Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia...and Jim Bouton?
In 1969, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead released “Live/Dead”, Jack Kerouac died, and Jim Bouton started writing funny things on air sickness bags and dry-cleaning receipts. Nearly five decades later, the imprints left by all those events remain.
Last summer, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) toasted and celebrated the life of Jim Bouton, MLB pitcher and author of perhaps the greatest sports book of all time, “Ball Four.”
Culled from the hundreds of notes Bouton jotted down and published in 1970, “Ball Four” told an insider’s tale of the 1969 Seattle Pilots – a team that appeared and vanished all in the blink of an eye.
Along with the funny anecdotes, “Ball Four” presented Bouton’s takes on baseball and life as he saw them both. Not surprisingly, it was immediately demonized by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Kuhn, who liked to think of himself as baseball’s moral conscience, called Bouton into his office and effectively ordered him to renounce the book and its stories– “beaver shooting” on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, popping “greenies” before games, painting Mickey Mantle as anything other than St. Mick, etc.
Bouton refused and after breathless media coverage of that loggerhead meeting, the book went from a minor release to a literary sensation. To date, “Ball Four” has sold over five million copies and still sells – the Kindle version is typically Amazon’s #1 seller in baseball books.
Bouton liked to call Kuhn “the Ayatollah” but the better comparison is to the era’s stodgy TV show host, Pat Boone, an out-of-step arbiter of taste whose palate was no longer reliable.
Ever since “On The Road” author Jack Kerouac and his beatnik generation bent the consciousness of America’s youth in the 1950’s, there have been those who understood that things didn’t have to be as they were simply because that’s how they’d always been.
In music, the lines between the performer and his audience didn’t need to be as firmly drawn or even exist at all. By the late-‘60s, Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead shows erased the demarcation between the band and their followers. Forget the studio albums, the Deadheads insisted, it was the live shows that counted.
And so it was with “Ball Four.” Spitting in the eye of those like Kuhn who cherished and protected the barrier that separated the athletes from those who paid to see them, Bouton brought the ethos of Kerouac and the Dead to baseball, inviting everyone inside so they could see everything and be part of the experience.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of tell-all sports books published in the wake of “Ball Four,” but none similarly resonate or have become essential reading after the publication hype faded away.
“Ball Four” no longer shocks and doesn’t tell us anything about the game’s iconic stars that we can’t read nearly every day on the Internet. Yet it still matters like no other sports book does.
Kerouac’s “On The Road” hardly offends contemporary society and the Grateful Dead stopped shocking the nation’s conscience by the mid-‘70s. And yet they’re no less relevant today either.
Kerouac’s book was published 60 years ago, the Grateful Dead haven’t played a show since 1995, and the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970 to become the Brewers.
But in the end it all stayed with us- the connection, the blurring of lines, the creation of community.
Mitchell Nathanson is the author of “God Almighty Hisself: The Life And Legacy Of Dick Allen”, available for sale on our site (top right of page, or store section at bottom). Mitchell is also currently at work on a biography of Jim Bouton.
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