“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 2016.

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