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Remembering Jim Bouton

August 4, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Former major-league pitcher, Jim Bouton, passed away early last month. Most fans likely remember Bouton for his baseball memoir, Ball Four, but my first memory of him is from his 1966 Strat-O-Matic Baseball card. Bouton experienced great success early in his career, but a sore arm drove him out of baseball after the 1970 season at the age of 31.

Bouton began his big-league career with the New York Yankees in 1962 with a 7-7 record. The next season he went 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA. Bouton followed up that campaign with 18 wins in 1964 and then won the last two World Series games the Yankees would win until 1977.

Bouton’s decline began in 1965 when he went 4-15, and he would win only 11 more games over the next five seasons while trying to hang on as a knuckleball pitcher. Ball Four chronicled his 1969 season, mostly with the expansion Seattle Pilots. The tell-all book made him popular with fans, but not so much with baseball insiders.

© T.C.G.

 

I did not see Bouton pitch in his glory days with the Yankees, but photos of his delivery seem to demonstrate why he developed arm trouble. He dropped down his arm, reached way behind his back, came straight over the top of his shoulder, and fired the baseball homeward with as much force as possible. Bouton exerted so much effort that his cap flew off on most of his pitches.

Bouton started a comeback in 1975 with the independent Portland Mavericks in the Northwest League, and he was 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts. He left baseball in 1976 to work on a television series based on Ball Four, but CBS cancelled the show after five episodes, so he resurrected his comeback in 1977. Bill Veeck, owner of the Chicago White Sox, gave Bouton a shot, and he started the season in AA Knoxville of the Southern League. After a 0-6 start that included a 5.26 ERA, he was back in Portland where he was 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA.

In 1978 another unconventional owner, Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves, gave Bouton a shot, and he spent most of the summer with AA Savannah in the Southern League. I saw Bouton pitch the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Nashville Sounds on July 5. Before a standing-room crowd of 10,140, he gave up just three hits, walked six, struck out six, and earned an 8-3 complete-game victory. The win evened his record at 5-5, and he finished the season at 11-8 with a 2.82 ERA.

Ball Four, among some other excellent baseball books, including The Long Season and The Natural.

The Braves called up Bouton to the big club, and on September 10 he made a start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Unfortunately, Bouton gave up six runs in five innings and took the loss.

In his second start, Bouton gave up one unearned run over six innings and earned a win against the San Francisco Giants; it was his first big-league victory in over eight years.

Bouton pitched well in his next two starts, receiving a no-decision and a tough-luck loss. He pitched his final game in the major leagues on September 29, and it did not go well; the Cincinnati Reds scored seven runs in three innings. Bouton’s comeback came to an end with a 1-3 record and an ERA of 4.97.

Bouton was a 20-game winner, an All-Star, and 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA for the Yankees in World Series action. That’s how fans should remember Bouton. And, oh yeah, he also wrote a bestseller.

Jim Bouton passed away on July 10 after battling dementia. He was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; game details are from the Nashville Banner, Retrosheet, and the Tennessean. Details of Bouton’s comeback are from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).)

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