.”
Vilified by many in baseball, Bouton’s career ended in 1970 (though he made a brief comeback with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves in the late 1970s). His critics notwithstanding, Ball Four has stood the test of time. It’s one of the best-selling sports books of all-time; in 1995, the New York Public Library selected it as one of the “Books of the Century.” It is the only sports book on the list.
Some 30-odd years later, Bouton has returned to the diamond with Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark (Bulldog Publishing). The book chronicles Bouton’s and partner Chip Elitzer’s efforts to renovate Wahconah Park, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and purchase a minor league team to play there.
Wahconah has a special place among baseball traditionalists. It’s one of the last surviving wooden stadiums; games were first played on the site in 1892. Built before the advent of night games, the ballpark is one of just two in which the batter’s box faces west. (The other is Sam Lynn Park in Bakersfield, California.) On occasion, when the setting sun shines in batters’ eyes, the game is briefly stopped for a “sun delay.”
Profane and drolly deadpan, Bouton is back in fine form. He remains the consummate underdog, eager to take on those institutions that he finds hypocritical or, worse, involved in shady dealings. That becomes clear when, at the end of the book, Bouton relates that the original publisher, PublicAffairs, bowed out of its deal to publish Foul Ball. Instead, Bouton self-published the book. (It’s available at bookstores or through his Web site at http://www.jimbouton.com.)
Bouton has been a sportscaster, an actor (The Long Goodbye), and an inventor (with teammate Rob Nelson, he developed Big League Chew, or shredded bubble gum). He now lives in North Egremont, Massachusetts, located one-half hour south of Wahconah, with his wife Paula Kurman. — David Davis
David Davis: When Ball Four was first published, you were called many names, including traitor. Were you surprised at the reaction?
Jim Bouton: Don’t forget “social leper” and “Benedict Arnold.” I was surprised at the level of anger. It seemed to go on for a long time and was pretty widespread throughout baseball. But that didn’t bother me once fans started reading the book and writing me letters about it. They told me that the book didn’t turn them off from baseball. They liked what I wrote. They said it made baseball players all the more human.
DD: What was the harshest reaction you got?
JB: I think the Yankees banning me from Old-Timers Day for 28 years.
DD: Did Mickey Mantle ever say anything to you about the book?
JB: Mickey and I had an exchange of communication without speaking. I sent him a condolence note back in 1995, after his son Billy died, in which I told him that I never meant for the book to hurt him or anybody else for that matter. He left a message on my answering machine thanking me for the note and saying he was okay with everything. I’ve kept that message.
DD: Why did you wait so long to write another book?
JB: The year after Ball Four was published I wrote I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the response to Ball Four. And then in the mid-1990s I co-wrote [with Eliot Asinof] Strike Zone, a mystery novel about an umpire fixing the game.
I don’t consider myself a writer in the sense that I don’t go around looking for things to write about. Every once in a while something happens in your life that you want to write about or feel compelled to write about. With Ball Four, I wanted to write about that. With Foul Ball, I was compelled to write about it. I needed to tell this story, not just for me but for the people of Pittsfield.
DD: In the process of pursuing the stadium renovation, when did you decide that the subject was worthy of a book?
JB: At the point when one of the members of the [Pittsfield] city council told my partner and me that the city council couldn’t consider our proposal until they were released by Andy Mick, the publisher of the Berkshire Eagle newspaper. And then Andy Mick said that to consider our proposal, he’d have to talk to his boss, Dean Singleton [the CEO of the MediaNews Group, based in Denver]. So here were the citizens of Pittsfield — and their entire fate was in the hands of a guy in Colorado. I started taking notes because something was obviously wrong.
DD: You pitched at Wahconah during your comeback in the 1970s, and you watched games there as a fan. Why did you and your partner think Wahconah was worth saving?
JB: Well, we felt the same way as everybody else did, that it was a beautiful old ballpark, just a great baseball cathedral. The people in Pittsfield love it. It’s part of their history, it’s part of their lives, it’s part of how they define themselves. If a new stadium went up in the center of town, Wahconah would die. It would just rot away.
So that’s what Pittsfield was faced with when Wahconah’s former tenant took the team and left for Troy [a town in nearby upstate New York]. We wanted to end that threat. With our plan, Pittsfield was going to have a locally owned team in a restored historical ballpark. We were planning to sell shares to ensure local ownership. That way, the city wouldn’t be threatened every few years over the possible loss of its team. Who could be against us?
DD: You write that, over the past 15 years, some $16 billion of public money has been spent on new stadiums [pg. 2] and call this a “national epidemic.” Why has this occurred?
JB: Because baseball’s powers-that-be can get away with it. They have a monopoly, granted by the federal government, and they use it to bludgeon local governments to bid against each other for the right to teams. It’s a national disgrace. These owners are capitalists who don’t want capitalism. When sports owners don’t have to use their own money to build stadiums and make enormous profits — when American taxpayers subsidize these wealthy owners — it’s massive corporate welfare. And the politicians team up with them: they don’t want to allow citizens to vote on this issue because, as [former New York City mayor] Rudolph Giuliani once said, “they would vote against it.”
They’ve built approximately 113 new minor league stadiums in the last 20 years — and almost all of them replace older, beloved ballparks. How does that benefit the community? The fans aren’t paying for this — the taxpayers are paying for this. People who aren’t even sports fans are subsidizing Derek Jeter’s salary. So Foul Ball is a case study of that phenomenon. Look, all independent studies done by economists not on city payrolls — like the studies done by [Smith College professor of economics] Andrew Zimbalist — show that new stadiums do not lead to an economic revival. They have almost no impact. All they do is cannibalize other businesses: a new restaurant crops up near the stadium, so people go there instead of to other existing places. The jobs that are created are low-paying jobs, like ticket-takers and concession sales. The real money goes to the owner. And if he happens not to live in the town, the money leaves town at the end of the year.
DD: Your plan called for the renovation of a historic stadium, paid for by you. Why didn’t Pittsfield rally around this plan?
JB: The people supported us. But the town is essentially run by what I call “the gang of four” — the Berkshire Eagle newspaper; the Berkshire Bank; the law firm of Cain, Hibbard, Myers & Cook; and General Electric. It doesn’t matter who’s the mayor. They wanted to build the new stadium in the middle of town. In addition to enhancing the value of the real estate, which happened to be owned by the Eagle, what they were also doing was unloading a tremendous liability because the land was a toxic waste dump. After I began writing the book — after they had denied us a lease — this came to light. A friend found the document that showed that the property was a toxic waste site.
DD: With Ball Four, you became known as someone unafraid to speak his mind. Do you think your reputation hurt you in the pursuit of the ballpark?
JB: No. I’m sure they didn’t think I was writing a book, or they wouldn’t have said the things they said. It’s an insider’s book. I have conversations with the mayor, with state senators, with city councilmen. They would have never spoken to me if they knew I was writing a book.
As for my reputation, I don’t think that played a factor. It made it more difficult for them, because they couldn’t just dismiss me. If I was more anonymous, they would have said the same things about me. I just made it harder for them to do what they did and got more notice from people in town.
DD: You claim that Pittsfield’s powerful interests worked, behind the scenes in some cases, to defeat your effort. In retrospect, did your plan ever really have a chance?
JB: Looking back on it, I would have to say no. They had already made their decision. They gave the rights [to lease Wahconah] to a guy who came into town once. He gave them a four-page proposal that nobody ever saw. We had a detailed 14-page proposal that was circulated throughout the community, but our opponent knew he had it in the bag. A number of city councilmen said as much to me.
DD: What most angered you during this process?
JB: The total misrepresentation of our proposal. That and personal slander. They completely made up a story that I had demanded $3,000 to speak to the Boy Scouts.
DD: What would you have done differently?
JB: Nothing. I would have done things exactly the same way, because what the book did was expose in detail all the different ways in which powerful people mislead their own citizens. By making it a daily campaign, Chip and I forced them to respond to us — and it was their response that made the book interesting.
We wanted to see how good we could make our proposal — we improved our offer as time went by — and it didn’t matter. That gave us an opportunity for us — and the readers — to see how far these people would go to destroy us and lie about us.
DD: You briefly mention the death of your daughter Laurie [in 1997 in a car accident]. Looking back, was the pursuit of the ballpark part of your recovery during the grief process?
JB: That never crossed my mind at the time, even though she comes up in the book at the anniversary [of her death] and a couple of other times. [San Francisco Chronicle book reviewer] David Kipen was the first to write that this campaign had some other benefit in my life beyond what I thought I was going for. . . . Sometimes, you create a piece of work and you don’t understand why you’ve created it until someone else looks at it. Now it makes sense to me.
DD: You wrote about your publisher, PublicAffairs, pulling out of its deal to publish the book. How difficult was it to go the self-publishing route?
JB: I didn’t have much choice. I had turned in the manuscript to PublicAffairs. They had had no problem with it along the way — it was going to be the lead book in their catalog, they had arranged a 16-city tour to promote the book. Then, just before they went to print their catalog — in the fall of 2002 — the publisher sat down to lunch with me and said we need to add balance with comments from General Electric [about PCB dumping in Pittsfield]. I said, I’m not going to do that. That’s just a back story — it’s maybe 10 pages in the book. I said, I didn’t get balancing comments from Major League Baseball for Ball Four.
A week after that, the editor I was working with told me that I had to remove all references to pollution and General Electric. I was faced with no alternative. I had to get out of that contract. I might have been able to find another publisher, but they took so long sending me the termination letter that it was too late to go anywhere else.
To publish your own book is very difficult. I had to plunk down about $150,000, for book designers, art work, printing, and publicists. But I’m proud of the book: the first printing was in excess of 10,000 copies, and we’re now in our second printing. I started this when I was 62. Now I’m 64, but after all I went through I feel like I’m 72.
DD: Since the book was published, what’s been the reaction in Pittsfield?
JB: The best reaction has been from the citizens of Pittsfield. They have said to me, at book signings at the library and at Barnes and Noble: “Yes! Yes! Thank you — someone has told our story.” That’s been gratifying. The people who come off badly in the book have gotten together and decided not to say anything. There’s a code of silence. It doesn’t bother me because the book is leapfrogging past Pittsfield in talking about the lack of democracy in these small towns.
We’ve also been sniped at by the Eagle, with them again misrepresenting our proposal. That’s been a tremendous problem. Many newspapers no longer serve as the ombudsmen for the people. They distort and twist misinformation for the benefit of the groups that own them. This was a case study of media malfeasance that I would like to see followed up on by other investigative reporters.
DD: One of the secondary characters in the book, Northern League commissioner Miles Wolff, commented about Foul Ball that “I’ve heard there is a bit of fiction in there.” How do you respond to that?
JB: That’s the closest as anyone will get to commenting on the book. That allows them to suggest it’s not true, without forcing them to be specific about what’s true and not true. But look: here are all these damning actions — and no one has come out and said, “I didn’t say this or that didn’t happen.” My question is, why wouldn’t Miles Wolff read this book. It’s about him and his industry.
DD: Are you worried that you’ll be sued?
JB: Nobody is going to sue me on this because the truth is my defense. I have all my contemporary notes. I was taking notes constantly, either during conversations or immediately afterwards.
DD: One of your rivals, Jonathan Fleisig, ended up moving his Berkshire Black Bears into Wahconah in 2002. What’s the situation now with that team and with the stadium?
JB: He has a two-year lease that runs out at the end of this season. It’ll be interesting to see what he does. I imagine he’ll go to the city and cry poverty and want to play for free. He knows there’s no chance they’ll build him a new stadium. Pittsfield is deep in debt, and the state of Massachusetts isn’t going to give him $20 million.
DD: What about you: what are you doing these days?
JB: I do motivational speaking, with about two appearances a month. Now I’m plugging the book. That’s been a three-year process. Year one to think about the idea, year two to write it, and year three to promote it. I’m very proud of the book. I think it’s a better piece of work than Ball Four. I have no plans to do another book — I like to keep about 30 years between books. So look for me in about 30 years with an expose of the nursing home industry.
DD: In the book, you write about a possible Seattle Pilots reunion. Any interest in that idea?
JB: I’ve done everything I could to make that happen. Now it’s up to the Mariners, and they’ve decided that they’re not going to do anything because of Ball Four. It would call attention to the book.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted in the summer of 2003, the team that last represented Pittsfield — the Berkshire Black Bears — has abandoned Wahconah.