2:03pm

Thu April 26, 2012
NPR Story

'Ball Four': The Book That Changed Baseball

Originally published on Fri April 27, 2012 12:53 pm

Fifty years ago, a young pitcher won his first major league game for the New York Yankees. Jim Bouton went on to become a top-flight player.

But he became famous, or notorious, for Ball Four, a memoir that described the petty jealousies on the team, as well as camaraderie, raucous tomcatting, game-winning heroics, routine drug use and the pain professional athletes endure.

The book broke the code of silence that kept what really happened in the locker room, on the bus and on the road off-limits. It also contained an immortal line: "You spend your life gripping a baseball," Jim Bouton wrote, "and it turns out that it was the other way around all along."

NPR's Neal Conan talks with Bouton about the controversy that erupted when Ball Four was published, and the invention of Big League Chew bubble gum.


On his larger-than-life teammate, Mickey Mantle

"He had enormous appetites for, you know, for everything, including competing and being the, you know, the greatest home-run hitter he could be. And he was a great teammate. Everybody loved Mickey Mantle.

"He was a practical joker, always pulling stunts in the clubhouse. My rookie year, he went around the clubhouse, and he was raffling off a Smithfield ham. He was talking about how great this ham would taste. And we all put, you know, 2 bucks into the hat or something like that, and we got a number. And then he drew the numbers, and it was my number. I don't know if this is a rookie setup or not, but I went over to his locker and I said, 'Hey, Mick. Hey, I got the winning number here. Where's the ham?' He said, 'Well, there is no ham.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Well, that's one of the hazards of a game of chance.' "

On the controversial story he wrote about Mantle in Ball Four

"I think the big deal was, I said Mickey Mantle had a home run with a hangover. And, you know, it was more of a story about what a great hitter he was, what a great player he was.

"We have been out the night before, having a few drinks, and Mickey came to the clubhouse the next day, and he was a little hung over. So, you know, Ralph Houk said, 'Don't worry about it. Sleep it off in the trainer's room. We'll put somebody else in center field.' Anyway, the game goes extra innings. We need a pinch-hitter in the 10th. Somebody went to wake up the Mick. He comes out, put a bat in his hands. He walks up to home plate, takes one practice swing and hits the first pitch into the left field bleachers, a tremendous blast.

"Guys are going nuts. He comes over, crosses home plate. Actually, he missed home plate. We have to send him back for that. He comes over to the dugout, and he looks up in the stands, and he says, those people don't know how tough that really was. Then after the game, the sportswriter said, 'Mick, how did you that?' ... And he said, 'Well, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.' "

On inventing Big League Chew

"I was pitching in a bullpen with a minor league team, Class A. Guys were chewing tobacco, and they were getting sick, and one of the kids on the bench, a guy by the name of Rob Nelson, says, 'Too bad there isn't something that looks like tobacco but tastes good like gum.' I said, 'Hey, that's a great idea. Shredded gum in a pouch, call it Big League Chew, sell to it every ballplayer in America.'

"We didn't think anything more of it. The season ends, I go home, and I finally called this kid, Rob. I said, 'Hey, I think there's a business here.' I said, 'I'll put up the money. We'll hire a lawyer and see if we can sell this idea to a gum company.'

"... Big League Chew immediately was a big hit, and it's still selling after all these years, and we received a health and safety award from Collegiate Baseball Magazine for creating the first healthy alternative to chewing tobacco."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Fifty years ago, a young right-hander won his first major league game for the New York Yankees. Jim Bouton would go on to become a top-flight ball player for a while, but became famous, or notorious, as the author of "Ball Four," a memoir that described the petty jealousies on the team as well as camaraderie, raucous tomcatting along with game-winning heroics, routine drug use as well as the pain professional athletes endure. The book broke the code of silence that kept what really happened in the locker room, on the bus and on the road off limits, and it contained an immortal line. You spend your life gripping a baseball, Jim Bouton wrote, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.

If you have questions for Jim Bouton about an eventful life on and off the field, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web page. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jim Bouton joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us.

JIM BOUTON: Hi, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And what do you remember about that game 50 years ago?

BOUTON: All I remember, I had 35 people in the stands.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOUTON: Passes for7 my parents, my brothers, neighbors, friends. And I walked the first batter, and then I walked to second batter, and then I walked to third batter, and they started warming up guys in the bullpen. I had three and one on the fourth batter. And I throw a pitch that was a little bit above the belt and Ralph Houk stepped out of the dugout to come get me. But the umpire called a strike. I got another pitch. He popped it up. I got out of the inning, and they end up pitching a complete game shut out. It was the worst shut out in the history of baseball. I gave up seven walks, seven hits. And when the game was over, Ralph Houk said, any more shut outs like that and we're going to need a new bullpen

CONAN: Scattered seven walks and seven outs, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOUTON: Yeah, right.

CONAN: You wrote in the book, though, as you came into the clubhouse, there was the biggest star on the team, the great Mickey Mantle, spreading towels in a path to your locker.

BOUTON: Yes, this is unbelievable. I was delayed in the dugout because I had to do a little, you know, a little chat with Red Barber there. And then when I opened the clubhouse door, which is about, you know, five minutes after the game, I saw a path of white towels leading from the door over to my locker. And I didn't understand what was happening, and then I saw that Mickey was in front of my locker and he was laying down the last towel, so I get the white carpet treatment from the Mick.

CONAN: This is an extraordinary team that has gone into legend - they would've anyway - but your book didn't hurt. But there were any number of hall of famers on that team, and none more central to the American ideal, I guess, or set of ideals and failure to live up to them, as Mickey Mantle.

BOUTON: Well, he was just one of these bigger than life characters. He had enormous appetites for, you know, for everything, including competing and being the, you know, the greatest homerun hitter he could be. He was - and he was a great teammate. Everybody loved Mickey Mantle. He was a practical joker, always pulling stunts in the clubhouse. My rookie year, he went around the clubhouse, and he was raffling off a Smithfield ham. He was talking about how great this ham would taste. And we all put, you know, two bucks into the hat or something like that, and we got a number. And then he drew the numbers, and it was my number. I don't know if this is a rookie set up or not, but I went over to his locker and I said, hey, Mick. Hey, I got the winning number here. Where's the ham? He said, well, there is no ham. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, that's one of the hazards of a game of chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I think, though, that the things you talked about in the book - we mentioned breaking those barriers - the resentment about what you had to say about Mickey Mantle was, I think, what drove people the craziest.

BOUTON: Well, I think the big deal was I said Mickey Mantle had a homerun with a hangover. And, you know, it was more of a story about what a great, you know, hitter he was, what a great player he was. We have been out the night before, having a few drinks, and Mickey came to the clubhouse the next day and he was a little hung over. So, you know, Ralph Houk said don't worry about it. Sleep it off in the trainer's room. We'll put somebody else in center field. Anyway, the game goes extra innings. We have to - we need to pinch-hitter on the tenth. Somebody went to wake up the Mick. He comes out, put a bat in his hands. He walks up to home plate, takes one practice swing, and hits the first pitch into the left field bleachers, a tremendous blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOUTON: Guys are going nuts. He comes over, crosses home plate. Actually, he missed home plate. We have to send him back for that. He comes over to the dugout, and he looks up in the stands, and he says, those people don't know how tough that really was. Then after the game, the sportswriter said, Mick, how did you that? You couldn't even see up there - one of the players said that. And he said, well, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah. I'm not sure they printed that, though.

BOUTON: They may not have printed that. In those days, they didn't print those kinds of things.

CONAN: After your career as a player was over - well, it was sort of in mid-career, you came back later. But anyway - but after your career with the Yankees was over and you'd published the book, you got hired as a reporter, a sportscaster, for "Eyewitness News," Channel 7 in New York and later for Channel 2. What was it like to go back into the locker room?

BOUTON: Well, it wasn't easy. I remember my first spring training, you know, the local TV sports guy would also have to go down the spring training, and then - and cover the Mets and cover the Yankees. And so my first day at the Yankees' spring training, they wouldn't let me in through the fence, and I couldn't interview the players. I wasn't allowed on the field. Fortunately, my old roommate Fritz Peterson was on the Yankees, and he had the nerve to go down the right field line, and I did an interview with Fritz through a chain link fence.

CONAN: There was eventually reconciliation.

BOUTON: Yes, there was, but it's, you know, it's a sad story about how it occurred. About 1996, Billy's - Mickey's son Billy passed away. I saw it in the newspaper, and I wrote him a note. I said, you know, I had a nice memory of Billy, a polite little boy running around the clubhouse in spring training. And then I also said to him, I said, you know, I hope you're feeling OK about "Ball Four" these days. I never, you know, intended to hurt anybody and, you know, I always considered it an honor to be your teammate.

And I never expected to hear from him. I just wanted to have this note from me. And, you know, Mickey's not the kind of guy that reaches out easily. But three weeks later, I walk into my office and my secretary is standing there and she said, there's a message on your machine, but I want you to play it for yourself. I went over there and I pressed the button, and it was Mickey. Hey, Jim. This is Mick. Thanks for your note about Billy. I appreciate it. And I'm OK about "Ball Four" these days. It never did bother me that much. And one more thing. I'm not the reason you don't get invited back to Old Timer's Day. He said, I heard that going around, he said, that never happened. I never said that. Anyway, thanks for your note. I appreciate it.

And that was it. So that was sort of a reconciliation that we had there because of that. And then what happened is the year later, my daughter Laurie was killed in an automobile accident. And a year after that, my son Michael wrote a letter to The New York Times saying that the Yankees should let bygones be bygones, that it was 28 years of being banned from Old Timer's Day and that Old Timer's Day was always a time for families, and we had a very big loss in our family, and my dad could use all the hugs he can get right now. It was a beautiful letter. The New York Times ran it as a Father's Day piece.

And about 10 days later, I got a call from the Yankees inviting me back to Old Timer's Day for the first time in all those years. Then, you know, when they call you out to the foul line and you go out and line up with your teammates - I'm out there and, you know, when they called my name, you know, I could hardly stand up, I think. You know, there was a big roar of the crowd and then I didn't hear anything. I was afraid I was going to fall down. It was that much emotion going on. And when I got out on the foul line there, I took a look up in the right field bleachers in the upper deck. I had left a bunch of tickets for Laurie's girlfriends. And when I looked up there, they unfurled this huge banner that I could see all the way from first base. And it said, we love Laurie. And, boy, what a moment that was.

CONAN: Jim Bouton is our guest, the author of "Ball Four," "Ball Five," "Ball Six." And was it - there's one more final chapter that wraps them all up?

BOUTON: Well, it's "Ball Four: The Final Pitch." It's - that's the one that's an e-book now. It's the original book in 1970, plus three updates: one in '80, one in 1990 and one in 2000. And I've also read the book, by the way, for Audible, so audible.com has "Ball Four" read by me.

CONAN: Get a caller on the line. Rob is on the line from Baton Rouge.

ROB: Hey, Neal. Hey, Jim. I was a little leaguer, growing up in Mississippi, Jim, when you were pitching for the Yankees there. So you were a young man but you are a hero of mine. So - but what I wanted to comment on was I just finished listening to "Ball Four" just the other day. And I never read the book, but I'm so glad I listened to it because I love the - your voice quality. But what I really like was the way you would start chuckling when you start telling the funny parts, and then I'd start laughing. And so I really got a kick out with that. But the most touching thing was your - when you started talking about what happened to Laurie. And I'm kind of getting emotional now, you'd start crying. And boy, it really moved me. And so I'm very sorry about the loss of your daughter. But, you know, you're a great guy. Hope to meet you someday.

BOUTON: Well, I appreciate that. Listen, if I'm ever, you know, in a bookstore or anywhere you see me that I'm there, please come over and say hello.

ROB: Thanks, Jim.

CONAN: Thanks for call, Rob. Jim Bouton is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get Matthew on the line. Matthew with us from Bakersfield.

MATTHEW: Hi. Jim?

BOUTON: Yeah?

MATTHEW: I read your book in '69 when I was a freshman baseball player, and then I went to a football camp at UC Santa Cruz before my senior year. And they put us through all these really rough football stuff, and I was learning about it. Well, we had a curfew and we were locked in our dorm, and outside our dorm window were these UC Santa Cruz co-eds skinny dipping in the pool. So we jumped out the window, and we went to join them. And all of a sudden, cops come from all directions in their cars and red lights were flashing, and we scrambled to put our pants on and we went back to find our dorm was locked.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MATTHEW: And the football coaches were furious, and they got us in this room at 1 o'clock in the morning. They're chewing us out, telling us they're going to call our parents, and they're going to call our coaches and get us kicked off the high school football team and we're going to be sent on the Greyhound back. And we better pack our bags. And I leaned forward and I said, Jim Bouton wrote about the Yankees scrambling above the roof of the Shaw Hotel, looking through windows trying to find naked girls. And the coach looked at me and he stopped, he goes, you're probably the smartest guy that's ever attended here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MATTHEW: So, they didn't kick us out, and they gave me a trophy. And on the way back on the bus, I found out that someone had mixed up my pants and put an expensive wristwatch in there. So, Jim, you are a great guy, and you saved a bunch of high school football players.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOUTON: Thank you very much. You should've been keeping notes.

MATTHEW: I was. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Matthew. Let's go next to - this is Hillary(ph), and Hillary's with us from Salt Lake City.

HILLARY: Hello?

CONAN: Hi.

HILLARY: Hi. Hi, Jim.

BOUTON: Hi, Hillary.

HILLARY: This is Hillary Silverman calling, Jimmy Silverman's daughter.

BOUTON: Ah, yes. I think I know this young lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HILLARY: How are you? I don't think I've seen you since probably my father's funeral in 1984.

BOUTON: Yeah, wow. You know, I still miss him. I still miss him. I think about him, you know, a lot.

HILLARY: Yeah, you know, it's funny. I was driving into work, and I heard you're going to be on TALK OF THE NATION, and it just brought tears to my eyes, and I thought, oh, my gosh, I have to try to call in and say hello. And I've often wondered where you were. We lost touched and, you know, I would love to stay in touch with you. I don't know if there's a way to get your contact info after.

CONAN: Hillary, hang on and we'll get you an email or a phone number you can use.

HILLARY: That's wonderful. And I have to tell you, I have a son, an 11-year-old son and whenever we go to the store anywhere and we see Big League Chew, I always tell him about you and my dad and Big League Chew, and he loves to buy it, and it's just really special.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Hillary, thanks very much for the call. We'll put you on hold and get something for you.

HILLARY: All right. Thank you.

BOUTON: Thanks, Hillary.

HILLARY: Bye.

CONAN: Big League Chew, that was the product, the bubblegum that was cut up to look like chewing tobacco.

BOUTON: Yes, it was invented in the bullpen when I was making my comeback to baseball eight years after "Ball Four" came out. And I was playing - pitching in a bullpen with a minor league team, class A. Guys were chewing tobacco, and they were getting sick, and one of the kids on the bench, a guy by the name of Rob Nelson, says, too bad there isn't something that looks like tobacco but tastes good like gum. I said, hey, that's a great idea. Shredded gum in a pouch, call it Big League Chew, sell to it every ball player in America.

We didn't think anything more of it. The season ends, I go home and I finally called this kid, Rob. I said, hey, I think, there's a business here. I said, I'll put up the money. We'll hire a lawyer and see if we can sell this idea to a gum company. Well, the lawyer we hired was Hillary's father, Jimmy Silverman. And in any case, Big League Chew immediately was a big hit, and it's still selling after all these years and it - we received a health and safety award from Collegiate Baseball Magazine for creating the first healthy alternative to chewing tobacco.

CONAN: Probably selling more of that than chewing tobacco these days, at least, we hope so.

BOUTON: I doubt that, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: When was the last time you warmed up?

BOUTON: Yesterday.

CONAN: You still pitch?

BOUTON: I still pitch. I pitch in two leagues. One is a regular hardball league and the other is vintage baseball, baseball played by 19th century rules, and that's a lot of fun. And I play with guys in their 30s and, you know, I get them out even though I'm in my 70s because of the knuckleball.

CONAN: The vintage game, that enabled the batter to ask where the pitch should be.

BOUTON: Yes, it was a batter. It was a batter-centered game, and you had to throw it in the zone where the batter wanted it, you know? But...

CONAN: Has your control improved any over 50 years?

BOUTON: No. I just throw the knuckleball up there, and it's so slow. It looks tempting, you know? It looks tempting. They think they're going to hit it nine miles and, of course, they take a big swing and it moves a little bit. Now, it's a pop-up.

CONAN: And the knuckleball, it's one of those things that, you know, if anybody could give you another chance, you know, Mariano Rivera is 42 years old.

BOUTON: That's true. I think it's too late for him to learn the knuckleball. But on the other hand, I'm throwing a pretty good one. I don't know how, you know, desperate they have become but - over the state.

CONAN: If the general manager of a major league team would like to give us a call, we'll give them Jim Bouton's contact information too.

BOUTON: I'll have them talk to my people.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much, and good luck in your leagues.

BOUTON: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Jim Bouton retired, all-star major league pitcher. He played 10 seasons for the Yankees, the Braves and other teams. He's re-released "Ball Four" as an e-book 50 years after his first win as a Yankee. You can find an excerpt on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ira Flatow will be here with a look at a new play, "Headstrong," that tackles the subject of sports and concussions. Plus, a look at new venture to mine asteroid. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program