Obituary: Jim Bouton (1939-2019)

R.I.P. to Jim Bouton, who went from an All-Star pitcher to a bestselling author to a baseball pariah to entertainment personality to a beloved and respected baseball figure. He died on July 10, at the age of 80. The ex-pitcher had suffered a severe stroke in 2012, which led to cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a disease that is linked to dementia. Bouton pitched for the New York Yankees (1962-68), Seattle Pilots (1969), Houston Astros (1969-70) and Atlanta Braves (1978).

Jim Bouton with Mickey Mantle (left) after Bouton’s first MLB win. Mantle homered twice in Bouton’s first start. Their friendship was strained after the publication of Ball Four. Source: The Tampa Tribune, May 8, 1962.

The most famous line in Ball Four, and one of the most famous lines in baseball literature — deservedly so — is: “You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” There’s another line in which Bouton sums up the whole of his career, even while he was still in the middle of it. He wrote briefly about Jim O’Toole, a one-time All-Star pitcher for the Reds who ended up playing in the Kentucky Industrial League for the Ross Eversoles. Bouton wrote: “I wondered what the dreams of Jim O’Toole are like these days. Then I thought, would I do that? When it’s over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.”

Baseball turned its back on Jim Bouton, but Bouton never fully turned his back on baseball, even as he broke all the unwritten rules about clubhouse sanctity.

(Note: This essay is going to focus more on Bouton the ballplayer than Bouton the author. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, embarrassingly, I have never read Ball Four. Yes I know I’m a terrible baseball fan. It’s been at the top of my must-read book list for years, but I never got to it for one reason or another, and I never knew which edition of the book was considered the definitive version. There’s a high likelihood that your favorite baseball writer’s favorite book is Ball Four and has written about how it influenced him or her, so check those columns. Two, Bouton’s fame (or infamy) as an author overshadowed an absolutely fascinating baseball career, which included an All-Star nod, World Series dominance, arm woes that led to a conversion to a knuckleballer and multiple comeback attempts. His baseball career matched his overall life: He packed an incredible amount into the time that he had).

Jim Bouton was born on March 8, 1939 in Newark, N.J. However, his family moved to Chicago when he was 13, and he was named a prep All-Star in 1957 by the Chicago Tribune. He was pitching for Bloom High School at the time and led Bloom to the South Suburban league championship. He won 8 of 9 starts in his senior year and threw a no-hitter against Rich HS. He went to Western Michigan University briefly but was signed by the Yankees in late 1958. His first season in the minors in 1959 wasn’t great, but he won 14 games for Greensboro in 1960 and 13 games for Amarillo in 1961.

Bouton broke camp with the Yankees in 1962. The rookie appeared in 36 games for the Yankees, with 16 starts. He had a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA. He threw with such power then his hat flew off his head after almost every pitch. However, he also had a good knuckleball to go with all that power, which made him a bit of an oddity among pitchers. Bouton won his first MLB start against the Senators on May 2. Mickey Mantle homered twice in the 8-0 shutout, and Bouton’s teammates gave him a hero’s welcome. Mantle made a path of white towels from the clubhouse door to Bouton’s locker, and Whitey Ford swiped a trophy belonging to relief ace Luis Arroyo and put it in his locker. Bouton was the hero again on June 24 when he threw 7 innings of relief in a game the Yankees won 9-7 in 22 innings.

Bouton was a pretty talented artist as well. Shown here is a sketch of Yogi Berra. Source: The Spokesman Review, June 27, 1965.

“I didn’t even know how many innings I pitched,” Bouton said after the game. “They tell me it was seven innings. I wasn’t too tired. I guess I could have gone another inning or so.”

The 1962 Yankees won the World Series, though Bouton didn’t pitch in the postseason. He got his chances in 1963 and 1964, though. He lost a 1-0 matchup against the Dodgers Don Drysdale in Game 3 of the 1963 World Series. He started Games 3 and 6 of the ’64 World Series against the Cardinals and won them both. That left him with a stellar 1.48 ERA in the World Series. It was in a losing effort, though, as the Yanks lost both those Series.

Those were Bouton’s best years as a pitcher. He went 21-7 in his sophomore season of 1963, with a 2.53 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 249-1/3 innings. He was named to the All-Star team for the only time in his career and threw a perfect inning in the All-Star Game. His 20th win of the season clinched the pennant for the Yankees on September 13. In the following year, Bouton went 18-13 and led the AL with 37 starts. He completed 11 games and threw 4 shutouts. With Bouton and youngsters Mel Stottlemyre and Al Downing to complement veteran Whitey Ford, the team looked to have a solid pitching staff for the future.

His fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1965, and so did the Yankees’. Bouton struggled to a 4-15 record and 4.82 ERA, and the Yankees slid from a pennant winner to a 6th place finish. He pitched better in 1966, but arm injuries were taking his toll on his pitching. He spent 1967 and 1968 between the majors and minor leagues. Meanwhile, his forthrightness in interviews was also wearing out his welcome with the Yankees. He freely admitted, “We stink,” after a poor 1966 and thought that the team would have to look toward rebuilding in 1968 rather than competing in ’67.

Jim Bouton loses his hat during his comeback attempt with the Atlanta Braves in 1978. Source: The Courier Journal, September 11, 1978.

New York finally tired of Bouton and sold him to the Seattle Pilots in June of 1968, even though the Pilots didn’t officially exist until 1969. “I think I should get some sort of medal for patience with him,” said general manager Ralph Houk. Bouton liked talking to the press and answered questions honestly, not caring if honesty got him into more trouble (see the “We stink” quote above). New York sportswriter Dick Young ripped Bouton for being a flake, criticizing everything from his political leanings (he supported Eugene McCarthy) to his sideburns. Bouton had yet to set the baseball world aflame with a tell-all book, but he was already being taken to task for his refusal to just shut up and play.

Bouton’s 1969 season was an eventful one. He appeared in 57 games for the Pilots as a decent reliever who relied on a knuckleball more than anything. He was then traded to Houston and pitched in 16 games there. All total, Bouton had 73 appearances, with all but 2 coming in relief. He had a 2-3 record and 3.96 ERA, with 50 walks and 100 strikeouts in 122-2/3 innings.

Then came Ball Four. Bouton’s chronicle of his 1969 season, from the behind-the-scenes stories of his teammates, managers and other MLB players to his struggle to stay in the majors, ignited a firestorm within baseball hierarchy. From Mantle’s off-field exploits to amphetamine usage to unflattering portrayals of the Pilots’ manager and coaches, nothing was held back. Bouton was called to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office, who tried to make the pitcher say that the book was a work of fiction. Opposing players derided him and columnists ripped him. Pete Rose screamed “Fuck you, Shakespeare!” at him. (I’m assuming that was the only writer Rose knew, because the comparison isn’t that accurate, honestly). Bouton later recalled that the Padres left a burnt copy of Ball Four in the clubhouse when the Astros visited.

In the midst of all that, Bouton was still trying to succeed as a pitcher. He won 4 games for Houston in 29 appearances, including 6 starts. However, he also lost 6 games, his ERA was a career-worst 5.40, and his WHIP was 1.595, also the worst of his career. He abruptly retired in midseason.after a demotion to the minors and joined the Pat Pavers, a semi-pro team in New Jersey competing in the Bridgetown Invitational Baseball Tournament. It was a homecoming of sorts for Bouton, who lived there with his family before moving to Chicago. He beat the Washington Black Sox, but he was rocked while doing so.

“A neat 13-hitter!” he said with a laugh after the game. “I was nervous. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. And I wanted to help these guys stay in the tournament.”

Bouton was unapologetic for the furor the book caused. “I still am glad I wrote the book,” he said after his meeting with Kuhn. “I honestly think it’ll be an important book. I had something to say and I won’t apologize for any of it.”

Out of baseball, Bouton had many projects. He was a sports broadcaster, an actor and public speaker. He authored other books, both fiction and non-fiction. He did attempt a couple of late-career comebacks as a knuckleballer. In 1975, he joined the Portland Mavericks, one of the last independent minor league teams before the current independent baseball renaissance. The Mavericks, owned by actor Bing Russell and featuring his actor son, Kurt, were featured in the excellent documentary “Battered Bastards of Baseball.” Bouton was 36 and pitching in the A-ball Northwest League, and he was unsurprisingly pretty excellent. He went 4-1 in 5 starts, with a 2.20 ERA. The comeback didn’t last long. The Mavericks were too weird to last in the regimented world of professional baseball for too long, and the Bouton experiment didn’t last past those games.

Then in 1977, when Bouton was 38, he came back again. He signed with the White Sox, who were owned by Bill Veeck at the time. Once again, Bouton hooked up with one of the few people in baseball who had a similarly quirky career. Bouton wasn’t particularly good in the White Sox organization, but he was able to latch on with the Braves in 1978. The Braves had Ted Turner as an owner — yet another baseball iconoclast. He started the year with Savannah Braves and won 11 games with a 2.82 ERA. It wasn’t the same old magic that he had as a young Yankee, but it was enough that he returned to the major leagues after an eight-year absence.

Bouton wipes away tears during his return to Yankee Stadium, at the 1998 Old-Timer’s Day. Source: The Herald News, July 26, 1998.

The most notable thing about Bouton’s 5-game stay with the Braves was that, for a time, Phil Niekro was no longer the team’s oldest knuckleballer. Niekro was born about a month after Bouton. Bouton couldn’t match Niekro’s success though. He threw three no-hit innings in his first game against the Dodgers on September 10, 1978, but he ended up giving up 5 runs in the fourth inning. The Dodgers’ Reggie Smith called the performance a “joke.”

“At some point, [Ted] Turner is going to have to stop making fun of this game,” he added.

Bouton defeated the Giants in his next start, allowing an unearned run in 6 innings. He ended the year with a 1-3 record and 4.97 ERA. He announced his final retirement that December, declaring that he had nothing left to prove in the game.

For his career, which lasted 10 seasons, Bouton had a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA. He appeared in 304 games, 144 of which were starts, and he had 34 complete games, 11 shutouts and 6 saves. He struck out 720 batters and walked 435.

Bouton settled into a career of being Jim Bouton, but baseball still shunned him for the most part. He made a return to Yankee Stadium under bittersweet circumstances. His daughter, Laurie, was killed in a car accident in 1997. It took a terrible toll on Bouton, and his son Michael published a letter in the New York Times in 1998 asking the Yankees to invite his father to the annual Old-Timers Day. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was touched by the letter, and Bouton was welcomed back to a loud ovation from the fans.

“I looked out the window this morning and saw the sun shining and said, ‘Thanks Laurie,’ he said before the game. “I knew she was gonna have a nice day for this.”

There’s a wonderful story about how he coped with his late-life illness thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife, Nancy Kurman. Give this a read, if you have the time. Bouton and Kurman, a speech therapist, worked hand-in-hand to bring him back from his stroke and to help him cope with his memory loss. They made an amazing team.


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