The world of baseball as seen through the eyes of its players might have long remained mythical and elusive were it not for Jim Bouton, who passed away at 80 years old today per the New York Daily News after battling a brain disease linked to dementia. While Bouton’s playing career spanned nearly two decades, few players wove as interesting a path through the big leagues and beyond.
After serving in the army for six months, Bouton was a key member of a couple pennant runs for the Yankees in the early 60s before injuries took their toll. Bouncing around the league, a limited but still effective Bouton joined the Seattle Pilots for their lone season of existence in 1969. Bouton’s outspoken nature made him a lightning rod in his time as baseball was facing a conflict between the heroic portrayals of the Golden Age and a desire for realism and relatability from younger generations. That openness made him a divisive teammate and irritated management, who saw their methods exposed to the media by the forthright right-hander. He remained outspoken on the behalf of causes for both himself and others, signing a statement supporting a U.S. boycott of the 1968 Olympics if Apartheid South Africa’s whites-only teams were allowed in the games, going so far as to journey to Mexico City to attempt to meet the Olympic Committee.
Bouton spent just part of the season with the Pilots before being traded to the Houston Astros, however his publishing of Ball Four - My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues in the spring of 1970 would be one of the most important events in baseball in the second half of the 20th century. Ball Four changed the way many viewed baseball, revealing the salacious details of the baseball life as well as the inescapable grind of a player trying to keep their head above water. Despite a public chastisement from the commissioner, he returned to pitch for part of 1970 before retiring from baseball. He would return from retirement eight years later to pitch 29.0 more innings for the Atlanta Braves at the age of 39 before calling it quits.
In his “retirement” Bouton remained around the game, becoming a co-founder of Big League Chew, the now famous bubble gum designed to resemble chaw. Despite his immense influence on the game and continued involvement in the sport in many arenas, Bouton was blackballed for years by many who felt wronged by his exposé. It was not until 2018 that the New York Yankees invited Bouton to their Old Timer’s Day, where he was greeted to a standing ovation. Bouton may not have been a Mariner, but his work transformed the Seattle Pilots from what could’ve otherwise been a mere drop of paint on baseball’s tapestry into part of the essential baseball literature.
Rest in peace, Jim Bouton.