Bouton–The Life of a Baseball Original, by Mitchell Nathanson (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
When it comes to his biographical subjects, Mitch Nathanson has established a high bar. A few years back he tackled Dick Allen, one of the best and most compelling players of his generation, in God Almighty Hisself (University of Pennsyvania, 2016). He follows up with the story of Jim Bouton, an all-star pitcher who wrote one of the most important baseball books ever put to paper.
How do you write a book about the man who wrote Ball Four? Not an idle question for me, as I actually wrestled with taking on this project several years ago. I have written about Bouton and his masterwork a few times, so why not try a book? I ultimately decided that the man who invented the candid sports book deserved the same treatment, an author capable of probing the subject, his family, and all the people he had interacted with over the years.
Bouton deserved this author, and this triumph of a book.
Let’s start with the subject. Bouton lived his life, nearly to the very end, as if his current project was the most important thing he’d ever done. At various times in his 80 years, he was a jewelry maker, a baseball All-Star, an author of several books, a sportscaster, a political campaigner, a movie star, the creator of a television show, a baseball vagabond, a public speaker, a businessman, an inventor, a civic activist, the commissioner of a baseball league, and a builder of stone walls. Bouton has written about much of this before, but it is inspiring to read about each of these Boutons in once place, and enlightening to read about them from different points of view.
As befitting his enduring nickname of Bulldog, Bouton put body and soul into all of these endeavors, and he often left behind teammates, friends, business associates or family members who felt wronged or deceived by the experience. Bouton usually saw things differently, and soon he was on to his next challenge. Nathanson talked to many of his friends and associates, and it is striking how many of them have fond Bouton memories despite whatever wounds they were still nursing.
Reading Ball Four as a child, I was drawn to its humor and irreverence. As a young adult, the Jim Bouton of the book became an extremely relatable figure, navigating life’s daily frustrations, being forced to spend time in close quarters with people who could not understand him, and dealing with arbitrary and petty rules set down by unimaginative bosses. Still later, rereads led me to see how his personality could work against him. I still root for the book’s hero, he’s still the guy whose perspective I share, but I also want to reach back and say, “No, don’t go talk to Joe right now!” or “Please, this is not the time for a speech to the bullpen!”
Nathanson’s Bouton is that same Bulldog, and the adult reader will face these same conflicts along this fascinating ride. When I learned as a teenager that Bouton had given up a high-paying career as a sportscaster to wander around the US and Mexican minor leagues, it struck me as a romantic American story. Decades later, informed by my own life experiences, I couldn’t help thinking about his wife and children, and all they sacrificed so that he could chase his dream. Bouton made it all the way back to the big leagues, an extraordinary accomplishment, but he also lost his family and many of his closest friends. Nathanson presents this honestly, and gives voice to people who see the story differently even 40 years later.
The author likes and admires his subject, and the reader will too, but he does not stand in awe of him. The Bouton that emerges is imperfect but still someone you want to be around–the most interesting and charismatic man in the room, with a bright mind, a wry sense of humor, a twinkle in his eye.
One of the ironies of Bouton’s life is that a man accused of disrespecting baseball throughout his career and in the aftermath of his great book, would spend another 50 years trying to get a ballgame going. He played competitively into his 60s, and he threw a baseball in his basement even after a series of strokes had robbed him of much of his sharp mind. One can imagine an alternate timeline in which Baseball embraced and utilized Bouton’s enthusiasm and deep love for the game rather than trying to push it away.
All of this comes through in Bouton–The Life of a Baseball Original. You will read no finer baseball book this year.