Jim Bouton, a pitcher of modest achievement but a celebrated iconoclast who left a lasting mark on baseball as the author of “Ball Four,” a raunchy, shrewd, irreverent — and best-selling — player’s diary that tainted the game’s wholesome image, died Wednesday at his home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. He was 80.
He died after a long struggle with vascular dementia, said his wife, Paula Kurman. Bouton had a stroke in 2012 and in 2017 revealed he had a brain disease called cerebral amyloid angiopathy.
When it was published in 1970, “Ball Four,” which reported on the selfishness, dopiness, childishness and mean-spiritedness of young men often lionized for playing a boy’s game very well, was viewed by many readers, approvingly or not, as a scandalous betrayal of the so-called sanctity of the clubhouse.
But the book, which was Bouton’s account of the 1969 baseball season, seven years after his big-league debut with the New York Yankees, had a larger narrative — namely his attempt, at age 30, to salvage a once-promising career by developing the game’s most peculiar and least predictable pitch: the knuckleball.
The pitch, which is optimally delivered with no spin, requires finesse, fingertip strength and a good deal of luck; without spin, the ball is subject to the air currents on the way to the plate, causing it to move erratically, making it difficult for the hitter (not to mention the catcher and the umpire) to track, and just as difficult for the pitcher to control.
In the book, the pitch becomes an apt metaphor for Bouton’s view of himself as an eccentric fellow in a baseball society of conservative go-alongs, stubbornly following his own path and yet dependent on the whimsy of outside forces.
In the 1969 season, Bouton played for an American League expansion team, the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers), who demoted him for a time to the minor league affiliate in Vancouver and eventually traded him to the Houston Astros, then in the National League. The book, originally published with the subtitle “My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Major Leagues,” was, in many ways, a chronicle of the insecurities of an athlete, a one-time star, approaching the end of the line.
In addition to his wife, Bouton, who lived in western Massachusetts, is survived by two sons, Michael and David (who was adopted from Korea as a boy and was called Kyong Jo at the start of “Ball Four”); two stepchildren; and six grandchildren.