Books March 2001

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Ball Four

The former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once said that Jim Bouton's baseball diary, Ball Four, had "done the game a grave disservice." First published six years after Bouton's pitching won two games in the 1964 World Series, the book tipped over a lot of sacred cows. For instance, Bouton wrote that Mickey Mantle once hit a home run while hung over, that he regularly led his teammates on voyeuristic expeditions, and—perhaps most injurious to Mantle's later livelihood—that many Mantle-autographed baseballs really represented the penmanship of a Yankee clubhouse factotum. But, characteristically, Bouton also let the Mick's sense of humor shine. "Mick, how does your leg feel?" Bouton would ask Mantle on the field, making fun of their manager's vigilance against malingerers. "Well," Mantle would answer, "it's severed at the knee." "Yes," Bouton would say, "but does it hurt?" Whether Ball Four robbed America of its heroes or in fact helped to emancipate exploited players from their former indentured servitude (as Bouton is not alone in suggesting), it's easy to overlook how funny and well-written a book it is. The last line reverberates as only the best codas do: "You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." (In retrospect, that sentence could probably stand to lose a couple of the words cluttering it up, but only an ingrate criticizes a no-hitter for not being a perfect game.)

Readers return to a beloved volume after thirty years with some trepidation, especially when the author keeps reissuing it every ten years with additional epilogues (however graceful). The welcome revelation in this latest reissue isn't just how beautifully Bouton's account of a season he spent with the Astros and the short-lived Seattle Pilots holds up. It is also how familiar good sentences still sound, even if you last read them when paperbacks all had green edges. No wonder the New York Public Library in 1995 anointed Ball Four one of its "Books of the Century"—the only sports book so honored. If the literary detective Don Foster is right, and the books we read early imprint themselves on our writing styles for life, here's betting there are a lot of middle-aged writers out there with at least a fragment of Bouton's DNA in their prose. They could do a lot worse. So could anybody looking for a gift to hook a baseball-mad kid on reading. Jim Bouton was that baseball-mad kid once, and despite a lot of road miles and some serious heartbreak, he pretty much still is. He'd make an excellent commissioner of baseball.

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