My childhood sports heroes were:
- Joe Willie Namath
- Walt “Clyde” Frazier
- Muhammad Ali
- Jim Bouton.
Yes, Jim Bouton.
He authored “Ball Four,” one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Indeed, Bouton’s Ball Four was the first real “kiss-and-tell” sports book. It was an immediate best seller and was ranked third on Sports Illustrated’s top 100 sports books of all time. Indeed, when the New York Public Library celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995, Ball Four was the ONLY sports book included among 159 titles in the library’s “books of the century” exhibit.
I inhaled Ball Four when it was published.
Bouton’s provocative prose tore away the patina of sainthood that had been bestowed on baseball players from day one (whenever that might have been).
To borrow Howard Cosell’s signature phrase of the era, Bouton told it like it was.
He reported on Mickey Mantle’s battles with alcoholism, called Carl Yastrzemski and Roger Maris loafers and said Whitey Ford routinely scuffed baseballs to make them move in unnatural and illegal ways.
The baseball establishment saw Ball Four as pure heresy and detested Bouton for what he’d done. He was forever branded as the Benedict Arnold of the National Pastime.
But Bouton didn’t care. He was hip, cool, intellectual and a counter-culture liberal who wasn’t afraid to advocate for Civil Rights, take a stand against the Vietnam War and provide his POV on the first signs of divisiveness in our country.
I could write a book about Bouton. Instead I decided to honor his passing on July 10th by remembering my day with him in 1985.
At that time, Bouton had exited baseball but reinvented himself as a successful entrepreneur.
Knowing that little kids idolized Big League ballplayers and mimicked their every action, Bouton developed Big League Chew.
BLC was an immediate hit with kids and parents alike. In essence, Bouton shred bubble gum into tiny strips that looked exactly like the chewing tobacco that was stuffed inside the cheek and gums of almost every player.
He also created MLB-quality baseball cards for kids that were included in Big League Chew packets. I had one made for my son right after he was born. It looked just like a real baseball card and, the flip side of Chris Cody’s BLC card, contained his vital stats (22 inches long. 18 pounds. Cried right handed. Projectile vomited out of the left said of his mouth, etc.). It became an immediate family keepsake.
Fast forwarding to my encounter with Bouton, he was searching for PR firms to publicize his runaway product and visited with us.
Meeting Bouton was beyond cool. I immediately cited mega sections of Ball Four to him, asked him to elaborate on the more salacious tales and generally sucked up big time to my idol.
Bouton told my boss he wouldn’t need to meet any other firms if I could be his day-to-day lead. Talk about a walk-off home run! I was in heaven.
We had Bouton’s account for about six months and generated some decent publicity, but Big League Chew turned out to be a one-hit wonder. Sales dwindled, Bouton ended our relationship and we both went our separate ways.
I still treasure my personally signed edition of Ball Four.
As you’ll see, he signed it “Smoke ‘em inside.” That’s the advice one of his managers had provided to Bouton on how best to pitch to Frank Robinson, a future Hall of Famer, who was absolutely tearing up American League pitching in his 1969 MVP season.
Bouton’s manager, Joe Schultz, said of Robinson: “You can’t pitch him low, Jim. He’ll crush anything high and if one of your patented knuckle balls doesn’t knuckle, he’ll hit it 600 feet to dead center. Hell, smoke ‘em inside!”
Hilarious advice if you follow the sport.
I adored everything about Jim Bouton and, in my own way, tried to emulate a few of his irreverent approaches whenever I wrote about a profession that sometimes takes it far too seriously (that would be PR, btw).
In fact, I thought of Bouton a few years ago when I was being introduced as a guest lecturer at BU’s superb school of public relations. The professor, a longtime friend (and role model), said to his students, “I asked quite a few people to best describe Steve Cody in one word. Almost all said “iconoclast.” I dug that (and I’d like to think Bouton would have been proud of me for earning that sobriquet).
R.I.P. Bulldog and smoke ‘em inside!