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Ball Four by Jim Bouton

July 24, 2015

Ball Four has long been considered a highly controversial book – Bouton says it was banned in some places – and essential reading for any baseball fan. It’s also been included on some prominent lists, such as the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books Of The Century and Time Magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction books of all-time. I was kind of expecting the book to blow my mind, but reading it for the first time in 2015 probably doesn’t have nearly the same affect it would have reading it in the late 1960s and early 70s. We live in an age saturated with media exposure where practically nothing is sacred. In a decade where Jose Canseco released his tell-all book Juiced, steroid use amongst MLB players has been exposed, and candid athlete biographies are commonplace – including Jane Leavy’s excellent biography of Mickey Mantle The Last BoyBall Four feels tame by comparison.

But in the late 1960s, things were quite a bit different and Bouton’s book detailing his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, as well as his past career with the New York Yankees, shocked the world. Ball Four is notorious for talking about players use of “greenies,” or amphetimines, as a performance-enhancing drug and for “beaver-shooting,” a specific reference to players trying to look up women’s skirts and womanizing in general. Bouton’s description of the rampant PED use is evidence enough that players of past generations probably shouldn’t be looking down upon the steroid use of recent MLB players and the current Hall Of Fame shuns are bordering on hypocritical. Perhaps the biggest backlash from Ball Four was Bouton’s chronicling of Mickey Mantle’s drinking, something most baseball fans recognize as common knowledge these days. After the publishing of Ball Four, Bouton was shunned by the baseball world for some time and by the Yankees, in particular, for decades.

Listening to Jim Bouton read his own book on Audible was a pretty fun experience. It was definitely the least professional performance I’ve heard so far, but that’s to be expected from a former baseball player. You can hear Bouton swallowing and making all sorts of mouth noises throughout the reading, something you almost never hear from the professional dictators. On the other hand, Bouton gets to relive his stories and you can hear the emotion in his retelling, often accompanied by fits of laughter mid sentence.

My version of Ball Four was accompanied by several additions to the original text, including the tragic death of Bouton’s daughter, a truly heartbreaking and almost unbearable sequence to listen to, Bouton’s post-MLB baseball career, and finally his return to Yankee Stadium for Old Timer’s Day after his son publishes a letter in the newspaper on Father’s Day pleading for the Yankees to lift their ban on Bouton. I powered through these sections even though part of me felt they were mostly unnecessary additions to the original text. Bouton’s personal life certainly wasn’t what made Ball Four so compelling. Regardless, I can confirm Ball Four as essential baseball reading, although in 2015 it’s not quite the shocker it was back when it was originally published.

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