I have a friend named Bill who has done a lot for me over the years. He’s generous as a host and he’s been even more generous with advice. Good advice. Telling me to write on this blog on a daily basis, for example (I’m trying, Bill).
One of the best pieces of advice that Bill ever gave me is one I’ll pass on to you today: Read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It has the appearance of being a baseball book. It tells a lot of great stories about baseball players caught at silly and embarrassing moments. Oh, hell, it is a baseball book. But it’s so much more than that.
When Bouton wrote the book he was thirty years old and the best of his baseball career (and his pitching arm) were behind him. This isn’t a book by a baseball “hero” that is full of self-congratulation. Bouton lets you in on his serious considerations about whether or not he should try to keep playing. And the way he has it figured, if he’s going to make it at all, he needs to develop the knuckleball as his primary pitch and put less strain on his pitching arm.
After explaining that he’s going to keep playing for the love of the game, Bouton’s comments on major league baseball let you know that he’s been here before and his eyes are wide open: “A lot of it is foolishness too, grown men being serious about a boy’s game. There’s pettiness in baseball, and meanness and stupidity beyond belief, and everything else bad that you’ll find outside of baseball.”
I’ve been reading this book aloud before bedtime to my girlfriend—not a baseball fan. Still, she laughs and shakes her head and can recognize the cast of characters as fools, curmudgeons and the “salt of the earth” types she’s met before.
And then there’s the dopey bathroom humor found throughout the book that keeps your feet on the ground. “Gary Bell is nicknamed Ding Dong. Of course. What’s interesting about it is that ‘Ding Dong’ is what the guys holler when somebody gets hit in the cup. The cups are metal inserts that fit inside the jock strap, and when the baseball hits one it’s called ringing the bell, which rhymes with hell, which is what it hurts like. It’s funny, even if you’re in the outfield, or in the dugout, no matter how far away, when a guy gets it in the cup you can hear it. Ding Dong.”
A book like this is a product of its time in some ways. There is talk about race riots, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, drug use and the sometimes strained race relations in the clubhouse. Then again, we can’t really say we have the issue of race and who has the power in society all ironed out thirty years later, can we? Baseball still hasn’t effectively dealt with the issue of the use of steroids and human growth hormones by its athletes. And just today I read that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen feels that the investigation that is being done is targeting the Latino players too heavily.
When Bouton published his book the baseball establishment and its players alike roundly criticized as not being accurate and ostracizing Bouton for breaking confidence. Sentiments were probably summed up best by Pete Rose, whom Bouton quotes as shouting at him from the dugout, “F*** you, Shakespeare!”
While that may seem like a quaint response today, human nature hasn’t changed so much. While looking for info on Jose Canseco’s book discussing steroid use by ball players, I found this quote from a February 13, 2005 “60 Minutes” interview: “I think the reason why Jose Canseco is going to catch a lot of hell for his book is because people believe he’s full of it. He hasn’t been credible. He hasn’t been a credible player. He is a snitch, which is the worst thing you can possibly be in the ironclad baseball fraternity,” says [sportswriter Howard] Bryant.