I remember very clearly the first day of my “American Novel” class as a junior in high school.
The first thing I noticed was that I was one of only two boys in the class. The second thing I noticed was that this group was the upper tier of “brainiacs” at my high school. I didn’t belong with this group.
The teacher went around the room and asked us about our favorite American authors and books we had read.
My elite classmates talked about Steinbeck, and Faulkner and Fitzgerald. When the teacher got to me, I gave the only author I had read over the summer, “Bouton.”
“Who,” she replied.
“Jim Bouton,” I said. “He wrote Ball Four.”
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Part of me was being a “wise ass,” but the reality was that “Ball Four” was my gateway into adult reading. I read a lot as a kid growing up, but it tended to be lightweight stuff where professional athletes were heroes.
“Ball Four” was scandalous for its time. It was a tell-all book about Major League baseball where former New York Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton told tales about amphetamines – “greenies” - in the locker room, Mickey Mantle playing with brutal hangovers and still hitting home runs, and members of the Yankees running around on the rooftops of hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman undressing.
As a 15-year-old, I could not put it down.
Jim Bouton died over the weekend at the age of 80. He was a 20-game winner for the Yankees in the 1960s and won two games in one World Series, but he will mostly be remembered for “Ball Four” where he showed ballplayers as human beings for the first time.
I doubt my 11th grade teacher ever got around to reading Bouton, but because of him, I did get around to reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. In some ways, they never measured up.