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Remembering a Gamer: Bulldog Jim Bouton

You name it.  Ball Four was it, when it came out.  Iconoclastic, heretical, funny, sobering, and real.   Jim Bouton broke the ballplayers’ code of silence.  He gave us a first-hand look into the actions and words of baseball players off the field.  Today that may elicit a ho-hum.  In 1970, it was revolutionary.

In some poignant and meaningful tributes by the media on the passing of Bouton, he is rightfully being remembered for showing the human side of ballplayers in Ball Four.  But Ball Four is more than that.  It is the story of Jim Bouton’s journey through baseball and his efforts to keep pitching in the major leagues

For me, a 9-year-old die-hard Yankees fan in 1962, Bouton’s rookie season, what I will remember most about Jim Bouton and was clear to me by the time I read Ball Four (either when it came out in 1970 or not long afterwards), is Bouton’s love of playing the game of baseball. And his passion, dogged perseverance, and hard work to continue playing the game and to try to again be very successful.

They called him Bulldog Jim Bouton, and as he hurtled off the mound with ferocity, his cap often flew off his head.  He was a damn good pitcher and successful.  He was vital to the Yankees extending their dynasty by winning the two pennants in 1963 and 1964.  He was 21-7 and 18-13 those seasons, with a 2.53 and 3.02 ERA.  He was 2-1 in three World Series starts with an ERA of 1.48.

In 1963 or 1964 my Uncle Solly took me and my cousin Allan to a twi-night double header at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox.  In one of the games, Bouton had a no-hitter after one out in the ninth.

I met Bouton in November 2005 at a dinner for the Boys and Girls Club. I mentioned that to him and he readily said the words Russ Nixon – the batter who broke up the no-hitter.

In 1965, the roof caved in on the Yankees and the dynasty was over as the great players from that team aged or got injured, with no pipeline of very good players waiting their turn.

Bouton’s arm gave out in 1965 and he developed the knuckleball to try to keep playing in the majors.  He hung in with the Yankees until 1968 as his innings pitched diminished each year.

He went to the minors in 1968 and was back in the majors with the expansion team  Seattle Pilots in 1969.  The Pilots traded him to the Houston Astros later in 1969 and the next year when the Astros sent him to the minors, Bouton retired.

I rooted for him as a Yankee and as I read Ball Four I continued to root for him, hoping he would again be a successful pitcher.  Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.

Reading Ball Four was one of the two times in my life that I remember knowing the end of a story before reading or watching it, and still hoping that the ending would be different.  (The other time was when my brother Stan told me about the movie West Side Story.  When I went to see it, I hoped and thought as the end was approaching, Tony would not be killed.)

I hoped that Jim Bouton would regain the success as a pitcher he had once had with the Yankees.  But that was not to be.

Bouton came out of retirement in 1975 and pitched in the minors and Mexican League before making the majors once again at the age of 39 in September 1978 for the Atlanta Braves starting 5 games and going 1-3.

After he retired again, Bouton pitched in semi-pro ball.

Looking back on his career, the nickname Bulldog surely fit.  Bouton would not easily give up on his dream of again being a successful major league pitcher.

As a kid in the 1960s I thought playing sports ended with adulthood.  But that was so wrong.  Athletes in their 40s and well beyond, continue to play the sports they love.  And we still dream that we will again achieve some success, successes that were important to us when we were younger, and as we look back, are still, if not more, important to us.

I’m not sure, but Jim Bouton might tell us that just by playing the sports we love and trying to do well, we have achieved success.

Bouton’s last line in Ball Four poetically sums it up so well.  “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.”

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Andy Lipton

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