'Ball Four' still an American classic

Jim Bouton published "Ball Four" in 1970. The book was so controversial -- players cheated on their wives, used greenies and dealt with moronic coaches and managers -- that commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying the book wasn't true.

The book still holds up all these years later. If you've never read it, do so. If you've read it before, it's worth reading again. I've been going through it recently and the most interesting aspect now is the insight into a time when the game was so much smaller -- and yet bigger, in some ways -- than it is now. Bouton's book chronicled his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots (he was traded to the Astros in August) and his ongoing battle to perfect his knuckleball, his rag-tag collection of teammates and manager Joe Schultz, who was fond of telling his team things such as, "Okay men, up and at 'em. Get that old Budweiser."

Here are five short passages from the book, a look into baseball from 1969:


Big meeting before the game about personal appearances and autograph signing. It was proposed that we charge no less than $100 for any personal appearance and no less than $100 an hour for autograph-signing sessions. I said I didn't think it was a very good idea because it would work a hardship on the lesser-known player who could not command such a large fee. A player like Harper or Mincher or Davis might get that kind of money but a Gus Gil or a John Gelnar, guys who might be offered $25 or $50 for an appearance, might never get any shots at all.

Somehow I don't think Jacoby Ellsbury has to worry about an extra $50 here and there. Bouton also writes of the contract squabbles with management, trying to get a couple more thousand dollars after a good season, or the hardships suffered when sent to the minors or traded and you have to move a family when you're not making all that much money. When the money in today's game hardly seems real, it's a glimpse back at a time when ballplayers were still your neighbors.


At dinner Don Mincher, Marty Pattin and I discussed greenies. They came up because O'Donoghue had just received a season supply of 500. "They ought to last a month," I said.

Mincher was a football player in high school and he said, "If I had greenies in those days I'd have been something else."

"Minch, how many major-league ballplayers do you think take greenies?" I asked. "Half? More?"

"Hell, a lot more than half," he said. "Just about the whole Baltimore team takes them. Most of the Tigers. Most of the guys on this club. And that's just what I know for sure."

How much did greenies help? Bouton wrote that many players couldn't function without them. Of course, he also that wrote that they made you feel so good that your fastball felt faster than it actually was and you'd throw it down the middle and get pounded.


Carl Yastrzemski was recently fined $500 for loafing and I've been keeping an eye on him. Sure enough, he hit a ball to second base today and loafed all the way to first. I'm afraid Yastrzemski has a bit of dog in him. Always did, and people around baseball knew it all the time. When things are going good Yastrzemski will go all out. When things aren't going so well he'll give a half-ass effort. But he's got so much ability that the only thing you can do is put up with him.

I asked a few of the Red Sox if they thought he deserved the fine and thought they would defend him. But they said, "He deserved it all the way."

Bouton also referred to Roger Maris, his teammate with the Yankees, as one of the great non-hustlers of all time. Just remember this when people say things like guys played harder back in the old days.

Lou Piniella

Although we won the game Joe Schultz wasn't impressed. There were a couple of minor dumb plays, so Joe had a meeting on the bus. One of the things he was upset about was that one of the guys asked, "Who do we play tomorrow?"

Said Joe: "Boys, if you don't know who you're going to play you don't have your head in the game."

The guy who asked the question was Lou Piniella, and now he knows what Joe meant by "Many are called, few are chosen." Goodbye, Lou.

That happened in spring training. Piniella was a 25-year-old rookie, taken from Cleveland in the expansion draft. The Pilots ended up trading him to Kansas City before the season for John Gelnar and Steve Whitaker. Piniella went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. If you get the idea the Pilots weren't a well-managed ballclub, you are correct. (In fact, they were still putting finishes touches on upgrades to Sick's Stadium on Opening Day.) The Pilots would average just 8,268 fans per game, topping 20,000 just twice. As low as that seems, they still outdrew the Indians, White Sox, Phillies and Padres. Twelve of the 24 teams drew fewer than one million fans.


After the game Joe Schultz said, "Attaway to stomp 'em, men. Pound that Budweiser into you and go get 'em tomorrow." Then he spotted Gelnar sucking out of a pop bottle. "For crissakes Gelnar," Joe Schultz said. "You'll never get them out drinking Dr. Pepper."

The fact that Bouton wrote about major league ballplayers spending a lot of their spare time getting soused was just one reason Kuhn was so livid with the book.

At its heart, however, the book is about a guy trying to hang on for one more season, trying to survive throwing this goofy pitch that nobody believes in. Despite all of Bouton's cynicism, there is also an ever-present love for the game, or at least the love of the competition, even if the game doesn't always love you back.