05 December 2010

Book Review: Ball Four

As most of you probably know already, I'm an avid reader (and if you didn't already know that, now you do). While I can read just about anything (except for those stupid romance novels with half-naked dudes on the cover), my favorite books to read revolve around sports, especially baseball (big surprise, I know). I figured that, since I read a lot of books anyway, why not do a series of book reviews so you, my dear readers, can find out about books that you may not have read?

As to what kind of review(s) you can expect, I will say that if you're looking for a New York Times type review, then go buy a copy of the New York Times. I'm not going to review the book as if I'm a critic, but rather as someone who just enjoys reading. Also, I'm not going to come up with a bunch of one-liners that you see on the first few pages of books, because frankly I think those are mostly stupid and don't provide much information on the book itself. These reviews are going to be based on what I as a reader thought of the books being reviewed, and will provide my opinion on whether or not you should bother putting the books on your reading list (if you have a reading list).

Anyway, I figured I'd kick-off this series (forgive the sports pun) with a book that I just finished reading recently: Jim Bouton's Ball Four.

For those of you who don't know who Jim Bouton is, allow me to give a brief biography. Jim Bouton is a former Major League pitcher who pitched for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots*, and Houston Astros from 1962-1970, and for the Atlanta Braves in 1978. He wrote Ball Four as a daily journal during the 1969 season, when he played with the Pilots until he was traded to the Astros on August 26.

* - Now known as the Milwaukee Brewers, the Pilots were only in Seattle for one season (1969). They were forced to relocate due to bankruptcy in 1970.

And now, on to the review.

Ball Four is very in-depth, especially when talking about the daily life of a baseball player. Bouton not only provides details about the life inside the clubhouse, but he gives names as well. He talks about players' use of drugs (notably "greenies", another word for amphetamines), drinking, womanizing (Especially the practice of "shooting beaver". One of my favorite terms in the entire book, it's used to describe the act of looking up a woman's skirt by any means necessary.), and the poor treatment the players were given by upper management in terms of salaries and bonuses.*

* - This was during a time when baseball players made peanuts compared to the outrageous salaries they make today, and owners did everything within their power to avoid paying players high amounts of money.

One of the things that I like about Ball Four is the honesty. Bouton gives us real feelings, both good and bad, and doesn't feed us with a bunch of unnecessary bull shit and false praise. He tells us that baseball players did drugs, drank too much, stayed out too late, chased women, and enjoyed the lifestyle. He calls out managers and pitching coaches for their unusual decisions during games, and is man enough to admit when he didn't play well himself.

Even though I loved the honesty of the book, a lot of people -- especially those in baseball -- didn't like the book at all. In fact, then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to sign a document claiming that the information in the book was false, but Bouton declined. It is reported that the majority of players named in the book never forgave Bouton for airing their dirty laundry, and the Yankees, even though they never officially excommunicated Bouton, refused to invite him to their annual "Old-Timers Day" because of the tell-all book.*

* - One of the players who refused to forgive Bouton was Mickey Mantle, whom Bouton had established a close friendship with while playing for the Yankees. After the book was published, Mantle refused to speak to Bouton because of the negative publicity the book gave to him in regards to his drinking and womanizing. It is reported that their friendship was reconciled in 1994 after Bouton sent Mantle a sympathy card following his son's death from cancer. According to Wikipedia, the Yankees have also forgiven Bouton, and since 1998 he has been a participant in Old-Timers Day festivities.

If you like baseball, you should definitely read this book. In fact, you should read this book even if you don't like baseball, because it's just that damn entertaining. You feel the same feelings that Bouton feels in the book, from the highs of pitching well and winning to the lows of being sent down to AAA and traded away to Houston. You experience the juvenile humor of the players pulling pranks on each other, and the feeling of what it means to be a teammate.

Ball Four has been republished three times since it was written. (The latest in 2000, 30 years after the original publishing date.) Bouton adds an updated appendix to each edition, and the copy that I read (the Twentieth Anniversary Edition) has two appendices titled Ball Five and Ball Six, which discuss the players discussed in the book and their lives in the 10 and 20 years since the book was published. According to sources regarding the latest publication, Bouton explains the reconciled friendship with Mantle and the Yankees organization.

A few of my favorite passages from the book:
Right now, the fact is that I love the game, love to play it, I mean. Actually, with the thousands of games I've seen, baseball bores me. I have no trouble falling asleep in the bullpen, and I don't think I'd ever pay my way into a ballpark to watch a game. But there's a lot to being in the game...

A lot of it is foolishness too, grown men being serious about a boy's game. There's pettiness in baseball, and meanness and stupidity beyond belief, and everything else bad that you'll find outside of baseball. I haven't enjoyed every single minute of it and when I've refused to conform to some of the Neanderthal aspects of baseball thinking I've been an outcast. Yet there's been a tremendous lot of good in it for me and I wouldn't trade my years in it for anything I can think of.
* * *
Baseball players will take anything. If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he'd take it.
* * *
I've had a lot of conversations with my arm. I ask it what the hell I ever did to it. I ask why won't it do for me what it used to do in the old days. I whisper lovingly to it. Remember '64? Remember '63? Wasn't it fun? Things could be like that again. Just one more time, one more season. It never listens.
* * *
Then there's the tale Jim Gosger told about hiding in the closet to shoot a little beaver while his roommate made out on the bed with some local talent. Nothing sneaky about it, the roommate even provided the towel for Gosger to bite on in case he was moved to laughter. At the height of the activity on the bed, local talent, moaning, says, "Oh darling, I've never done it that way before." Whereupon Gosger sticks his head out, drawls "Yeah, surrre," and retreats into the closet.
* * *
Coming out to the bullpen just before the game began, in front of thousands of empty seats, I took off my hat, made a deep bow and generally behaved as though I was being acclaimed by millions. Then I looked up and all I could see was San Diego uniforms. "What are you guys doing in our bullpen?" I said. Of course I had it all wrong. I was in their bullpen, act and all.
* * *
You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.

If you would like to purchase Ball Four, you should be able to find it in your local bookstore, or you can order it online. It's still widely published, so it shouldn't be too difficult to locate. I strongly recommend it for reading, as it is one of the better baseball books I've ever read.

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