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Jim Bouton, baseball pitcher whose ‘Ball Four’ gave irreverent peek inside the game, dies at 80

Jim Bouton, then 75, threw his knuckleball against a wall he built behind his home in the Berkshires in 2014.
Jim Bouton, then 75, threw his knuckleball against a wall he built behind his home in the Berkshires in 2014.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff, file)

Jim Bouton, a top New York Yankees pitcher in the beginning of his career who found greater fame later as the author of ‘‘Ball Four,’’ an irreverent, best-selling book that angered baseball’s hierarchy and changed the way journalists and fans viewed the sports world, died Wednesday at his home in Great Barrington. He was 80.

He had a stroke in 2012 and five years later disclosed he had been diagnosed with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a condition that causes vessels in the brain to burst under pressure. The death was confirmed by his wife, Paula Kurman.

Mr. Bouton was a hard-throwing right-hander who won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963 and 18 the following season, helping lead his team to the World Series both years.

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After an arm injury, he lost his fastball and was relegated to the minor leagues before trying to revive his career as a knuckleball pitcher.

He had often regaled listeners with tales of his antics in baseball, and as he sought to make the roster of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, he decided to take notes.

‘‘Ball Four’’ — the title was suggested by a woman who overheard Mr. Bouton talking about his project in a bar — was published in 1970, with the help of sportswriter Leonard Shecter.

It was in the form of a season-long diary and modeled in part on ‘‘The Long Season,’’ a 1960 book by big-league pitcher Jim Brosnan. But no one had ever captured the humor, profanity, and pathos of a major-league clubhouse with the candor that Mr. Bouton did in ‘‘Ball Four.’’

‘‘When I made it to the Yankees,’’ he told The New York Times in 1983, ‘‘it was like walking in this wonderland, this crazy place . . . With ‘Ball Four,’ I never meant to make an investigation of a subculture. I just wanted to share the nonsense.’’

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When excerpts appeared in Look magazine, guardians of baseball’s traditions — including sportswriters, players, and executives — were aghast. Mr. Bouton had broken baseball taboos, they fumed, revealing that players cheated on their wives, took amphetamines, drank to excess, and cursed with colorful abandon.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted ‘‘Ball Four’’ banned and summoned Mr. Bouton to his office, demanding that he repudiate his own book.

Mr. Bouton refused to change a word, and the publicity helped make ‘‘Ball Four’’ one of the best-selling sports books of all time, with more than 5.5 million copies in print.

In Harper’s magazine, author David Halberstam called ‘‘Ball Four’’ a ‘‘book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.’’ George Frazier of The Boston Globe called the book a “revolutionary manifesto.”

“Ball Four” wound up being chosen as one of the Books of the Century by the New York Public Library.

Mr. Bouton, with a copy of his book "Ball Four" in New York.
Mr. Bouton, with a copy of his book "Ball Four" in New York. (AP/1970)

Nonetheless, Mr. Bouton was often vilified by hidebound sportswriters and ballplayers. During a game, Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose shouted his review from the dugout: ‘‘(Expletive) you, Shakespeare!’’

Other athletes had written books chronicling the inner world of professional sports. But Mr. Bouton’s bawdy, unexpurgated view from the clubhouse was a breakthrough.

‘‘Ball Four’’ is ‘‘arguably the most influential baseball book ever written,’’ baseball historian Terry Cannon told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2005, ‘‘and one which changed the face of sportswriting and our conception of what it means to be a professional athlete.’’

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Some of Mr. Bouton’s most scandalous revelations concerned his former team, including Yankee superstar Mickey Mantle, who could be churlish and mean behind his country-boy grin.

‘‘I’ve seen him close a bus window on kids trying to get his autograph,’’ Mr. Bouton wrote. He added that the oft-injured Mantle sometimes played while nursing a hangover.

Mantle and other players devised elaborate ways of spying on women, including drilling holes in dugout walls and crawling across rooftops to peep through hotel windows. Washington’s Shoreham Hotel was a particularly choice location.

‘‘One of the first big thrills I had with the Yankees was joining about half the club on the roof of the Shoreham at two-thirty in the morning,’’ Mr. Bouton wrote. ‘‘I remember saying to myself, ‘So this is the big leagues.’’’

Mr. Bouton exposed other unsavory baseball secrets, writing that Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford routinely scuffed the baseball to make his pitches more deceptive. But at its heart, ‘‘Ball Four’’ is a comic view of the life of a lousy team.

The Seattle Pilots, a hapless expansion franchise that became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, were populated by interesting oddballs — some superstitious, some cerebral — and led by an affably profane manager, Joe Schultz, whose all-purpose prescription for any problem on or off the field was to ‘‘pound that Budweiser.’’

When Schultz visited the mound, a pitcher asked for advice on how to approach the next hitter.

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‘‘Nah, [expletive] him,’’ the skipper replied. ‘‘Give him some low smoke and we’ll go and pound some Budweiser.’’

As the season wore on, Mr. Bouton was sent to the minor leagues, then traded to another second-division team, the Houston Astros. “Ball Four’’ becomes, in these moments, a book of poignant self-reckoning and a love story about baseball itself. Like many of his teammates, Mr. Bouton was haunted by self-doubt, as he tried to hold on to his big-league dreams.

‘‘You live in terror that you’re going to wake up in the morning and not be able to pitch anymore,’’ he wrote. ‘‘You wake up in the middle of the night and you make a throwing motion to see if it’s going to hurt. In the morning the first thing you do is circle your arm just to see how it feels.’’

James Alan Bouton was born March 8, 1939, in Newark and grew up in New Jersey and Chicago suburbs. His maternal grandfather invented a pressure cooker, and his father was an executive with the company.

He attended Western Michigan University before signing with the Yankees in 1958 for $30,000, paid out over three years.

Mr. Bouton made the major league team in 1962 and had his finest season the following year, when he was named an All Star, with a 21-7 record and 2.53 ERA. In 1964, he was 18-13, with a 3.02 ERA. He won two games in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Mr. Bouton was drenched in champagne in the Yankee clubhouse after pitching the pennant-clinching victory in 1963.
Mr. Bouton was drenched in champagne in the Yankee clubhouse after pitching the pennant-clinching victory in 1963. (AP/1963)

Nicknamed Bulldog, he pitched with such fierce determination that his cap often came off when he threw the ball.

After the Yankees gave up on him in 1968, Mr. Bouton turned to the knuckleball, a temperamental pitch he learned as a boy. He retired during the 1970 season, after struggling with the Astros.

He published a second book, ‘‘I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,’’ in 1971 and spent five years as a television sportscaster in New York. Turning to acting, he played a shady playboy in a 1973 detective film ‘‘The Long Goodbye,’’ directed by Robert Altman, and starred in a 1976 CBS sitcom based on ‘‘Ball Four’’ that was canceled after five episodes.

Mr. Bouton settled in Western Massachusetts, worked as a motivational speaker, and enjoyed substantial royalties from Big League Chew, a brand of bubble gum that he helped develop as an alternative to chewing tobacco.

Another book, ‘‘Foul Ball’’ (2003), was about his unsuccessful efforts to save Wahconah Park in Pittsfield.

He also served as commissioner of the Vintage Base Ball Federation, which used 19th-century rules, uniforms, and equipment. It was baseball in its purest form, he told the Globe’s Stan Grossfeld in 2014.

“There’s no chest pounding and pointing to the sky and kissing jewelry,” he said. “I’m an old-fashioned guy.”

His first marriage, to Barbara Heister, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Paula Kurman, he leaves two sons, Michael and David (who was adopted from Korea as a boy and was called Kyong Jo at the start of “Ball Four”); two stepchildren; and six grandchildren. A daughter, Laurie, was killed in a car crash in 1997.

After 28 years of being excluded from the Yankees’ annual old-timer game, Mr. Bouton was brought back into the fold in 1998. When he took the mound, his cap fell off just as it did in his heyday, 35 years earlier.

Mr. Bouton greeted the crowd during an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
Mr. Bouton greeted the crowd during an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.(New York Times/1998)

Still, there was something nagging at him. In ‘‘Ball Four,’’ Mr. Bouton wrote about Jim O’Toole, a pitcher who failed to catch on with the 1969 Seattle Pilots. O’Toole ended up pitching for a Kentucky semipro team called the Ross Eversoles.

‘‘I thought, would I do that?’’ Mr. Bouton wrote in ‘‘Ball Four.’’ ‘‘When it’s over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.’’

Mr. Bouton launched a comeback in his late 30s, pitching with low-level teams in the minor leagues and Mexico. In 1978, eight years after he last pitched in the major leagues, he returned to the mound with the Atlanta Braves, winning one game and losing three.

He continued to throw his knuckleball for another 20 years, competing against players less than half his age in semipro leagues until he was in his late 50s.

‘‘You see,’’ he wrote in ‘‘Ball Four,’’ ‘‘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.’’

From the archives: Jim Bouton still as opinionated as ever