THT Interview:  Jim Bouton

A few evenings ago, I had the pleasure of spending 40 or so minutes on the telephone with Jim Bouton. We thought perhaps THT readers might enjoy catching up with old number 56, the Yankees’ 20-game winner and author of Ball Four as well as Foul Ball.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago dealing with the Seattle Pilots, and down at the bottom, really kind of incidentally, I threw in a little plug for Ball Four, simply because it’s a terrific book. A friend of Bouton noticed this and passed it along to him, and that very day I had an e-mail from Bouton thanking me for it. An exchange of e-mails ensued and led to our phone conversation.

By all means, I don’t know Bouton well. Our entire correspondence consists of a few short e-mails, various phone messages and a short call or two between Bouton and my wife (“He’s very nice!” she asserts) as we were synchronizing our schedules for the following conversation. The impression he’s made in our brief encounters is of an affable, genuine and interesting guy, intellectually curious and deeply engaged with the world around him, actively enjoying life in his mid-60s.

A word of warning: our discussion ventured beyond the subject of baseball and into the realms of politics and popular culture. I found, frankly, that though he was cordial and articulate throughout, Bouton’s energy in the conversation distinctly perked up when we talked about the broader world. It’s clear that his interests and passions don’t revolve around baseball.

On Major League Baseball Today

I started out by asking Bouton if he’s a big baseball fan. His answer: “Sort of.” He says he’s “a fan of the game,” but not a fan of the modern MLB, which he characterizes as a “circus,” too full of “hype and hoopla.” Bouton says he tunes in to the playoffs and World Series, to check out how players will do “under pressure.” But he prefers to watch a random Little League game or just a bunch of kids throwing the ball around.

As a kid, growing up in New Jersey, Bouton was a New York Giants fan, but then his family moved to Illinois and the Giants moved to San Francisco, and since then no particular team has captivated him. He just roots for whatever team is “the underdog.” He reports that he rooted for the Red Sox in 2004 and the White Sox in ’05: “I’m two for two!”

I asked Bouton his opinion of Commissioner Bud Selig. He replied that he thinks Selig got the Wild Card concept right, and that he’s pleased that MLB has finally come down hard against steroid use, although Bouton says he wishes they’d gotten serious about it earlier. He blames the Major League Baseball Players Association for resisting steroid testing, for protecting the interests of players who’ve been using steroids over the interests of those who haven’t.

I asked Bouton if he could compare and contrast the use of steroids with that of greenies (amphetamines), and he characterized it this way: greenies are “performance enablers,” while steroids are “performance enhancers.” Greenies, Bouton said, are something players in his day would use to help recover from a hangover, to get back to normal or something approximating it, but they didn’t actually develop muscle. In his view the two drugs aren’t comparable.

But Bouton is emphatic in his condemnation of Selig and MLB ownership in general over their ongoing program of using public money to construct new stadiums. Bouton finds the concept disgusting, and “worst of all,” he laments, “they aren’t even embarrassed about it.” That any private, for-profit commercial enterprise should demand taxpayers to fund its facilities is bad enough, Bouton fumes, but it’s most appalling in an economically troubled municipality such as Washington, D.C. “How anyone could walk through the public schools of Washington, D.C.,” Bouton wonders, “and then say that paying for a new professional baseball stadium should be that city’s priority, amazes me.”

On the Analysis of Baseball

After commiserating with Bouton on that subject, I shifted gears and brought up the topic of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Bouton is going to be the keynote speaker at SABR’s 2006 national convention in Seattle next June. I asked him how familiar he is with the organization. “Quite familiar,” he replied, noting that Jim Charlton, SABR’s publications director, is an old college buddy. I asked Bouton if he could provide a definition for the term “sabermetrics,” and he was game, if a bit tentative: “It’s using statistical analysis to study the results of the game … right?” I told him he’d hit the nail on the head.

So I asked Bouton if, when he was a player, his teams had employed much statistical analysis to inform their decisions. He replied by reminding me of an anecdote he related in Ball Four. Bouton assiduously recorded the stats of his own performance, and at one point with the Pilots in 1969, after he’d compiled a nice streak of effective outings, he went into manager Joe Schultz’s office and presented the evidence of how few hits, walks and runs he’d been surrendering recently. Bouton then asked Schultz if this might merit a promotion in the pitching staff hierarchy, perhaps a shot at the starting rotation. Schultz’s reply, Bouton says, was pretty much the stereotypical old-school outlook of the day, something to the effect of: “I don’t need any statistics. I can see everything I need just with my own eyes.” Bouton was reminded of the classic Peanuts strip in which Lucy explains all the stats of their ball club’s performance, and Charlie Brown says, “Tell your statistics to shut up.”

Bouton says the real issue wasn’t that management in his day wasn’t open to statistics; they used them all the time, paying close attention to batting averages, win-loss records and such. He says the issue was that they weren’t open to any new statistics, and as a result they often wound up focusing on the wrong metric in assessing a player.

On Pitch Counts

I inquired whether the practice of carefully recording pitch counts was prevalent when Bouton was a young player. Absolutely not, he says. He never played Little League, as it wasn’t well established in the time and place of his boyhood. “We just played sandlot ball, stickball, pickup games. Every Saturday and every Sunday in the spring and every day all summer, all day long.” I told him I had enjoyed the same experience a generation later, and understood exactly what he was describing. Bouton emphasized, “No one told us what we couldn’t do. I was throwing curve balls all day long at the age of 8 and 9. I had a great overhand curve by the time I was 10. We just played ball.”

Even into high school, college and professional baseball, pitch counts were never closely watched in Bouton’s experience. They kept a chart of the pitches, he notes, but that was more for the purpose of seeing which pitches were effective and where balls were hit than for a pitch count. “We just pitched until we fell over.” So I asked if he perceived the close attention to pitch counts in recent years as a step forward, and he says that, yes, it is, “especially for the smaller guys, like Pedro. Not everyone’s built to throw as many pitches as the big strong guys.”

On the Knuckleball

I asked Bouton if perhaps the knuckleball might be an underutilized weapon in the modern pitching arsenal, that could help with pitchers’ durability. He was skeptical. The issue, he says, is the amount of work that must be devoted to perfecting the pitch. “One reason I was able to turn to the knuckleball in the major leagues was that I’d already learned to throw it, as a kid. When I was playing sandlot ball, throwing overhand curves, I also taught myself the knuckler.”

Bouton then told a great story. “When I was in junior high school, I was just a little guy. At lunchtime we’d play catch, and I’d always throw the knuckleball, and nobody could catch it. So guys who knew me would go find the biggest, toughest seniors, and say, ‘Hey, you see that skinny little kid over there? Five bucks says you can’t catch 10 of his throws in a row.’ And so the big tall senior kid would take the bet and come over, and sure enough, that knuckler would catch him square in the forehead, or in the chest, or the knee. And then he’d be over with his buddies, saying, ‘Hey, you see that skinny little kid over there? Ten bucks says …’” We shared a laugh.

The knuckleball requires an immense time investment, Bouton says. “You have to throw a million of them before you get any good with it. You have to be extremely patient. You really have to love it.” He wonders how many young pitchers today, particularly in the modern culture of short attention spans, have that kind of patience.

On Old Friends

I asked Bouton if he still keeps in touch with any of his former teammates. “Oh, sure,” was his immediate reply. “Gary Bell, Phil Linz. Guys like that.” I noted that he and Bell had been teammates for only a few months, yet they’d struck up a friendship that’s lasted nearly 40 years. Such are the mysteries of life, we agreed.

On Politics

I told Bouton that I recalled watching the 1972 Democratic National Convention on television, and seeing Bouton there as a New Jersey delegate. “You remember that?” Bouton marveled. He told me the story of how he had come to be a McGovern delegate at that convention, although he says that in his role as vice chairman, his major task was “going out for food.” But it was a very positive experience, he said.

Bouton then related the tale of one of his first exposures to the workings of politics. When he was playing for the Yankees in 1968, someone approached him with a petition requesting that the Olympic team from South Africa be banned from that year’s summer Olympics in Mexico City, unless South African athletes of color were allowed to compete. Bouton saw the justice in the demand as self-evident, and he didn’t anticipate he’d have any difficulty getting many of his teammates and other major league ballplayers to sign the petition. He was proved wrong. “Not only was there only one other player on the Yankees—Ruben Amaro—who would sign the petition, not one single other ballplayer in the major leagues would sign it.” Bouton was appalled.

But at the request of the petition-sponsoring organization, he and Amaro traveled to Mexico City anyway, to present the issue to the Olympic Committee. Bouton says he was given a rude awakening regarding the inner sanctum of the Olympics. “They knew all about the discrimination against the black South African athletes, and they simply didn’t care. They were a bunch of pompous racists. It was sickening.”

I asked Bouton for his opinion regarding the war in Iraq. He became even more animated. “You can search the Internet and verify this: before the U.S. invasion I was on record as being opposed to it. I opposed it because though the US had the means to be successful militarily, we didn’t have anything close to the means to handle what would come next. We didn’t have nearly enough understanding of that country’s language and culture, just like in Vietnam. In the U.S., our rocket science is way ahead of our social science.

“And here’s the thing: I’m not any kind of expert or genius about this stuff. I’m just a regular guy, and I could see this clearly. What’s happened over there is exactly what ordinary people like me predicted would happen. If civilians like me could see this, how in the world could the politicians not have seen it coming?”

I told Bouton I could only agree, and that my wife and I, along with thousands of others, had participated in rallies and marches in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, before it commenced. I suggested that the really sad part wasn’t just that the Bush administration didn’t see what so many others saw, both here and around the world, but that they apparently didn’t want to see it.

Bouton spoke very forcefully. “Any politician who didn’t see what would go wrong in Iraq isn’t worth a ####. Their actions are disgraceful. Please quote me on that.”

On His Life These Days

I asked Bouton what a typical week in his life is like these days. “Oh, I’m always involved in some project,” he replied, citing his campaign to save the historic ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as an example. “When I was a kid,” Bouton observed, “There were three things I was always doing: throwing a ball, drawing a picture or building a fort. One way or another, I still am.” I asked him what he does to stay physically fit. The soon-to-be-67-year-old reports that he plays squash pretty regularly. With a morose chuckle, he added, “And I shovel snow.” Then, “I also work with stone, building stone walls. I like to keep active.”

Does he ever go to the movies? “Oh, definitely. My wife and I are big movie fans. I especially like the ‘indies,’ the films that really demonstrate the craft of moviemaking. I don’t like science fiction, special effects, Lord of the Rings, that kind of big-budget spectacle stuff.”

I asked for his opinion on a few recent films. Good Night and Good Luck? “Loved it!” Capote? “Loved it! Philip Seymour Hoffman should win the award for Best Actor.” Pride and Prejudice? Bouton seemed to squirm a bit. “I don’t really … I know this might not sound good, but I call those kinds of things ‘tits and twits’ movies, you know?” I laughed, but had to report that I had loved that film. Bouton admitted that, as “tits and twits” vehicles went, Pride and Prejudice wasn’t so bad. “The one thing I didn’t buy, though, was how it is that the father is supposed to be having so much trouble marrying off those daughters. Are you kidding me? Who cares about a dowry, with faces like that?” On that I couldn’t help but express full agreement.

I asked Bouton what kind of books he reads. “I’m embarrassed to say,” he replied, “that I’m really not much of a reader. My wife says I write more books than I read.” We shared a chuckle. He continued, “I read about books all the time. I devour the book review section in the newspaper. I read The New Yorker cover to cover.” He was able to name a couple of titles of books he’s recently read. “I really enjoyed Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. And also, The End of Faith, by Sam Harris.” I responded that the latter was one I’ve had my eye on in the bookstores, but haven’t gotten to yet. “Read it,” Bouton urges. “It’s phenomenal.”

What kind of music does Bouton enjoy? “I don’t listen to CDs much. I listen to the radio in the car, mostly the Hudson Valley oldies station, 92.9 [WPBM]. I guess my favorite music is from the ’60s; it started to go bad in the late ’70s. I also really enjoy older music, even from before I was born. I like listening to Caruso, that kind of stuff.”

On Matters Epicurean

I saved the coverage of the really important issues for last. Pizza: thin crust or deep dish? “The crust isn’t what’s so important, but this is: pizza ought to be greasy, with lots of cheese, dripping all over your hands. You’ll never catch me eating any of that chi-chi stuff, with vegetables on it. If you want vegetables, eat a salad.”

And most crucially of all: chocolate chip cookies, soft or crisp? This was a topic that clearly captivated Bouton’s passion. “This is what it is: the cookie itself should be a little bit crunchy. But it’s still hot, and so the chocolate is still a little gooey. And the cookie needs to be thin, not so thick that you can’t see where the chocolate chips are. And no walnuts!”

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