With the second pick in the Star Tribune’s happy-hour Greatest Sports Books Ever Written, I select…
Ball Four, written by Jim Bouton.
One of sport’s first “tell-all” books, Ball Four got its title as a suggestion from a drunk woman in a bar. It’s a diary that aging, major-league junkball pitcher Jim Bouton kept with the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1969 – their only season as such – and it violated baseball’s fundamental law: What you see and hear in the clubhouse and on buses and planes, stays there. Ball Four told the stories – players’ obscene jokes, their womanizing, drunkenness and drug use – that he told David Letterman 12 years after its 1970 publication “used the language of the locker room and told some things that hadn’t been told before.” Relatively tame by today’s standards, it ticked baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn off something fierce and alienated sportswriters and ballplayers alike. It also angered Yankees fans, too, when it provided the first indication of former teammate and Yankees great Mickey Mantle’s off-field issues. The book detailed an extra-innings game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington when Mantle came off the bench after being hungover all game and hit the winning home run. When the book’s author went up to his locker after the game and asked the Mick how he did that when he could barely see, Mantle reportedly said it was simple: He just swung at the ball and hit the middle one. The librarian at the Albert Lea public library apparently never heard of Ball Four and didn’t know of its themes because I remember checking the book out when I was 11 or 12, thinking it was strictly a baseball book and finding it something completely different. I haven’t read it for years and years, but should again, soon. I think it’s still in print, updated at least three times before Bouton died at age 80 in summer 2019.
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