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How Jim Bouton Lost His Fastball and Found Inner Peace
November 3, 1979
At nine on a damp Wednesday morning I ride the empty subway to Shea Stadium to watch Jim Bouton throw his improved knuckleball. A couple of you may not know that Jim Bouton is adorable and beloved and presents the sports news on CBS at 11 every weeknight with a winning blend of ragged directness, muscular intelligence, moral fervor, political conviction, maverick independence, and waggishness. My friend Martin says that Jim Bouton is endearing and seems to take chances. My cousin Jonathan says Bouton is refreshing, a jock who realizes there’s more to life than the stupid game of his choice. My friend Rhoda says that Bouton’s politics are good and he has a neck as big as her thigh. At a party a married couple say to me in unison: “Oh, Jim Bouton.” What’s his appeal? My analyst says: “He’s a regular person.” On television Jim appears to be wearing hairspray, but he may be doing that to make an ironic comment on our society.
In 1963 and 1964, his peak, Bouton pitched 41 winning games for the Yankees, twice in the World Series. When he retired five years ago he had just finished losing two games for the Oklahoma City farm club of the Houston Astros. His book Ball Four was out then, generating controversy, seeming to betray the trust of certain teammates, causing the baseball commissioner to hop back and forth from one foot to the other with rage, getting good reviews, and selling well. Bouton was 31 and a marginal player, quitting to enter what he called “the communications field.”
At Shea Stadium a thin man loudly promises to introduce me and unlocks the waiting-room door. I share the room with some amenities, luxuriant plastic philodendrons in a wall planter, and assorted chairs. Bouton when he arrives his blue CBS baseball uniform looks rather slight and very tidy, like a well turned out child. We walk through the locker room, where several half-dressed men croak out obligatory challenging laughs. “Our ultimate fantasy,” Bouton says to me, looking cheerful and mannerly. “A girl in the locker room, with the linament and everything.”
In the dugout Bouton says he got through every spring by telling in himself that someday he’d be back in baseball. In Canada during vacation he felt his knuckleball in his fingertips. In August he played in Oregon — with the Portland Mavericks, “a sort of dirty dozen” — and did okay. Today he’ll pretend to show his colleagues his pitch while playing a mock game and making a little film piece, basically about himself, for his spot at eleven. Many may know — because Bouton has often mentioned — that he learned the knuckleball from instructions on a cereal box when he was 10. He’d like to try to go back to baseball — not for 10 years, maybe for a year or two even if in the minor leagues — “to satisfy the things I want to satisfy inside myself.” He made a few calls around for the spring, to the Yankees, the Mets, and the Phillies, none of whom had called back yet.
Shea Stadium circles around and above us, broad and empty, the rows of seats banked up in sections of pale color, then the panel of blinding lights, then the gray sky. Various CBS softball players and a couple of former big-league players in uniforms start throwing balls around. “Keep em up, Jim, I haven’t got my cup,” says the umpire, looking enormously pleased. “Cup is your, the inset that you wear in your supporter,” Bouton says to me, rapping himself in the groin. “Got a cup?” a man calls over the field. “Got a saucer?” A woman sits in the dugout and slings her arm around former big-leaguer Duke Carmel’s beefy shoulders and fingers the back of his haircut. “We treat nice girls nice,” says Duke Carmel. Bouton sits on the bench and pulls down his pants to palpate his pulled muscle. Duke Carmel pats Ron Swoboda’s velour behind. From the dugout the men are small on the field but their faces are clear. This must be it, the baseball world, the famous cool sweet simplicity out here, the ball thudding with a light sound into the mitts, the grass, the space, the wide sky, the rough genial heartbreaking camaraderie, the men like boys. The planes arcing overhead are deafening. Jim Bouton looks around with a look of sweet distracted happiness. “These guys just wanted to come out to Shea and horse around,” he says. “Did you guys order a crowd? Hey, Ron, is there a plaque in the turf in right center field commemorating your World Series catch? Recessed in the grass? Hey, Ron, when was that catch? I mean the time of day and all that?”
Bouton gives me his wedding ring to hold, inscribed: The Greatest Thing… Love 12/12/62. He tells me about growing up. So small in the fifth grade he had his own little white uniform. Everybody else wore gray. He thought he was going to be a midget, he looked like the batboy. He wasn’t like those guys like Tom Seaver, who grew up as stars, who knew they were going to be good, they just didn’t know how good. Big strong kids. They didn’t know whether to be good big-leaguers, or great big-leaguers, or great minor-leaguers. For Bouton all that was beyond dreams, and when he made the team it was a wonder. A wonderland. His first day with the Yankees he put on his Yankees uniform and came out and sat there in the dugout for two hours all alone, smiling at the pigeons.
Bouton looks dreamily out over the field at Ron Swoboda. “I had a lotta traumatic experiences in high school,” he offers, watching Swoboda. He was a three-sport star in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “about to realize my high school greatness,” when his father was transferred and he found himself the south side of Chicago full of big, black, mature kids: “Everybody was big, The whole school. They called me warmup Bouton. They’d bring in the left fielder to pitch, the right fielder, the catcher, somebody would come outta the stands and pitch, and I would warm up. I was Warmup Bouton. The most miserable year of my life.
“I thought I couldn’t do anything. In the summer all the kids played ball and I worked at the A&P. In the back, stamping prices on cans of peas.” He pumps his fist up and down from the elbow, stamping cans in the air, bitterly grinning. “Two for 35 on the baby food. I was really down.”
Bouton pitches until he gets three pictures of Swoboda striking out, and Swoboda interviews Bouton on the field. I throw the ball with three fingers, Bouton tells him, because I was 10 when I learned it off the back of a cereal box.
Jim Bouton and I walk to his car, a little Renault. He strolls around to my side to open the door. “This is a funny car,” he says, “You have to unlock it from this side. I’m not being polite.”
At CBS Ron Swoboda and Jim Bouton lean in their chairs in a little darkened interior room to screen today’s film. On the wall, a bleached color picture of Swoboda repeatedly swinging, sometimes hitting, whirling, bulging, incredible. Fuck and shit, Swoboda and Bouton yell, fucking camera didn’t follow the ball! They sound outraged and look cheerful, staring and side by side. Below the picture of Swoboda steadily swinging, a television set is on with the sound off, so that as Swoboda whirls, pale and powerful, Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in a high headdress slumps in her massive throne, small and willful and defeated, in black and white. Turns her eyes down. Takes the delicate slowly slithering asp in her hands and places it on her white breast almost with a look of welcome. Her handmaidens, broken with grief, rest their bent curly heads on her knee. The gates shudder with the battering ram of Cleopatra’s enemies. Shit and fuck, shitfuck, fuckshit, Bouton and Swoboda shout to the moving picture, as Claudette expires: “Overexposed! Overexposed!”
Bouton in his office gives an interview. “Tennis players!” he yells into the phone. “The lineman makes a bad call, they go into the locker room in a huff! They grew up on country clubs! They grew up on canapés, these guys! Hors d’oeuvres! They’re really not real athletes! I mean, be honest, you take the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, or any basketball team, Dave DeBusschere and those guys, if all those guys spent the same amount of time on the tennis court do you really think that those big-time tennis players would’ve winded up being the best tennis players? Right. They wouldn’t be. They’d be home in tears. It’s Ping-Pong! It’s just big Ping-Pong outdoors…
“No. Nobody disparages hockey players. Not even Sumo wrestlers. (Hehheh) There’re a lot of things to admire about a hockey player, they earn their pay… Jesus, I dunno, these sound like essay questions. I dunno what Shakespeare would say about hockey.”
Bouton is at the rodeo rehearsal at Madison Square Garden filming himself riding a Brahma bull. He says he loves the way people respect you when you try to do what they do. With these great cowboys, he loves the look they get in their eyes, their accents, the way they giggle and poke each other. While he’s doing it, he says they welcome him. He feels like a cowboy himself.
Inside the Garden the arena floor has been taken down to dirt, and three little buffalo loiter in a corner while a small orchestra thumps out “Careless Love.” Bouton has been lowered onto the back of the bull, let out of the gate, and smashed onto the ground within three seconds. He sits in the locker room with his wife, Bobbie, and his three kids and their two little friends, on a bench next to the hanging rows of brilliant scarlet and green satin shirts of the cowboys, looking pale and fragile and happy. He is waiting for somebody to tell him where they keep the soap and towels. He keeps telling everybody what one cowboy said about the mud on his Western shirt: “Whah, Jayim, that thair’s clean boolshit, that ain even hit th’ ground yayet.”
In the car four kids and I crush together hotly in the back. Bouton’s daughter Laurie rides backward in the front seat gazing in my face. Michael, who is 11, comments on the scene: “Those two old men turned their heads when that lady walked by. And wasn’t even too pretty either. Hey, topless! My kind of show!” Michael tells me about his father, for my article: “He was born in St. Barnabas, was it? St. Bernard. He grew up dreaming to be a baseball player. He got his dream and he couldn’t believe it. And now he can’t believe it either: He can’t pitch anymore. He’s trying to get back. That’s the story of his life.”
At Roosevelt Hospital Bouton is wincing, smiling, and moving carefully. Emergency rooms, he says, remind him of a Nichols and May routine. “Age?” a man says through a glass partition. “36, going on 12,” says Bouton, leaning on the man’s windowsill, full of grace under pressure.
Jim Bouton is at a nice low level of celebrity where people don’t rip off his arms and legs but where he is recognized often enough so that he moves freely around a friendly city. He very much enjoys being recognized. Outside CBS, a short round black man in a flowered shirt blocks our path. He looks up into Bouton’s face with a tender glance. “The baseball man?” he says. “You that — baseball man?” He shakes Bouton’s hand. He walks along next to us, leaning in and reaching across Bouton to hold his hand. He hugs Bouton, wrapping his arms about his body with gentle confidence and lowering his head to lean it against Bouton’s chest as we walk along. Bouton waggles his fingers and protests in murmurs as he and his fan and lover dance together down the sidewalk, but his fan never understands that Bouton’s chest hurts, and he relaxes his embrace only after he conveys to Bouton that he loves him.
Jim Bouton takes a shower. He carries his shoes and hairdryer and I carry some clothes on hangers to help him because some cartilage has pulled away from some bone in his chest. We find a dressing room for “As the World Turns,” with a fuzzy orange carpet, a round sink, a black leather couch, and bed. I take off Jim Bouton’s tooled leather pointy-toed cowboy boots he got at the rodeo last year. I unwrap his wide Ace bandage, rolling around and around his chest, bumping his helping fingers, dropping the little silver clips on the rug. I feel warm and protective and safe and nervous. He needs me, but not much. He is hurt, but only slightly. A direct, decent, vigorous man, vulnerable yet comfortable in the world. A devoted outsider like me. Jumpy with chutzpah. Also once a short boy. They always had a touching quality and terrific intensity and drive, and humor, and a soupcon of totally understandable ruthlessness. When grown they recall their childhoods. I never met a formerly short man I didn’t like. He pads to the bathroom, grimacing and limping almost imperceptibly in a delicately understated and aesthetically pleasing way, as I reach a pitch of quiet sexual agitation. I have been reassured by meeting his calm wife, his friend for half his life. She ignored me. I have been cheered by meeting his children, spirited, brace, truth telling, sloppily dressed, unrepressed. I felt legit. I yearned to be part of that family, back there in the steamy car, riding, Jim Bouton my patient father and husband and lover. “I’ll meet you after,” I say, glancing around as if deranged. Bouton grunts. “Up to you,” he says from the bathroom. “I could change in here.”
Bouton often says that he enjoys things. I enjoy signing autographs, he says. Being well-known. I enjoy crude jokes, locker room humor: Somebody calling somebody a dildo, stuff like that. About beaver-shooting, going up on a roof and spying on women, or the tape recorder under the bed: It’s a traveling world, Bouton says, the world of the salesman, of the Shriners on convention in Des Moines. It’s the world of any man when he’s out of town and with his peer group. Not a male thing, a group thing. I admit that was part of the attraction for me. I admit I miss that. It was humorous. I would never by myself go up on the roof of a hotel, I’d feel — weird; none of us got sexually excited by anything we saw, it was just — the funny bizarre nature of it, our being in a group and all of us doing it together. I could go back to it, very definitely.
I enjoy trying to do the things that other people can do, Bouton says. Bullfighting, oh, Christ, was that exciting. I was so frightened I could hardly operate. That’s what makes it interesting, to see if you fear is so great that you can’t function.
I enjoy cutting film, he says, I enjoy the pure abstract concentration of ball playing, the making the mind blank, the instinctive movement. Enjoyed acting. Enjoyed being a delegate at the 1972 convention, it was an intense emotional experience and I felt like I was part of something important. Caucusing. Making deals. Smoke-filled rooms. Some radicals.
I enjoy being the underdog, Bouton says. You have to’ve been the underdog and prevailed to know how satisfying that can be.
Overall, of course, what Bouton enjoys is the company of other men. He has always thought about Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and all those people: “Your Show of Shows!” Those funny funny men! God, he would’ve loved to be a part of that group.
Women’s liberation, Bouton thinks, will mean women being able to get that same incomparable group experience for themselves. Germaine Greer already told me my book treated women as sex objects, he says to me. I told Germaine Greer that women use men sexually as much as men do women, one-to-one. On the road, we were the ones who wanted the meaningful relationships! The girls were coming up to our rooms and comparing our performances and grading us against hockey players and basketball players and keeping diaries — we were being used! But women should be able to travel in groups and horse around together too. I’d love to see that. Once they can talk openly about sex with their girlfriends, the next logical step is comparing notes, and the next logical step is to — I would wish that for them.
Over and over Bouton has love being a brave amateur learning from pros. It makes for great funny dialogue, he says, looking incredibly pleased: “Naaow, dohn grab the hohwns, naaow, Jayim.” In fact Bouton even loved the way his wonderful father used to intercede for him with his mother. Loved being on the same basketball team with his brothers. Loved setting up bowling pins with his brother 20 years ago, throwing in a pin to give some lady a strike, speeding up incredible goddamned dragging slow ladies night.
You insist on being a maverick, I say, but to me you look exactly like one of the boys.
“They wouldn’t say I’m one of the boys,” he says. “I was always — I was a Communist! The only reason I’m one of the boys now is that I was successful: instead of being weird, you become ‘eccentric.’ I’ve felt comfortable even though I didn’t fit in, just being around, just being part of the scene, even though they didn’t accept me totally. I don’t need to be accepted totally. I’ve always liked them more than they liked me.”