Wednesday, February 20, 2013

'Ball Four"

Whenever I hear people talk of books that changed their lives, I usually think they're simply being pseudo-intellectuals. You know the type: Those who admit to reading Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged”, those who know how to pronounce Ayn's first name and those who understand the theme of individualism in Rand's “The Fountainhead.”

Notice how one-dimensional I am when making references to pseudo-intellectuals? I'm so bereft of brain I can only come up with Ayn Rand books as my examples.

Another display of my mental skill: A Facebook friend the other day posted an invitation for her friends to note their favorite presidents to honor Presidents' Day. Several of her friends were the high-brow type and they were quick to crow that Obama, Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt were the best. A few tossed in Washington and Adams. I, on the other hand, suggested William Taft. Anyone who invented the seventh-inning stretch and admitted to being stuck in a bathtub was all right by me, I wrote.

All that said, however, and in fear of sounding like a pseudo-intellectual myself, there is life-changing book that I've read.

Jim Bouton's book “Ball Four,” the diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, is the most impacting book I've ever read. Sports fans, I'm sure, have read it over and over. It's one of the rites of spring. Every few Februarys, I take the book from my shelf and read it again. I've done it for more than 40 years now.

I actually remember when and where I got the book. My aunt and uncle were visiting and my family took them to the Headwaters of the Mississippi River in June 1971. (The same place I reference in the previous post about my flip calendar). I saw the paperback priced at the hefty sum of $1.25. I was 11; I begged my parents to buy the book and then they balked, my aunt bought it for me.

On one level, it would seem irresponsible for adults to let a child read Bouton's book. It contained curse words and adult situations and many of Bouton's observations of life went over my head at that early age. But it also had baseball and that was the draw then.

I remember taking the book to grade school the following fall and showing my friends the bad words. And while it was funny to see those words in print, it also put me on a different plane than the others in my reading, and it helped form the way I thought and how I questioned things. While my classmates were struggling through “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Outsiders” and “Harriet the Spy,” I was reading “Ball Four.”

A few years later, when my family moved to Arkansas, I left the book in my junior high English classroom after the class ended and we left for the next class. I realized what I had done and despite being really shy back then, I immediately walked back, barged into the room and picked up my book. It was that important of a read to me to shun my attempt at avoiding any attention to myself at that school.

The book is so much more than a baseball book and now, 42 years after I first read it, I still learn things when I read it again. It is an amazing story of how the system works, the ridiculousness of life and the acceptance of being different. Maybe now I tend to over analyze things and look at things from different angles because of this book.

I actually found Bouton once and called him on the phone to talk briefly with him about the impact his book had. I'm sure he gets calls like that all the time and, while I rambled on about the genius of his story, he was probably looking at the clock thinking, “I gotta get out of here.”

So, while the rest talk of the impact of reading the works of Emerson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway or even David Foster Wallace, I tout Bouton's “Ball Four” as the most influential book I've ever read.

It's February again. Time to read his book yet again.

But, despite my foray into the intellectual side, I still think Taft was a great president for that seventh-inning stretch deal.


  1. Ball Four was a great book. I am suprised the teachers in your school didnt tell you to keep the book at home. It did have some rough language. HAHA

  2. I think in my school, they were just surprised to see someone reading an actual book and probably encouraged it!

  3. As a lifelong sports sim game fan, I've been enjoying your blog immensely since discovering it several weeks ago!

    About Ball Four: It was a revelation to me, too, as a 7th grader back in the day. I recall getting in trouble in school for reading parts of the book out loud (notably, the hilarious mf'ing curve story) and having it taken away by a teacher, who never returned it!!!

    But beyond the humor, you are right: It's a wise book about life. And now the updated editions add chapters about his post-MLB days, compelling, heartfelt stuff that in my judgment totally justifies the expense even for those who have the original.

    Several years ago, Bouton did a book reading in Boston, his most recent offering about efforts to save a local ballpark. He was a regular, smart, no-BS guy. I brought my old paperback edition of Ball Four for him to sign, which he kindly inscribed "Smoke 'em inside," one of the hilarious phrases (in proper context) from the book.

    David Yamada

    1. Great story, David! I'm jealous you got to meet him in person. And what a great inscription for his book! I find I still use phrases from his book when I talk to people. "Take a hike, son," is used a lot, along with "Yeah, surrrrrre," Joe Shultz' combination of cuss words, and "smoke 'em inside" as well.