Jim Bouton dies; former Yankees pitcher took people inside the game with ‘Ball Four’

Jim Bouton became more famous for his writing than his pitching the moment his book, “Ball Four,” was published almost half a century ago. The former Yankees right-hander pulled back the curtain on major league players and the business of baseball, revealing the seamy side of both in the process.

The project made him a pariah within the game but also a trailblazer for authors who followed with similar works.

Bouton died Wednesday at age 80 from a brain condition related to dementia, the New York Daily News reported. He had been in hospice care.

Bouton’s major league career got off to an ideal start. The kid with the extreme overhand arm motion who regularly knocked his cap off his head pitched in the World Series for the Yankees each of his first three big league seasons (1962-64). The Bombers captured the title in ’62. He won 21 and 18 games for the AL champion Yanks in 1963 and 1964, respectively.

Then came a precipitous decline that tracked with the sudden end of the Yankees’ dynasty. Bouton suffered an arm injury in 1965 that robbed him of his fastball. Determined to stay in the game, he eventually began throwing a knuckleball.

Bouton showed enough ability to be taken by the Seattle Pilots in the 1968 American League expansion draft. His plans to write an inside look at baseball were already in motion.

Bouton’s diary of the 1969 season, starting in spring training and continuing through October, formed the nucleus of “Ball Four.” He had loads of material just from his own experiences: He made the Pilots out of camp, was shipped to Triple-A in mid-April, was recalled in late April, and then was traded to the Astros in August, which gave him a chance to pitch in a pennant race one last time.

Reaction within baseball to the 1970 release of “Ball Four” was universally negative. Bouton lost friends in the game, most notably Mickey Mantle, whose image took a big hit in the book. He found himself out of the game months later, released by the Astros in August 1970 after posting a 5.40 ERA.

A year after “Ball Four” came out, Bouton penned a sequel titled “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally,” in which he recounted the backlash he received for the original. He updated his work several times over the next 30 years, including “Ball Four: The Final Pitch” in 2000.

Bouton moved into television after his release. He anchored sports for WABC-TV and WCBS-TV in New York in the early ’70s. He also dabbled in acting; in 1976, he starred in a short-running TV sitcom based on “Ball Four.”

But baseball, to paraphrase a key part of his book, had a grip on him that wouldn’t let go. He was soon attempting a comeback that, improbably, turned successful.

He pitched for the Portland Mavericks, an independent team in the Northwest League, in 1975. He was signed to minor league deals by the White Sox in 1977 and the Braves in 1978. Those teams were owned by Bill Veeck and Ted Turner, respectively, both baseball inconoclasts.

Bouton finally made it back in September 1978 at age 39. He entered the Braves’ rotation, pitching in five games (all starts) and posting a 4.97 ERA in 29 innings.

His comeback ended after that season, but Bouton still couldn’t shake baseball. He eventually got back on the mound, this time in the semipro Metropolitan League in New Jersey. He slung his knuckler, and kept knocking off his cap, well into his late 40s, often pitching against college and high school players less than half his age.

“Ball Four” kept Bouton in the spotlight well into his later years. He was a frequent interview subject, not only about the book but about the state of baseball.

Another thing that kept him in the public eye: His role in inventing Big League Chew, bubble gum that looks and is packaged like chewing tobacco.

Separately, he reconciled with the Yankees and Mantle years after the release of “Ball Four.” He was invited back to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day in the 1990s.

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