Bob Bestler

R.I.P., Jim: Man who sparked controversy by taking us into MLB locker rooms to be missed

Cookie Monster sings ‘Take Me Out to The Ball Game’ at Cubs game

Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster made an appearance during the seventh-inning stretch of Chicago Cubs game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on June 27, treating fans to a rendition of Take Me Out to The Ball Game.
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Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster made an appearance during the seventh-inning stretch of Chicago Cubs game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on June 27, treating fans to a rendition of Take Me Out to The Ball Game.

If you got all the way to Page 8 of SportsExtra in Thursday’s Sun News, good for you.

If you didn’t, too bad — too bad because you missed the obituary of Jim Bouton, author of “Ball Four,” considered by some as the best sports book of all time.

It was one of my favorites, as well, because it took me into major-league clubhouses that I could never enter otherwise.

Published in 1970, “Ball Four” was, in the words of Washington Post writer Bruce Weber, a “raunchy, shrewd, irreverent — and best-selling — player’s diary that tainted the game’s wholesome image.”

“In Bouton’s telling,” Weber wrote, “players routinely cheated on their wives on road trips, devised intricate plans to peek under women’s skirts or spy on them from hotel windows, spoke in casual vulgarities, drank to excess and swallowed amphetamines as if they were M&Ms.”

The book threw a bucket of dirt on the country-boy image of one of my own heroes, Mickey Mantle, accusing him of playing hung over and often being short with children seeking an autograph. (I personally witnessed Mantle’s churlish attitude toward fans one summer day at a Minnesota Twins game.)

Bouton joined the Yankees in 1962 and finished the year with a 7-7 record; the next year he went 21-7. In 1964, he went 18-13, then won two World Series games against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was his last good year and in 1968, after several mediocre seasons, he was sent to Seattle.

Two years later, he cracked open baseball’s darker side, once explaining that “when I made it to the Yankees it was like walking in wonderland, this crazy place . . . With ‘Ball Four’ I never meant to make an investigation of a subculture. I just wanted to share the nonsense.”

Two years later, he cracked open baseball’s darker side, once explaining that “when I made it to the Yankees it was like walking in wonderland, this crazy place . . . With ‘Ball Four’ I never meant to make an investigation of a subculture. I just wanted to share the nonsense.”

Most of baseball did not see it that way. Bouton had broken long-held taboos and when an excerpt appeared in Look magazine, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to ban the book.

He failed, of course, and “Ball Four” went on to sell 5.5 million copies. In 2002, Sports illustrated placed “Ball Four” at No. 3 in its list of 100 best sports books, after A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science,” about boxing, and Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer,” about the Brooklyn Dodgers. And in 1995, it was the only sports book included in the New York Public Library centennial celebration.

Author David Halberstam, who wrote about the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in “Summer of ‘49,” called “Ball Four” a “book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.”

Despite the accolades, Bouton spent much of his life shunned by baseball, although in 1998, a year after his daughter died in a car accident, he was finally invited back to Yankee Stadium for an Old-Timer’s Game. He even made up with a once-seething Mantle, whose son Billy had died in 1994.

His love for baseball never waned and he continued to pitch, for a semi-pro team, into his late 50s.

Bouton died Wednesday, at age 80, after suffering from vascular dementia. He might well have written his own epitaph in “Ball Four”:

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

R.I.P., Jim.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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