Jim Bouton, Author of the Baseball Tell-All 'Ball Four,' Dies at 80

Tim Boyle/Newsmakers
Jim Bouton

The former Yankees pitcher also appeared opposite pal Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's 'The Long Goodbye' and starred in a CBS sitcom.

Jim Bouton, the former All-Star pitcher for the New York Yankees who threw baseball the ultimate curve with the publication of his 1970 tell-all book, Ball Four, has died. He was 80.

Bouton died Wednesday at his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, his family said. He suffered two strokes in 2012 that impaired his memory and five years later was diagnosed with a brain disease linked to dementia.

In addition to baseball, Bouton had a dalliance with Hollywood, appearing in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) as a sleazy friend of private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) and starring in a CBS sitcom adaptation of Ball Four that lasted a mere five episodes in 1976.

Bouton was nearing the end of his major-league career when sportswriter Leonard Shecter convinced him to start a season-long diary on life in the big leagues. In 1969, while pitching for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, he began the process of chronicling conversations he'd had and scenes he had witnessed.

Excerpts were initially released in Look magazine, generating fierce reactions from players, management and other sportswriters who vilified Bouton and Shecter for rendering an honest account of behavior that went on beyond the baseball diamond.

By detailing amphetamines use, alcoholism and sexual hijinks on the Yankees and other teams, Ball Four represented the first attempt to pull back the curtain on the seamy side of professional sports.

"I didn't know the value of it," Bouton told The New York Times in 2017. "I was just really sharing the nonsense. Every once in a while, I would transfer the notes to audio and send in my tapes. I'd call Shecter and say, 'Is this interesting?' And he'd say: 'Are you kidding? Keep going!' "

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn publicly rebuked Bouton, demanding that he renounce the book as fiction. He refused. Dick Young, a Hall of Fame baseball columnist for the New York Daily News, called Bouton "a social leper" for naming names and breaking the code of silence rampant in sports media at the time.

But when Ball Four was first released in summer 1970, it quickly sold 200,000 copies in hardcover and generated some glowing reviews that praised the author for providing insight into the physical and mental tolls professional athletes experience.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam termed the book "a breakthrough in iconoclasm. Here was an unconventional guy who had the chutzpah to point out that the gods had the gall to do ungodlike things."

During an appearance on The Tonight Show in August 1977, Bouton told Johnny Carson that Yankees superstar Mickey Mantle was still not speaking to him because of some of the salacious passages in the book.

"Probably the most controversial thing I said is that one time Mickey Mantle came up to bat and hit a home run with a hangover," Bouton said to Carson. "He came in the dugout and we said, 'How'd you do it, Mick?' and he said, 'I hit the middle ball.'

"I put it in there because I thought it was a tribute to what a great ballplayer he was — and also to point out that ballplayers don't come back to the hotel and have milk and cookies when the game is over."

The New York Public Library selected Ball Four as one of its Books of the Century, the only sports title on its list, in 1995.

He and Gould first met at an antiwar rally in New York and played pickup basketball together. In the middle of the night, he got a phone call from the actor, who was away making The Long Goodbye. Bouton recalled the conversation in the 2009 book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography:

"It's Elliott. 'I'm here in California and we're on the phone with Bob Altman. Stacy Keach got sick and can't play this role. I told Bob you're perfect — it's a guy who kills his wife and runs to Mexico. So throw a toothbrush in a bag and come out here.' It's like the Yankees reaching up in the stands to some guy and saying, 'We're putting you at third base today.'

"I flew out there and they gave me a script. Altman said, 'Don't worry about the script. The situation is that you and Marlowe are old friends. You haven't seen him in a while. Talk about what guys talk about — but at some point in the conversation you have to tell him you need a ride to the border."

For the film, the director needed a shot of Bouton lying in a box of ice, naked. "Altman says, 'You need to come down here and take your clothes off — it'll be discreet. Just a few of us.' I can handle that," Bouton recalled. "Two days later we had a wrap party and there were drinks and there were coasters all around. Guess what was printed on the coasters? Pictures of me, naked in the ice."

James Alan Bouton was born on March 8, 1939, in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up as a fan of the New York Giants. His father, George, was a business executive. He had two younger brothers, Bob and Pete, and the family lived in suburban New Jersey and then Chicago Heights, Illinois.

At Bloom Township High School, he pitched so infrequently on the baseball team that he earned the nickname "Warmup Bouton." But he developed a knuckleball and threw a no-hitter as a senior before enrolling at Western Michigan University, where the 6-foot right-hander earned a scholarship.

The Yankees signed him for $30,000 in 1958, and he began his journey through the club's minor-league system, with stops in Auburn, New York; Kearney, Nebraska; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Amarillo, Texas before joining the Bronx Bombers for spring training in 1962.

To the surprise of many, including Bouton himself, he made the team. He was assigned No. 56, a uniform number traditionally handed out to players who were unlikely to avoid another stint in the minors. (Bouton kept that number throughout his career as a vivid reminder of how much work he put in to advance to the big leagues.)

The 1962 Yankees were a star-studded club led by slugger Mantle and other future Hall of Famers like pitcher Whitey Ford and catcher-outfielder Yogi Berra. In his first major-league start, Bouton threw a shutout, and he finished his rookie season with a 7-7 record.

That was also the year he married Bobbie Heister, whom he had met in college. A son, Michael, was born in 1963 and a daughter, Laurie, arrived in 1966 before the Boutons adopted Kyong Jo, a boy from Korea. (Laurie was killed in a car accident in 1997.)

In 1963, Bouton won 21 games with a 2.53 ERA and earned an All-Star invitation, and he started Game 3 of the World Series, losing 1-0 to Don Drysdale and the Dodgers. Bouton's competitive drive led New York Post sportswriter Maury Allen to give him the nickname "Bulldog," and his cap often flew off his head when delivering a pitch.

After winning 18 games in 1964 and adding two World Series victories against the St. Louis Cardinals, Bouton was hindered by a sore biceps in 1965 and never regained his form. Demoted to the minors by the Astros in 1970, he retired from baseball.

He spent the next several years as a sports anchor for WABC-TV and WCBS-TV in New York. 

In 1977, he decided to give baseball another shot, and after pitching in Mexico and in the lowest rungs of the minor leagues, his knuckleball came alive and he was signed by Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves at age 38. He beat the San Francisco Giants late in the 1978 season before retiring again, this time for good. (Bouton's lifetime big-league record: 62-63.)

After he and Heister divorced, Bouton married Paula Kurman in 1978 and became a fixture on the lecture circuit, speaking on college campuses. He had been a delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention and was always outspoken on political and social issues, including South Africa's apartheid policy.

Bouton wrote several other books, including updates of Ball Four; a 1994 novel, Strike Zone; and 2003's Foul Ball, about his attempt to save Wahconah Park, an aging ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He also was one of the inventors of Big League Chew, a shredded bubblegum sold in a tobacco-like pouch.

None other than Pauline Kael in The New Yorker praised Bouton's turn as playboy Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye, and he was asked in 2008 if he had ever considered making another movie. "Yeah, I considered making a lot of films," he laughed, "but no one else ever asked me."

The Ball Four sitcom, sandwiched on CBS between Good Times and All in the Family on Wednesday nights, starred Bouton as Jim Barton, an aging pitcher for the fictional Washington Americans who writes tell-all stories for Sports Illustrated. (Former Oakland Raider Ben Davidson played catcher "Rhino" Rhinelander.)

When he and the show's co-creators, New York newspaper writers Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel, were told Ball Four had been canceled, "We said, 'Ohhh, thank you!" Bouton recalled. "Now we can live our lives — we can sleep, we can have weekends, we can have friends over. We can be real people again!' It was like, 'God, please don't let me write any more scripts!' "

The publication of Ball Four elevated Bouton into a public figure, but the ramifications were long lasting. For nearly three decades, he was excluded from Old-Timers Day events at Yankee Stadium. That changed in 1998 after Michael Bouton wrote a Father's Day open letter to The New York Times, detailing the family's overwhelming pain in the wake of Laurie's death at age 31.

A month later, Bouton received a standing ovation when he strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium, wearing his familiar No. 56.

Survivors include his wife.