Athletes are a funny bunch. Funny as in odd, and sometimes just funny. In our world of Google, Wikipedia and social media, the passing of a well-known athlete will tickle the traffic for a time with searches fueled by memories.
When these heroes of an era pass on, often long after their glory days, they will have accumulated a certain documented fame, where and how they played dutifully recorded in the stat book.
It’s fairly easy to come to a conclusion about the lives of superstars. It’s a different process negotiating the lives of those who, if not supernovas, were still stellar and unforgettable — athletes who zigzagged, popping up bright and glorious here, a little less so there.
Jim Bouton, baseball player and chronicler, died on July 10 at the age of 80 after weeks of hospice care for cerebral amyloid angiopathy. People remember him as a pitcher specifically, and a New York Yankee especially.
They remember him as being other things, too: a Seattle player, for instance, but mostly as the author of an oddball, sometimes incendiary, flaky, funny, gritty 1970 book called “Ball Four,” which — while based on a year or so spent with minor league teams — also included anecdotes about time, some of it glorious, spent with the Yankees.
“Ball Four” is full of the daily grind of baseball, the aches and pains and thoughts about losing your grip and touch, and how baseball players talk and walk wobbly after too many drinks. It was a locker room book about what you think about as a player just before sleep hits you with a wallop after a bad outing.
It was a best-seller written by a writer with a stylish, casual way with words. Funny, revealing, it became controversial because it was honest. Baseball was America’s green-grass-in-the-outfield game, often made romantic, patriotic and whatnot, and the baseball upholders of the faith didn’t like locker room stories.
In one of the photos of Bouton on Wikipedia, he’s wearing a cap with a big S on it (for Seattle). His basics are there: born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1938; died in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Major League debut with the New York Yankees on April 22, 1962, the waning years of traditional Yankee glory.
Later, there’s a picture of him with that crossed-NY insignia on his cap. The look is Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle handsome, befitting at least a two-year span of time in 1963-64, during he which went 21-7 and 18-13, with appearances in two World Series, including a dramatic 1-0 loss to Dodger ace Don Drysdale in 1963 and a 2-1 win over the Cardinals in 1964, won by a walk-off homer by Mickey Mantle.
Here’s another thing: Bouton loved to pitch, love to talk and was part of that life, including, as he admitted, the drinking, the partying, the over-imbibing grass. He pulled away from that and lived another full life, but baseball was always there. The book helped and hindered. Some players, managers and, oddly enough, sportswriters, resented it, without challenging the truth of it.
There was, of course, a sequel, “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally” (which some did). Pitchers throw sliders and fast balls, or hit home runs; writers come to the park armed with a bucket of metaphors.
Bouton has his glory years in both games and books, and his personal life had its highs and its tragedies. When a pitcher records four errant pitches, it’s ball four. When he fans a hitter, it’s strike three. In his best game, and his best book, Bouton threw mostly strikes.