Saturday, June 12, 2010

Jim Bouton and the Power of Reflection

Most baseball fans who cared probably read Ball Four forty years ago. Back then I was too busy doing my homework to take the time to read a baseball book, especially a "bestseller" that purported to "tell the truth about the game." In case the name of the book doesn't immediately ring a bell for you, Ball Four relates the personal experience of Jim Bouton, a former World Series championship pitcher for the New York Yankees, who has turned 30. For the 1969 season, seemingly nearing the end of his short career, he is headed to the minor leagues to develop a knuckleball in order to work his way back to the major leagues.

At a distance of four decades, Ball Four offers unexpected insights, and not just for baseball fans. It was the nature of the book, rather than the content, that held my attention these last couple of weeks. Not that the content is not interesting. The book has historical interest, for example.

In 1969, players had limited options if they wanted to play in the Major Leagues. Once they signed a contract, the club that signed them controlled their negotiating power by means of a provision then known as baseball's "Reserve Clause." If you know the history, you know that players have since turned the tables on management. The clubhouse in 1969, though, was a different world.

Ball Four, though, chronicles more than the events of the season. Bouton, a bit of a square peg as a thinking player, thought critically about the prevailing feelings and attitudes - of other players, as well as management. He recorded his thoughts each day, so the narrative has an immediacy that few memoirs can achieve. His daily recordings became increasingly reflective. As the season wore on, Bouton questioned almost every aspect of the league, the clubhouse, and the prevailing "wisdom" of the players.

About the same time that Jim Bouton was writing this book, I was writing daily journal posts, originally as an assignment for Michael Zajic, my high school English teacher, and later, as a personal pursuit that I kept up for years. As I read Ball Four, I could not help seeing Bouton's thoughts grow deeper, more profound, more intellectually honest. In Bouton's narrative, I recognized the personal transformation that I had gone through with the journaling process, although for me, it took far longer than a single baseball season.

If we stick with these daily reflective writings about our world (both external and internal), the process can ultimately help us increase our powers of observation, and eventually, our understanding of ourselves. Bouton does not disappoint in this aspect. Since high school, I have read many, many baseball books. For the development in his reflective thinking, and for his ability and willingness to share his reflections with us, Bouton's ending is my favorite.

His last musings begin with hearing about the fate of a fellow former major league pitcher whom a taxi driver tells him is now pitching in the Kentucky Industrial League. I'll let Bouton say the rest himself:

"Then I thought, would I do that? When it's over for me, would I be hanging on with the Ross Eversoles? I went down deep and the answer I came up with was yes.

"Yes, I would. You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

The Jim Bouton of the opening pages of the early season would not have allowed himself to think that, let alone to express it with a poetical flair. Coming at the end of Bouton's season, it demonstrates the power of daily, disciplined reflection to ultimately penetrate layers of tough surfaces, helping us find our essential truth.

1 comment:

  1. Nice essay. I read Ball Four as a 13 year old in 1969. I still read it at the beginning of every baseball season.

    Bouton was a hero to me and I loved his candor and unabridled liberalism during a time when our country had just elected Richard Nixon and Vietnam was a real possibility that any kid my age thought of.

    If you have not read Boutons, Ball Four: The Final Chapter, I urge you to do so. He writes about a personal tragedy in a manner that I have never seen before. The bluntness hits you right in the face, and if you remember charachters from the book you will feel Boutons pain and gut wrenching emotion.

    I correspond with Mr. Bouton after my yearly readings and plan on forwarding your essay along with my annual e-mail.

    I enjoyed your piece.

    Jim Bunn
    Dewitt Michigan