Jim Bouton was an All-Star Yankees pitcher who became more famous as an author, publishing a book that changed the way people looked at baseball and some of its most beloved icons. He died Wednesday at 80, a little more than a year after he enjoyed one last moment of adulation and joy at Yankee Stadium.
Bouton suffered from a dementia-like condition in recent years. So, it meant a lot to him to be invited back — with his wife Paula Kurman and his grandchildren — to the 2018 Yankees Old-Timers’ Day, an event from which he had been pointedly uninvited for many years before a reconciliation in 1998. The club was outraged over stories he told, particularly about Mickey Mantle, in the best-selling 1970 book “Ball Four.”
The book was officially a diary of his comeback as a relief pitcher with the expansion 1969 Seattle Pilots, but it went further and deeper, recalling moments during his early years as a Yankees standout (he was a 20-game winner in 1963 and won two games in the 1964 World Series). He wrote of ballplayers, including Mantle, drinking and carousing, and of how others used amphetamines or “greenies” to prepare for games in the long season.
Its massive readership changed the trajectory of Bouton’s life, sending him onto a second career as a sportscaster on Channel 7 Eyewitness News and Channel 2 in New York. He also was the entrepreneur of Big League, a company that produced chewing gum and baseball cards. He became a personality and celebrity, while enduring exile from the team that signed James Alan Bouton, a New Jersey native, in 1958.
He wore No. 56 and had a pitching motion so strenuous that his cap often flew off his head.
A New York Giants fan as a youngster, Bouton was undeterred by an episode in which one of his heroes, Alvin Dark, responded to an autograph request by saying, “Take a hike, kid.” Bouton loved playing baseball so much that he was still pitching recreationally into his 50s. He wrote in “Ball Four” that, while he criticized “Neanderthal aspects” of baseball, “There’s been a tremendous lot of good in it for me and I wouldn’t trade my years in it for anything I can think of.”
His relationship with the Yankees began to thaw in 1994, when he wrote a letter to Mantle offering condolences on the death of a son and congratulations on having the courage to seek alcoholism treatment. In a 1995 interview with Newsday, Bouton said that Mantle left a voice mail telling him “I’m not the reason you’re not invited to Old-Timers’ Day. I’m OK with `Ball Four’ now.” Bouton added in the interview, conducted after Mantle’s death, “"I'm very, very thankful he called me. It really would have been a bad feeling I'd have carried with me the rest of my life if we had never made that contact."
Bouton received a formal “no hard feelings” notice when he finally was invited back to Old-Timers’ Day in 1998. That came after Bouton’s 31-year-old daughter died in a car accident and his son wrote a piece in The New York Times asking the Yankees to open their hearts to the former righthanded pitcher. They did, and he received one of the day’s longest and loudest ovations.