It’s Jim Bouton’s 75th Birthday and Sports Journalism Owes Him A Debt of Gratitude

It’s Jim Bouton’s 75th birthday and for old time baseball fans, Jim Bouton presents a bit of a problem. Bouton was so much more than a pitcher for the New York Yankees, the Seattle Pilots, the Houston Astros and eventually the Atlanta Braves. Bouton lifted the veil on Major League Baseball in his book Ball Four and showed that baseball players were mere human beings and should not have been put on a pedestal.  Bouton also tore open the relationship between baseball writers and baseball and how the baseball writers were little more than extensions of Major League Baseball’s public relations department.

Ball Four, in retrospect, was a benign tale with players complaining about salaries, checking out women and taking greenies. In the 44 years since the publication of the book, baseball players and athletes have shown they are just mere mortals. Baseball had a major cocaine problem in the 1980s and players did jail time because of it, a total of 13 players testified in a Pittsburgh court about cocaine usage in Major League Baseball. Somehow over the years, baseball fans were more forgiving of those players than today’s crop of alleged banned substance users. Willie Mays Aikens, Vida Blue, Jerry Martin and Willie Wilson were all sentenced to three months in prison in the cocaine probe.

No present Major League Baseball player has been sentenced to jail because of alleged banned substance use. In 1998, Mark McGwire admitted using androstenedione, an over-the-counter muscle enhancement product. That substance was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the National Football League, and the International Olympic Committee. While the barons of sports were setting standards and studying what drugs should be banned –not necessarily to protect athletes’ health but sports precious logos—the United States government did not classify andro as an illegal controlled substance until 2004. But baseball writers had convicted McGwire was a “cheater” even though he didn’t “cheat” in the 1998 home run race.

McGwire used a legal substance and never tested positive for banned substances.

Writers never changed their stripes. Bouton and his editor Leonard Shecter were called “social lepers” by New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, a man who was conflicted by his career. Young was taking money from Major League Baseball teams in writing program pieces and promotional material but was also a journalist. Young often sided with the owners and by 1977 was so embedded with baseball ownership that his son-in-law Thornton Geary was working for M. Donald Grant, a minority New York Mets owner, who ran the Mets and wrote some gossip which forced the Mets to trade Tom Seaver. Geary was the Mets “vice president of communications” and cut the Mets first cable TV deal. Young more than likely opened the door for his son-in-law and became a puppet for Grant instead of a journalist.

Today’s writers are in the owners’ corner clearly. They applauded  the McGwire-Sosa home run race in pursuit of breaking Roger Maris’s mark of 61 home runs—it was a “key” to baseball’s renaissance in 1998—but turned on the players and assumed virtually every player was guilty of banned substance abuse unless proven otherwise.

In 1970, Bouton was called into Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office to explain himself. Kuhn, a man who got into major legal trouble later in life, wanted Bouton to sign a statement that Ball Four was a work of fiction. That, of course, could have caused a major problem with the publisher but that wasn’t Kuhn and the owners or the players’ biggest concern. Bouton had violated a sacred trust. What happens in a clubhouse never leaves a clubhouse.

Bouton’s peers didn’t particularly like that he made a record of not only his days with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969 but he also put a hole in Mickey Mantle’s myth. Bouton was a heretic.

Bouton was a former star pitcher who hit professional bottom by the end of the 1960s. He was done as a Major League pitcher in 1970 and ended up getting some acting roles and a television sports presenter and reader. He also wrote more books and returned to the Major Leagues in 1978. But Bouton was estranged from the New York Yankees and the annual Old Timers Day ceremony until 1998. He also settle his differences with Mantle a quarter of a century later even though Mantle in retirement did confirm that Bouton did catch some of his real life instead of Mantle’s perceived perception.

Sports never really was the Elysian Fields that sportswriters created. Bouton ripped the image apart and tore it to shreds in 1970. The baseball writers of that day never could forgive him but Bouton did change the parameters of sports reporting. The sports industry had changed and the scribes needed to learn about strikes, lockouts, arbitration and how elected officials and government became partners in the finance of sports.

The Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike in 1972. Bouton’s book was used as evidence in the Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith arbitration hearing before Peter Seitz that ended the reserve clause in 1976 with McNally and Messersmith becoming free agents.

Bouton will have a lasting legacy in literary circles. Ball Four the only sports-themed book on the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books of the (20th) Century. Ball was also on Time Magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Ball Four opened the door a journalistic door to look at sports as a business and that sports was more than just a game. Most people who follow sports don’t want to know that side but that side overshadows the game. Jim Bouton’s writing skills changed Baseball and sports.

Evan Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489 ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11 ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11 ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/business-politics-sports-selection/id771331977?mt=11 ) are available from e-book distributors globally. 2014 e-book, sports business 2010-14(https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/393652 ). The e-books are available from e-book distributors globally.

 

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