When Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life hit the bookstores in 2001, many baseball fans were surprised and even angered with Richard Ben Cramer's portrayal of the Yankee Clipper. After all, Joe D. was an cherished icon for a generation of Americans and the revelations that he was, among other things, a wife beater, an indifferent father, a poor friend, and a miser, did not sit well. How did it happen, they bemoaned, that the veneer should be stripped off our heroes so casually? Maybe we don't want to see the blemishes.
Used to be, once upon a time, that athletes were idolized on a level reserved for presidents, war heroes, and explorers. Authors wrote accounts of overcoming adversities such as poverty or serious illness with a mixture of awe and reverence. These were ultimately upbeat biographies, the type to inspire youngsters to persevere against the odds.
But as the advent of reality TV and gossip-mongering magazines and websites becomes the (low) standard, it seems there's little use for "nice" stories. We want information, we want it fast, and the dirtier, more graphic, and more outrageous, the better. How else to explain the fascination with books that heralded Wilt Chamberlain's erotic conquests, Dennis Rodman's general weirdness, and, most recently, Jose Canseco's myth-blasting claims -- many apparently true -- of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs?
And who do we have to thank for this literary genre? None other than former major leaguer Jim Bouton, whose groundbreaking Ball Four has been reissued many times since it originally came out in 1970 and to which all subsequent sports memoirs have been compared.
Hard to believe it's been 40 years. I remember first reading it at camp as a gangly adolescent, still naive enough to believe that I would never take money for the privilege of playing baseball. These days, Ball Four -- which was written with the late Leonard Schecter, a New York sportswriter -- seems positively mild in comparison, what with the slew of foul-language "tell-all" books dealing with drinking, drugs, womanizing, and other antisocial behavior by a new generation of young men who have been pampered since their Little League days and handed bagfuls of money without accepting the responsibility that goes with being a public figure.
For those unfamiliar with this classic -- selected by the New York Public Library in 1996 as one of its "Books of the Century," the only sports book to be so honored -- Ball Four is the story of Bouton's 1969 season. He had been a promising pitcher for the Yankees in the early 1960s, winning 39 games in two seasons plus two more in the World Series. But injuries made him expendable and he wound up a member of the expansion Seattle Pilots in their only year of existence.
Washed up at 30, everyone said, although Bouton's brain and heart refused to quit. So he decided to occupy his mind by chronicling a year of struggles. He wrote in notebooks, on business cards, cocktail napkins and toilet paper -- anything he could find -- to keep track of his experiences and those of his teammates, enough colorful characters to cast an old World War Two movie.
Bouton was not the first with the idea of an "adult" baseball autobiography (i.e., not a totally sugarcoated tale). Jim Brosnan, a pitcher with several teams in the late 1950s and early '60s, penned two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race, but they were kid stuff compared to this watershed publication.
Bouton was no dumb jock. Though he tried to be one of the boys, he was constantly "accused" of being a free-thinker, which in those days was one step away from being a Communist to conservative sports minds. Sure, he worried about mastering the knuckleball, but he was also concerned with the war in Vietnam, race relations, and politics, among other things. Bouton was branded a pariah by the baseball establishment as well as by players who felt he'd betrayed the sacred brotherhood of the locker room. For years he was persona non grata and left off the invitation list for the annual Yankees' old-timer festivities.
Today's players differ from their predecessors in many ways. There's no question that the paychecks are a huge part of it. But for every major leaguer who gets that multi-million dollar contract, there are still those who stay in the game because a hunger just won't let them quit. The most memorable line of Ball Four -- perhaps in all sports literature -- applies not just to the professionals, but to anyone who has ever been a die-hard sports fan: "You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
It seems the ball still has a hold on Bouton and his readers.
Bouton will be the featured guest at celebration of Ball Four's 40th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Burbank Central Libary. For more information, visit the Baseball Reliquary.
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