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Jim Bouton Continues to Have Fun and Fool Hitters. A Story by John Torsiello.

POSTED July 06, 2011
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney

Former New York Yankee All Star, Jim Bouton, threw out the first pitch before the Titans clashed with the Tri-State All Stars on Monday evening at Fuessenich Park.The 72-year old Bouton pitched a scoreless fourth, much to the delight of a large crowd on the Fourth of July.

The kids in the stands at Torrington’s Fuessenich Park July 4th to watch the home run hitting contest and all-star game between the Tri-State League and Torrington Titans had no idea who the old guy in the New York Yankees uniform was.

But those of us who grew up on baseball in and around the 1960’s certainly knew who Jim Bouton was as he stood by the Titans dugout prior to his appearance for the Tri-State all-star team later that evening.

“I’ve been working out with Amenia (New York) and wondering if I could still pitch in a game,” said the now 72-year-old former Yankee hurler, who shocked the baseball world when he wrote the legendary book “Ball Four” way back in 1970. “I thought I would come down and pitch an inning.” Which he did, not allowing a hit to the Titans who were obviously baffled by his knuckleball and maybe a bit in awe of those brilliantly pressed pinstripes and Yankee hat.

Bouton made his Major League debut with the Yankees in 1962 and would go on to win 62 games in the big leagues and compile a most respectable 3.57 earned run average before injuries curtailed his career.

Bouton appeared in 36 games during the 1962 season, including 16 starts, and had a win-loss record of 7-7. While he did not play in the Yankees' 1962 World Series victory over the San Francisco Giants he had been slated to start game seven before rainout allowed ace Ralph Terry to take the mound. Bouton went 21-7 and 18-13 in the next two seasons, and appeared in the 1963 All-Star Game. He was 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA in World Series play.

Bouton's frequent use by the Yankees during these years (in 1964 he led the league with 37 starts) probably contributed to his subsequent arm troubles. In 1965, an arm injury slowed his fastball and ended his status as a pitching phenomenon. Relegated mostly to bullpen duty, Bouton began to throw a knuckleball in an effort to lengthen his career. By 1968, Bouton was a reliever for the minor league Seattle Angels.

He retired midway through the 1970 season, but returned to the Major Leagues in 1978 when Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner gave him a shot. He responded by posting a 1-3 record in five games and then retired permanently from the Major Leagues following that season.

Bouton is most famous for chronicling his 1969 season with a frank, insider's look at a professional sports team which he eventually named Ball Four. The backdrop for the book was the Seattle Pilots' one and only operating season, although Bouton was traded to the Houston Astros late in the season. Unlike previous sports books, Ball Four named names and described a side of baseball that was previously unseen. Bouton wrote about the way a professional baseball team actually interacts, after game-winning home runs and also the petty jealousies, obscene jokes, drunken parties, and drug use, including by Bouton himself.

Upon its publication, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn went as far as to actually label Ball Four "detrimental to baseball," and tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was completely fictional. Bouton, however, refused to deny any of Ball Four’s revelations. Many of Bouton's teammates never forgave him for publicly airing what he had learned in private about their flaws and foibles. Bouton, it seems, had broken a rule of not talking about what goes in on the clubhouse outside of the clubhouse.

But Bouton was undeterred. He’s always been his own man. He was a delegate to the 1972 National Democratic Convention for George McGovern, and traveled with a group of athletes to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest South African apartheid, acted in Robert Altman’s film “The Long Goodbye,” and had the lead in a short-lived television series loosely based on Ball Four.

After his return to the majors, Bouton continued to pitch at the semi-pro level for a Bergen County, N.J. team, called the Teaneck Merchants. He also pitched for several other teams in the Metropolitan Baseball League in northern New Jersey and for Amenia in the Tri-State League.

Once his baseball career ended a second time, Bouton became one of the inventors of “Big League Chew,” a popular shredded bubblegum designed to resemble chewing tobacco and sold in a tobacco-like pouch. He also co-authored Strike Zone, a baseball novel, and edited an anthology about managers, entitled I managed Good, but Boy Did They Play Bad. His book, Foul Ball, published in 2003, was a non-fiction account of his unsuccessful attempt to save Wahconah Park, a historic minor league stadium in Pittsfield, Ma.

Some 40 years after Ball Four shook up the baseball world, Bouton has regained his status in the game and with the New York Yankees family, who once shunned him. He is a regular at Old Timers Day games and has repaired most of the bridges he burned with Ball Four, which remains a seminal moment in sports journalism.

The smile on his face Sunday at Fuessenich Park told a thousand words.

“I’m feeling good and enjoying my life,” said Bouton, who lives in Alford, Ma. and looks at least 15 years younger than his actual age. “I’m building stonewalls and playing vintage baseball. It’s such a blast. We play by 19th century rules, wear vintage uniforms and have one umpire who discusses close calls with the players and then the fans if a decision can’t be made on the field. It’s just a real wonderful way to play baseball.”

Bouton had some words about today’s Major Leaguers.

“They are too full of themselves. Stepping out of the batter’s box, fixing their batting gloves, preening. If Bob Gibson was on the mound they wouldn’t be doing that because he would knock them down. It’s all about big salaries nowadays and that is too bad.”

When Bouton was asked what number he wanted when he made the Yankees’ roster he said number 56. That was because it is number usually reserved for young players that come up for the minors for spring training and get sent back down. He said he wanted the number to remind him how close he was to not being in the Major Leagues. He wore it his entire career.

Today’s players could take a lesson from the way Jim Bouton treated the game he still continue to love…..and play.


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