Ball Four pulled back the curtain on the happy go lucky image Major League Baseball had crafted for years. It exposed the players for what they were, human. The passage of time has obviously taken some of the shock out of the stories which Jim Bouton tells the readers. Perhaps it is from growing up in an era where the media is everywhere and stories which take away the hero status of baseball players on a daily basis. Please see Alex Rodriguez and Wade Boggs for proof of this. I grew up with heroes on the baseball diamond, but I was never under any illusions that these men were saints.
Baseball is a hard game, played by hard men. However these men also act like boys. Playing pranks on teammates and surveying the women who came to the ball games were, and I would presume still are, the means of passing the time. Everything is not rosy, people and personalities clash. Teammates will not like each other, and Ball Four made this clear. Ball players also have lives away from the diamond and away from the team. The pressures of family life are just as real for these men as they are to the men and women who work normal 9 to 5 jobs. Bouton humanizes the Boys of Summer like never before. He changed our perception of athletes, not just baseball players. While we may not see see these men as flawless any more, we see them as real men, and I believe this makes them better. While they strive for perfection between the foul lines, they allow the fans to know that they face the same struggles as they do. Imperfect players, in my opinion, makes their achievements on the field that much more impressive.
Bouton’s recounting of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros gives you a day by day account of the average player. Jim Bouton is the sort of player which every team must have to be successful, yet is quickly forgotten by the fans once he is no longer a member of the team. Their importance does not always show up in the box scores, however without them the successful teams would not reach the same heights. Every player dreams of being like Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford, however the reality is that most will be like Jim Bouton. They will have a successful career over several years, but they will not stand the test of time in the minds and memories of fans. Only the most avid fans will remember their contribution to the game.
Personally I enjoyed reading Ball Four. It allowed me to make connections between players and events, thus making my knowledge of the history of baseball that little bit more complete. The candidness with which Jim Bouton wrote the book is refreshing, as he does not try to sugar coat the stories to make people look better or worse than they really. While I do believe Bouton does embellish certain things to make himself and the teammates he liked look better, I do not believe this is done purposefully. I am also not convinced that he goes out of his way to make those he did not particularly like look worse than they were.
It is always tricky to read what amounts to a journal about a year of a person’s life. The reader should take everything with a grain of salt. Is the story true, yes check the box scores. However, as shocking as Ball Four might have been to readers when it was first published, imagine the stories which Bouton decide to leave out. One does not have to travel too far to reach the 1980’s and the Pittsburgh Drug Trials and the stories about the New York Mets and player like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
Baseball tends tends to be a reflection of the country and the late 1960’s were a time when social norms were changing. People were working harder than even and were willing to do almost anything, like take greenies, to help them in their quest to be successful. Ball Four altered how fans saw their beloved baseball players, however they were just seeing what they had come to accept in black and white.
I believe Ball Four and Jim Bouton have forever changed how we the fans look at our sports heroes. They are no longer the flawless and invincible players we all wish they were. Instead they are flawed and are just normal people who are gifted at playing a boys game. Yes the story should be taken with a grain of salt. However it is a book which every serious baseball fan should read. It provides a road map between the clean cut players like Joe DiMaggio to the less than ideal players of Mickey Mantle and through to players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Gone are the perfect ball players, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sports, including baseball, are better when there are heroes and villains. We all have Jim Bouton and Ball Four to thanks for giving us someone to cheer for and someone to cheer against.