Jim Bouton Interview
Jim Bouton with a copy of Ball Four
July 13, 2019
Former Major League pitcher and celebrated author Jim Bouton died Wednesday, July 10, at the age of 80. No cause of death was reported but Bouton had been suffering from cerebral amyloid angiopathy for some time. Bouton was a member of the Seattle Pilots in their only year of existence, 1969, until he was traded to Houston late in that season, and kept a diary of his time there and with the Astros; he would turn that diary into a best-selling book, "Ball Four," released to acclaim and controversy in 1970. Bowie Kuhn, baseball commissioner at the time, called the book "detrimental to baseball" for its revelations of the less-than-wholesome lifestyle lived by many ballplayers. The book is included in Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of all time. In 2006, Grand Salami publisher Jon Wells interviewed Bouton for the print edition of The Grand Salami during Bouton's visit to Seattle for the annual SABR convention. We re-present that Q&A here in memory of Bouton.
This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Grand Salami.
GRAND SALAMI: Welcome back to Seattle. How often have you been back here since your time with the Pilots, and in your view, how has the city changed since then?
JIM BOUTON: I haven't really had the chance to travel around the city much the last few times I've been to Seattle. Usually when I come in it's just for a day or two. Obviously, the city has more buildings than it did in 1969, but I don't think the character of the city has changed at all. It's still a big city with a small town feel. It's clean, it looks like the people that live here are environmentally conscious. It looks like a city that's been scaled for people, it's a great walking city.
GS: The Pilots lasted just the one season before moving to Milwaukee a few days before the 1970 season. Looking back, what do you think were the Pilots' biggest mistakes?
BOUTON: Instead of going for young players in the expansion draft, they drafted veterans and tried to win the pennant their first year in the league. They preferred veterans—if you didn't chew tobacco, spit, and get your uniform dirty, they didn't want you. They got rid of guys like Lou Piniella and Mike Marshall. That really hurt them.
GS: Your book Ball Four is probably one of the biggest reasons the Seattle Pilots are so beloved so many years after their demise. There were a lot of interesting characters on that Pilots team.
BOUTON: I couldn't have made up the guys on that team. They were like characters out of a novel. That was the beauty of the Pilots; they were older guys and every one of them was a great storyteller. Here they were playing together for the first time, getting to know each other through the exchange of stories. I caught lightning in a bottle. It was as if the baseball commissioner had put this team together thinking, "hey, they might not win many games, but if anyone writes a book it'll be a hell of a story."
GS: Can you talk about Joe Schultz, the Pilots' manager? He's one of the more prominent characters featured in the book.
BOUTON: One time I went in to talk to Joe and I told him I'd like to sit down with him and spend three minutes going over my statistics, what I'd done against certain batters and in certain situations. He said, "I don't want to see your statistics, I can see what's going on with my own eyes." The great thing about Joe was that he was the opposite of Vince Lombardi—Joe felt sorry for us. He told us not to feel bad about losing, that we just didn't have the talent. It wasn't easy trying to win games with the Pilots. We'd try every way possible to win; we'd try jumping off to an early lead, we'd try falling behind and catching up later—that didn't work too well, especially against the Baltimore Orioles (eventual AL champions that year). Another thing I remember: We had just come off a long losing streak in July and we were playing a doubleheader. We knew we were going to lose the second game, we just didn't know what the score would be! So, late in the first game, as a sort of pep talk, Joe looked up and down the bench and said, "Men, between games we have a choice of ham, roast beef, and tuna salad."
GS: You were actually the first Seattle Pilot, acquired from the Yankees during the summer of ’68, months before the Pilots began play. Coming to Seattle turned out to be a great thing for you.
BOUTON: It wasn't a good season to be winning ballgames, but it was a very good season to be writing notes and keeping a diary of all the things Joe Schultz was saying and all the things the players did and what it was like to be in the big leagues. That diary became Ball Four, which was published the following spring.
GS: I understand your fellow players didn't appreciate the book as much as the general pubic did.
BOUTON: No, they did not. Most players had an attitude that is best summed up by what Pete Rose said to me while I was pitching for the Astros in 1970. This was a few weeks after the book had come out and I was in my windup, about to throw the ball, and Rose was standing on the top step of the dugout screaming "Fuck you, Shakespeare!" at me. Which I thought was great, you know, a literary reference from Pete Rose! If the players had actually read Ball Four, the'd have probably realized it was a funny book where the players were the story, but unfortunately most of them didn't read it. Except for a handful of individuals, ballplayers didn't really read books in those days, and Ball Four was over 500 pages.
GS: The book was controversial at the time, but re-reading it recently, it's actually pretty tame.
BOUTON: About the most controversial thing in it was that Mickey Mantle hit a home run with a hangover. It wasn't so much a putdown of Mickey as it was a story of what a great ballplayer he was. The funny thing about that game was to see what they'd put up on the scoreboard to explain why he wasn't [starting] that day. They weren't going to put on the scoreboard that Mickey was out because he was hung over. So we look up there and it says that Mickey Mantle is out with a puled rib cage muscle. We go into extra innings that day and the manager, Ralph Houk, says, "I hate to do it, but I'm gonna need a pinch-hitter in the eleventh inning, somebody go wake up The Mick." We go in the clubhouse, find him on the training table, get him dressed in his uniform, put a bat in his hands, and point him towards home plate. Fortunately, he was a switch-hitter, so no matter which side he stood on it would work. Mickey takes one swing and hits the ball to the center field bleachers, 480 feet away, a tremendous blast. The guys in the dugout were hysterical, laughing, slapping hands, and then we realized that he still had to run around the bases! There's a rule in baseball, you must touch the bases. He heads towards first—thankfully, he was headed in the right direction—and the first-base coach says, "make a left." He touches second, then third, but misses home plate and we have to send him back out there to touch the plate. When we asked Mickey how he was able to hit like that, he said, "It was very simple. I hit the middle ball."
GS: What's your take on steroids and PEDs in baseball?
BOUTON: I think the players taking steroids need to be exposed as the cheaters they are. Baseball bans players for life for gambling, but far more games have been unfairly compromised by [PED] use than by gambling. Some say, why not just call this the Steroid Era, like we had the Dead-ball Era, segregation, and the 154-game schedule. Big difference. During those times, the conditions were the same for everyone. Steroids, on the other hand, provide a secret advantage just to users at the expense of non-users. Records are now distorted beyond belief and something must be done. Baseball should set p a blue-ribbon panel of doctors, trainers, players, and coaches to determine to the best of their abilities what impact [PEDs] have on performance. This will take a few years and a few million dollars that Major League Baseball should be happy to pay just to show the fans that something meaningful is being done about this. Here's how it would work: If, in the judgment of the panel, steroid use causes a 50% increase in home runs, then 50% should be subtracted from the individual home run totals for all players for each year that steroids were used, creating a Steroids Adjusted Number (SAN). In the records, the SAN would appear in parenthesis next to the actual number of home runs hit. What would be the significance of the SAN? Only time will tell. If history shows that the actual number of home runs was not an aberration, then the SAN would disappear, just as time has removed the asterisk next to Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961. But, if history shows that the actual number of home runs was an aberration, they would end up in parenthesis and the SAN would be recognized as the legitimate number.
GS: Wouldn't that be unfair to the players that didn't take steroids?
BOUTON: Maybe, but those players are not entirely without blame. the non-users could have insisted that their union join the owners in a drug testing program that could have proven their innocence. Instead, they allowed their tone-deaf Players' Association to foolishly elevate the players' rights to privacy above their right to fair competition and sound health. The innocent players didn't speak up and now they're playing the price. Better them, though, than the old-timers who set their records without [PEDs]. Future players should have to challenge their records without [PEDs]. It's not a perfect plan, but it would be far better than what we have now. Meanwhile, to prevent the need for future investigations, the owners and players need to put performance-enhancing drugs in the same category as gambling: One strike and you're out.
GS: What about those who say there has always been some form of cheating in the game, like the amphetamine use you described in Ball Four or pitchers throwing spitballs?
BOUTON: Amphetamines, or "greenies" as the were called when I played, weren't performance enhancers. They were performance enablers. They allowed players to play through the effects of a hangover. And yes, Gaylord Perry threw spitballs and that was cheating, but the players all knew he was doing it and could adjust to it. There was basically an unwritten rule in those days that if you could master the spitter and get away with it, more power to you.
GS: It seems here are very few pitchers throwing the knuckleball anymore, far fewer than you were in the big leagues.
BOUTON: There have always been very few knuckleballers, typically about one to three guys at any given time. You go all the way back to Dutch Leonard (who pitched from 1933 to 1953), it's always been one guy, two guys, or three guys. I don't think there's been much variation.
GS: Given the success knuckleballers have had, why do you think there aren't more pitchers throwing the knuckler?
BOUTON: It's an extremely difficult pitch to throw. You need to learn it when you're a child, and how many kids are willing to spend the time necessary to learn to throw that pitch? Most would give up after throwing 500 or so and not having them knuckle like they're supposed to. Only those kids who are obsessed are going to persist until it breaks properly. Once they do that, they'll be forever entranced and they'll insist on learning how to throw it. But you never have more than a handful of those people in a generation.
GS: So you first started working on the knuckleball as a child?
BOUTON: Oh, I had a knuckleball when I was 12. I threw a knuckleball in junior high that high-school kids couldn't catch.
GS: Did you use it at all in your early pro career?
BOUTON: No, because I had a very good fastball at the time and an overhand curveball. I couldn't mix the knuckler in with my overhand curve and fastball, just didn't have the time. You could afford to throw one bad knuckleball while you were getting used to it; the first bad knuckleball you threw in the big leagues would end up in the seats. The only reason I ended up throwing the knuckleball later in my career was that I couldn't throw my fastball anymore. I went back and resurrected the knuckleball that I had thrown as a kid and ended up with a big-league knuckleball. I first used it professionally in the summer of ’68, when the Yankees sold me to the Pilots' organization and I was pitching for the minor-league Seattle Angels.
GS: You were involved with the creation of Big League Chew, a healthy alternative to chewing tobacco. Did you chew tobacco at all during your playing career?
BOUTON: No, I didn't.
GS: Fewer players seem to chew tobacco than did in the ’60s and ’70s.
BOUTON: Yes, because players are smarter now and know more about the dangers of chewing tobacco. Back when I played almost everybody chewed.
GS: You've spent the past few years working to save an old ballpark in Massachusetts, which is detailed in your new book Foul Ball. What kind of projects are you working on now and what do you like to do with your time?
BOUTON: I'm following vintage baseball, which is baseball played with the rules used in the 19th century. I think it's a nice way of bringing the past into the future. I also like to work with stone, building stone walls.