Jim Bouton, a former major league pitcher and one of my literary heroes, died last week at the age of 80 after battling a form of dementia. Sports fans and discerning readers will remember him as the bestselling author of Ball Four, a diary of his attempt to make it back to the majors as a knuckleball pitcher with the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969—and the funniest nonfiction book I’ve ever read (Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, is the funniest novel).
A free thinker surrounded by old-school muscleheads, a new breed of hippie athlete, and out-and-out goofballs, Bouton described his comeback year with the driest wit—and it’s that understated humor in the face of authority that stuck with me most. In Bouton’s eyes a major league coaching staff is where innovation goes to die, where nobody makes waves, and where “We’ve always done it that way” is carved in stone. His observations not only made me laugh out loud but helped me start to grasp the idea that people who wield power are not necessarily right all the time, or, for that matter, very much of the time.
Ball Four introduced me to the concept of “flakes,” ballplayers who did goofy things for no apparent reason. It was in the spirit of flakiness that I and two other marching band members once climbed to the roof of the press box at the Fountain Central High School football field and played an all-trombone version of “Woodchoppers Ball.”
Because Ball Four combined two of my favorite things—baseball and great writing—I became a Jim Bouton fan and read everything else he ever published. None of it matched the iconic status of Ball Four but all of it was witty and Boutonesque. He had worn #56 through his baseball career (a high number given to spring training invitees who weren’t necessarily expected to make the club), so in later years I wore the same number in coed rec-league softball, always half-expecting to engage with another Bouton fan but never, alas, doing so.
One last reason for this Hat Tip: When I completed the first draft of my Nerf basketball novel and realized what a great debt it owed to Ball Four, I emailed Jim Bouton and asked if he’d be willing to read it and give me some feedback. He declined politely, but by golly the fact that he declined at all put him miles ahead of any other artist or author I’ve ever contacted.
RIP, Mr Bouton. And to readers who aren’t familiar with Ball Four, I would suggest checking out your local independent bookstore and ordering it straightaway.