Jim Bouton's Book Ball Four - A Home Run for Sports Writing

Jim Bouton, the former major league baseball player who revolutionized (and blew the lid off) sports writing with this 1970 book Ball Four, died on July 10 at the age of 80.

Bouton had two great years with the New York Yankees in 1963 and 1964, but soon lost his fastball and for the next four years struggled to stay in the majors. As the 1969 season began, Bouton was trying to secure a spot on the expansion Seattle Pilots and, in a last-ditch effort to save his flagging career, master the knuckleball.

Bouton had been approached by sportswriter Leonard Shechter to chronicle his experiences during the 1969 season.  Bouton, already somewhat of an intellectual iconoclast, was the perfect ballplayer to tackle this assignment. The resulting book was unlike anything else that had ever been written about baseball. Prior to Ball Four, sportswriters propped athletes on pedestals. Bouton took the reader into the locker room and the dugout, and exposed ballplayers for the flawed humans they were. Ball Four included stories of drug use, petty jealousies and sexual shenanigans.

The fallout from Ball Four was profound for Bouton. Though many applauded him for the book’s raw honesty and wicked humor—and the book sold extremely well--Bouton was effectively blackballed from major league baseball. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called Ball Four “detrimental to baseball” and old-guard sportswriters like Dick Young referred to Bouton and editor Leonard Shecter as “social lepers.”

In the end, Bouton had the last laugh. After his baseball career ended in 1970, he had a reasonably successful acting career (he had a small but important role in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye), made a brief baseball comeback in 1978, and Ball Four forever changed sports writing. The book’s biggest honor came in 1995, when the New York Public Library honored Ball Four as one of the greatest books published in the preceding century.


Mark N., CADL Downtown Lansing