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THE INSIDE TRACK | RANDY HARVEY

Yankees, Bouton Close Book on an Era of Bad Feelings

July 26, 1998|RANDY HARVEY

NEW YORK — The buzz started among the media on the field Saturday as soon as he began the walk down the ramp from the clubhouse to the dugout.

"Who is it?" a young photographer asked, thinking maybe Joe DiMaggio.

"Bouton," a guy told her.

She gave him a puzzled look.

"Jim Bouton," the guy said. "Used to pitch for the Yankees, wrote a book, was persona not grata around here for awhile."

Twenty-eight years, to be exact. It took that long for the New York Yankees to invite him back to Yankee Stadium for an old-timers game, even though he was a pretty fair pitcher for them for seven years in the '60s. He won 21 games one season, 18 another. He won two games in the 1964 World Series.

But he is remembered mostly for writing "Ball Four," a diary of his '69 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros that ripped the cover off baseball.

The book was a product of the times. The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and the coming of age of the Baby Boomers resulted in a period of introspection examining every aspect of life in America--politics, religion, culture, even sports.

If Bouton hadn't written the book, someone else would have. Others followed that, to paraphrase Howard Cosell, told it like it was in professional sports--books such as Leonard Schecter's "The Jocks," Robert Lipsyte's "Sports World," Pete Gent's "North Dallas Forty" and Dan Jenkins' "Semi-Tough." But Bouton was first.

Sitting in the Yankee dugout for the first time in 30 years, Bouton, still looking boyish at 59 despite his full head of gray hair, said he wasn't trying to write an important book.

"I always loved baseball, the game and the people who played it," he said. "It was about ballplayers as human beings, likable guys, funny guys. I still pick the book up from time to time, turn to a page and get a laugh."

If he had an agenda, Bouton said, it was to promote the fledgling players' union.

The lords of baseball, of course, reacted as if he had written the sequel to Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" and perhaps with good reason because Bouton was summoned to read passages from "Ball Four" during the Andy Messersmith case that created free agency.

His eloquent arguments on their behalf notwithstanding, the players felt as threatened as the owners by Bouton's book.

He exposed his two most famous Yankee teammates, Mickey Mantle for hitting a home run with a hangover and Whitey Ford for prolonging his career by doctoring the ball.

Although he didn't name many other names, almost every other player was guilty by association of something. Groupies and greenies were his most provocative topics.

Bouton pointed out, correctly, that the book was tame by today's standards, revealing less about Mantle and Ford than they did about themselves in subsequent autobiographies. It was not a tell-all book. It was a tell-some book.

"There are no racial slurs, no anti-Semitic remarks," he said. "All the sexy stories are anonymous. It wasn't a snoopy book."

Tom Tresh, a Yankee outfielder and shortstop in the '60s who also appeared in Saturday's old-timers game, said he has remained friends with Bouton.

That, however, does not prevent him from calling his former teammate "a traitor."

"Players felt that if you said something in the clubhouse, it stayed there," Tresh said. "Jim betrayed the trust teammates have for each other."

Asked Saturday if he felt like a social leper, Bouton smiled and said, "Not today."

It was reported as recently as last week in one newspaper here that the Yankees chose to ignore him when inviting players to past old-timers games because Mantle refused to come if Bouton did.

Not true, Bouton said. He has it on good authority.

When Mantle's son, Billy, died, Bouton wrote him a letter, sympathizing with him about the tragedy of losing a child.

Mantle called 10 days later, and although Bouton wasn't home, he still has the tape of the message left.

"Hi, Jim, this is Mick," he said. "I got your note and I appreciate it. Also, I want you to know I'm OK about 'Ball Four.' One more thing: I want you to know I'm not the reason you're not invited to old-timers day. I never said none of that. Take it easy, bud."

Last year, Bouton lost a child of his own. Daughter Laurie died at 31 in an automobile accident.

His son, Michael, wrote a letter to the New York Times, suggesting it was time for the Yankees to restore their family by inviting Bouton to the old timers game.

George Steinbrenner agreed.

"It's sort of a sad day because I know I wouldn't be here if not for Laurie's passing," Bouton said. "But it brings back some good memories. I walked into the clubhouse expecting it to be the same, with the gray, green carpeting, the exposed pipes and the wire mesh between lockers. I liked it the old way, but, then, I'm an old ballplayer."

Notice he didn't say old author.

Bouton once wrote, "You spend much of your life gripping a baseball, then realize it was the other way around all the time."

Reporters were still firing questions when Bouton grabbed his glove and excused himself.

"You know, I see my teammates throwing the ball around," he said. "I'm going to play some catch."

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