Like many of my sports writing colleagues, Jim Bouton’s 1970 book “Ball Four” inspired me. I read it while in college.
During my sophomore year, I took a sports culture class. The instructor had us read books like Roger Kahn’s “Boys of Summer,” David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game,” and Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay.”
All were fascinating books about sports people, but not necessarily about sports. I loved each one, and they persuaded me that sports writing should be more about the people than the actual games.
When the semester ended, I asked the instructor for more, and he recommended “Ball Four,” in which Bouton gave an inside look into baseball — but much more of an inside look than Major League Baseball appreciated. Bouton said the MLB commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, ordered him to disavow the book. He refused. The New York Yankees (Bouton’s former team) ostracized him because he included unflattering stories about team icons, such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard.
Still, the stories weren’t that bad. Bouton, who died this week, humanized these players, and in the process, I liked them more, not less. Bowie Kuhn eventually was replaced. The Yankees finally “forgave” Bouton, although he ticked them off again when he criticized their building of a new stadium on what used to be a public park.
The New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro wrote that in the 1990s, he met Bouton and told him “Ball Four” changed the way he saw baseball. Vaccaro said Bouton signed his copy of the book, “To Mike: If I’m responsible for bringing one more sportswriter into this world, then it’s pretty clear I’m never getting into Heaven. Jim Bouton.”
What’s the penalty for inspiring more than just one?