Last summer I posted a 1963 Topps Jim Bouton card as one of my Featured Cards of the Week. After reading about him, I was curious enough to read his book “Ball Four.” Today, I got the chance to ask him about it in a phone interview.
It was a pleasure talking with him and I’m very thankful he could spare 10 minutes for a fan like me.
Here’s the audio:
Some notable quotes:
- “People call it a “tell-all” book, but it was really a “tell-some” book.”
- “I didn’t realize how angry the sportswriters would be about it.”
- “As far as heroes are concerned, well I don’t think we should really have heroes. I’m against the whole concept. Most people don’t know what other people are really like anyway. But I think he was certainly a hero to his teammates.”
- “I think the owners and the players made a big mistake by not getting involved in banning those drugs a lot earlier than they did.”
- “When you are outspoken against the Yankees then you get on their shitlist and you don’t get invited to stuff like [Old Timers Day], so that’s why I haven’t been invited since then.”
Lenny: It sounds like you and Leonard Shecter had a great relationship. As an aspiring sportswriter, I’d love to hear why you let him edit this book for you?
Jim: He offered to. He was interviewing me about a story of our adoption of a Korean boy. He’s now my son, David, but at that time he was just over from Korea and he was writing a story for a magazine about the adoption. During the course of the interview … he said, “You know you should write a book about baseball.” I said, “It’s funny you should ask I’ve been keeping notes about it.” He said, “Do you have a publisher yet.” And I said, “No, net yet.” He said, “Well I have an agent who could probably get a contract with a publisher and if you need an editor I’d be glad to help out.” And I said, “Sure.” Right now, I’m just writing notes and talking into my tape recorder, but I’d be happy to have you edit the book. So that’s how it came about.
L: Was there one story that was cut out that you wish had been kept?
J: In the book?
J: Uhh, no... Well, “Ball Four” was only about 350 pages, but there were 1,500 pages of transcribed tapes so it only represents about a third of the material. A lot of the stuff I didn’t put in there because I felt it would be invading the players’ privacy. People call it a “tell-all” book, but it was really a “tell-some” book. I didn’t take much fear in to quote the players making racial remarks, anti-Semitic remarks, being in bed with the wrong people, that kind of thing. All … stories were anonymous, and the racial and anti-Semitic remarks never got into the book. But when I was keeping my notes, I didn’t want to edit myself. So I took notes on everything, but a lot of the stuff didn’t get into the book.
L: Gotcha. Did you expect such a big backlash from people in baseball? Why do you think it turned out that way?
J: What happened was, Look Magazine ran excerpts from the book, and it was the most controversial excerpts; you know, Mickey Mantle hitting a home run on a hangover, stuff like that. Unfortunately, the book was supposed to come out that same time in March, but only the excerpts came out. I didn’t realize how angry the sportswriters would be about it. They said I shouldn’t have done the book. Basically, most of them were resentful of the fact that I had access to the bullpens, and the locker rooms, and the hotel rooms, and the dugouts, and they didn’t, so I was able to get a lot more information. So there was a backlash from sportswriters and some people were forming opinions about the book, but the book wasn’t available to read, the book didn’t get into stores until June. So you had March, April and May where a whole wall of anger built up before they were even able to read the book and realize that it was not a nasty book at all it was a funny book.
L: My dad was a big Mickey Mantle fan, he grew up in that day, and he wasn’t pleased to learn about Mickey’s foibles as portrayed in your book. So my dad would like to know, was Mickey worthy of the status of a hero?
J: It depends. Your dad should read Jane Leavy’s book, which is a real in-depth look at Mickey Mantle. A lot of things are explained about why Mickey was the person he was. First of all, Mickey was a great teammate. Secondly, he was a tremendous competitor; he played with pain. He was a very funny guy, so in that sense you couldn’t have had a better teammate. As far as heroes are concerned, well I don’t think we should really have heroes. I’m against the whole concept. Most people don’t know what other people are really like anyway. But I think he was certainly a hero to his teammates. … I forget what the question was.
L: Do you think Mickey was worthy of being a hero?
J: Oh, is he worthy of being a hero? Well it depends on your point of … people have to decide their own heroes. I can’t decide somebody else’s hero for them. I might think somebody is a hero and somebody else doesn’t. So, your dad needs to make up his own mind. But I think what would help is if he read Jane Leavy’s book, “Lost Boy.” Turns out Mickey was molested when he was a child and all sorts of family problems that he had, physical problems. So he comes out to become a very sympathetic character.
L: In “Ball Four” you also disclosed players using “greenies.” I guess what are your thoughts in general about PEDs in baseball today? Should they be legal, should they affect whether a player is inducted into the Hall of Fame?
J: First of all, Greenies are not a performance enhancing drug. Greenies are nothing more than caffeine like Pep Pills or No Doz and kids take them before they take an exam at college and they are up studying all night to take a No Doz and it keeps them awake. It doesn’t make anybody smarter and it doesn’t make any professional athlete bigger, faster or stronger. So the most you could say about Pep Pills is that they are performance enablers; they certainly were not performance enhancers. Steroids and blood doping and other drugs like that actually change the chemistry of your body. They make you bigger, they make you stronger, they make you faster, so they’re not in the same category.
I think both of them should be banned, and should’ve been banned a long time ago because they are dangerous. And as far as guys getting into the Hall of Fame, well, anybody who played during that time and didn’t come forward, should sustain the penalty now. If I had been playing then, I would’ve gone to the Players Association and say, “Look, I don’t want to compete with players that are on drugs.” So you have to protect the non-drug users, I mean even if there’s only two of us, against the guys that are using drugs. I think the owners and the players made a big mistake by not getting involved in banning those drugs a lot earlier than they did.
L: You talked about how you kept a diary, I did know that before I read the book, was it common for players to keep diaries of seasons back then and do you know if it still happens today?
J: No. It wasn’t common at all. The only one who I ever knew kept a diary was Jim Brosnan, and his book came out about 10 years before mine. It was called “The Long Season.” It was a really good book. One of the best things about the book is that he quoted the players and made the dugouts and the bullpens come alive. So I remembered that when I was keeping notes for “Ball Four,” I remembered to write down what players were saying because I would remember their stories at the end of the day when I talked them into my tape recorder, but I would forget the quotes, exactly what they were saying. So most of my notes, which I still have by the way, are quotes.
Players generally were not the kind of guys to keep diaries. Back when I played ball in the ‘60s, most of the guys in the major leagues were high school graduates. They didn’t read books, let alone write ’em.
L: Joe Torre recently declared he plans to attend this year’s Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium and Torre, like you, wrote a book that angered some people on the Yankees. Reader of my website John wanted to ask you, “After a 28-year exile from the Yankees, what was it like coming back to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day in 1998?”
J: Well I wrote about that in the update to “Ball Four,” it’s called “Ball Four: The Final Pitch.” You can read all about that there. But it was a very emotional day for me. The only reason why I got invited to Old Timers Day when I did was my son Michael wrote a letter to The New York Times saying that the Yankees should let bygones be bygones. It was a beautiful letter. The New York Times published that as their Father’s Day piece, and it was such a beautiful letter that the Yankees had no choice but to invite me back to Old Timers Day. So they didn’t invite me back because they wanted to; they invited me back because they had to.
L: Right, have you been invited back ever since? Do you know about this year?
J: After I was invited back in 1998, but I was invited back for two more years, but I haven’t been invited back since then because I’d been outspoken against the new stadium that they built and the tearing down of Macombs Dam Park, which is where the local high schools played in the Bronx. When you are outspoken against the Yankees then you get on their shitlist and you don’t get invited to stuff like that, so that’s why I haven’t been invited since then.