Friday night’s win in Philadelphia kept the Brewers from entering the record book as having the worst monthly record in the history of the organization. Instead, after finishing May 6-22 (a winning percentage of .214), the Brewers simply slunk into infamy beside the 1969 Seattle Pilots, who finished their August an equally horrendous 6-22. The Seattle Pilots, marred by extremely low attendance due to poor weather and the team’s even poorer performance, finished the season with a record of 64-98 and didn’t survive to see a second season in Seattle. Instead, Bud Selig swept in, moved the Pilots to Milwaukee, and re-branded them as the Brewers. Normally, this would be nothing more than a blip on the radar of baseball, but, because of Jim Bouton, it became something much, much bigger.
In the early ‘60s, Jim Bouton, who earned the nickname “Bulldog” for the intensity he brought to the mound, was a workhorse for the Yankees. He won a World Series with them in 1962. In 1963, he went 21-7, with a 2.53 ERA, and was an All-Star. He led the league by making 37 starts (18-13 with a 3.02 ERA) in 1964. But, when the mid-60’s rolled around, everything changed.
Jim Bouton lost velocity on his fastball. Suddenly, his dominating pitch became very hittable. Maybe it was because the Yankees over used him. Maybe it was because Bouton played in an era before there was anything like Tommy John’s Surgery and pitchers with arm issues avoided the trainer’s room, at all costs, for fear of losing their job. In the vernacular of Kenny Powers, Bouton had “lost his pitch”. Except, unlike Kenny Powers, Bouton knew he wasn’t getting it back. To save his baseball career, Bouton took a drastic step and taught himself how to throw the knuckleball.
When 1969 rolled around, Bouton, a seven-year baseball veteran, was only 30 years old and had a family to support. The Yankees had completely given up on him and to say Bouton’s departure from the team wasn’t amicable would be a grave understatement. With his baseball options becoming extremely limited, Bouton, who had befriended sports journalist Leonard Shecter while with the Yankees, began to think about careers outside of baseball. Luckily for Bouton, 1969 was also the year MLB added two new expansion teams – the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots. Looking to pad their roster with veterans, Bouton got a call from the Seattle Pilots. As was normal in that era, Bouton negotiated the contract with the Pilots himself. The most they were willing to pay him for the season was $22,000.
Over the course of the 1969 season, the birth of what is now the Brewers’ organization, Jim Bouton kept detailed notes on anything and everything that occurred. With the guiding hand of editor Leonard Shecter, Bouton wove together his daily journal entries with memories from his previous baseball life with the Yankees. The subsequent book was called Ball Four. It was the first time a MLB player pulled back the curtain on the American pastime and broke the code of silence around the clubhouse. In Bouton’s book, players drank. Players swore. Players cheated on their wives and popped “greenies” before games. They weren’t the perfect idols of Americana that the MLB had tried so hard to make them appear. They were humans.
In Ball Four, Bouton tells stories about Mickey Mantle drinking and Joe Pepitone playing pranks on the Yankee’s athletic trainer. He barely hides his distain for the Pilot’s head coach, Joe Schultz, and pitching coach, Sal Maglie, who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand that the knuckleball was a “feel” pitch. Bouton, who pitched out of the bullpen, insisted that he needed to throw everyday to maintain the feel of his knuckleball. Schultz and Maglie disagreed and told Bouton that, if he threw every day, he would hurt his arm. Bouton even documented the first and, perhaps, greatest bit of ridiculous baseball analysis from Joe Morgan, who eloquently explained the difference between the two types of curveballs.
Of course, Bouton also writes about his experiences with the Pilots during that fateful month of August 1969. The last time the current Brewers’ organization went 6-22 over the course of a month. On August 11, Bouton quips that the team might not be playing well, right now, but they probably throw the “best around-the-horn in the league”. After the Pilots lost three out of their next four games, they hit rock bottom. On Sunday, August 17th, the Pilots lose 40-0 in the annual Father-and-Son game. Bouton overhears Sibby Sisti, a Pilots coach, wonder how their kids could drop 40 runs on them “and nobody gets knocked down”. By August 19th, Bouton is in the bullpen in Seattle and staring at the sparse crowd. Bouton, and the rest of the bullpen, decide that the type of person who comes to see the first place Orioles pound the Pilots are probably the same type of people who “went to see the lions eat the Christians”.
When Ball Four was released, in 1970, it created a firestorm of controversy. MLB Commission, Bowie Kuhn, called the book “detrimental to baseball”. The Yankees, in essence, blacklisted Jim Bouton within the organization and refused to invite him to the Old-Timers’ Game at Yankee Stadium. A wrong that was righted nearly thirty years after the publication of Ball Four and an experience Bouton describes in great, emotional detail in the book’s new, additional chapters. Bouton has added three chapters to the book (Ball Five, Ball Six, and Ball Seven) in the years since its publication. These subsequent chapters update the reader on Bouton’s life since he left baseball or, more appropriately, since MLB left him. Besides revealing that he was one of the inventors of Big League Chew, the new chapters also contain some of the book’s most emotional material.
I doubt that the Brewers 6-22 month of May will lead to anything as interesting or revolutionary to the game as Ball Four. But I can say that, if you’re a fan of the game, this book is a must read. Jim Bouton may have been a stubborn, contrarian smartass who wasn’t afraid to hide his wit and intelligence during an era when a common baseball trope was, “Quit thinking, you’re hurting the club.”
But Bouton was observant, honest, and loved the game of baseball with all his heart. As is evident by the pitch-perfect last sentence of Ball Four —
“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.”
Bouton, Jim, and Leonard Shecter. Ball Four; My Life and Hard times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues. New York: World Pub., 1970. Print.