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Jim Bouton: The ballplayer who changed the rules

The author of ‘Ball Four’ taught us all that ‘games are just games.’
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 1964 file photo, New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton takes aim as he holds two balls in the right hand that his teammates hope will lead them to victory in the sixth World Series game in New York. Jim Bouton, the New York Yankees pitcher who shocked the conservative baseball world with the tell-all book "Ball Four," has died, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. He was 80.(AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 1964 file photo, New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton takes aim as he holds two balls in the right hand that his teammates hope will lead them to victory in the sixth World Series game in New York. Jim Bouton, the New York Yankees pitcher who shocked the conservative baseball world with the tell-all book "Ball Four," has died, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. He was 80.(AP Photo/File)
Published Jul. 12, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG – Jim Bouton, pitcher, author, all-time baseball rebel, died Wednesday. He was 80.

My bookshelves contain his masterpiece, between the Baseball Encyclopedia and The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s moving elegy to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ball Four.


Related: RELATED: Jim Bouton dies

Bouton’s tell-all baseball memoir, published in 1970, remains the most important sports book ever written. It was one reason why I wanted to become a writer. It was so alive, full of insight and insanity — and fun. God, it was fun.

I remember speaking to Bouton in 1998, when he had been invited back to Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. “The Bulldog,” who won 21 games for the Yankees one season, hadn’t been asked back since his book.

The chief suspects seemed to be Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Mickey Mantle. But a letter from Bouton’s youngest son, Michael, to the New York Times that summer changed all that. It spoke of Jim Bouton’s daughter, Laurie, dying in an accident, and how life is too short. Bouton received an invite to Old Timers Day and went.

Related: Related: It took a tragedy to end Jim Bouton's exile

“Baseball is just baseball,” Jim Bouton said.

Bouton dared to say that nearly 50 years ago. If you hate Ball Four, you never really read it. If you loved it, your copy is dog-eared. Bouton’s irreverence taught us that ballplayers, athletes, all of us, are human. It was by no means a sports book.

It upended heroes like Mantle. It brought them down to scale. It opened up baseball’s closed society. It spared no one, including the author. It gave us window into a 30-year-old pitcher trying to hang on. It remains a nonstop read.

Bouton was labeled a baseball pariah, a social leper. Ball Four was not Mein Kampf, but it might as well have been in baseball clubhouses. That said, people have been trying to write Ball Four ever since Ball Four. Some have died trying.

Bouton’s knuckleball approach helped carry me into journalism. Baseball was just baseball. Games were just games. People were just people. It was an important lesson.

Jim Bouton was my hero, as much as Mantle. He later became a broadcaster and wrote Ball Four sequels as he kept trying to scratch an itch in semipro baseball. He was an interesting cat. When I talked to him, he had just taken up masonry.

“I’m the last guy who should be throwing up walls,” Bouton said.

When Mickey Mantle’s son died in 1994, Bouton sent Mantle a note. Mantle called to thank Bouton and left a message. Bouton kept the recording. It outlived Mantle, who died in 1995. Life is too short.

James Alan Bouton didn’t build walls. He opened doors. We’re better because of it. I kept that in my mind every time I wrote a story. Keep it loose, keep it funny, but let fly. If I ever begin to wonder why I still love what I do, I go and find Ball Four. The pages still turn themselves. I’m always reminded: Games are just games.

Games are just games.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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