Here's Johnny - A fan letter
Some fan I am. While setting up the interview with Terrell Renfro about his attempt to throw a knuckleball for money after hardly picking one up for years, I asked him if he'd read "Ball Four." "Ball Four" is the 1969 diary of Seattle Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton, a former Yankees fireballer turned knuckleball pitcher after throwing his arm out who was, quite literally, hanging on to the game by his fingertips. It was the first unvarnished look inside a professional sports team, it became a bestseller, and it's listed among Time magazine's 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Renfro said he hadn't read it, but had recently spoken by phone with Bouton, the author of the best-selling book. He said Bouton was very helpful, but grew tired after a while - an after-effect of the stroke he suffered a few years ago. Argh. I didn't know. I go back a long way with "Ball Four." I found the paperback edition in my parent's study when I was nine or 10 years old - far too young to get every reference - but old enough to know I'd found a kindred spirit of sorts. Bouton introduced me to the word "iconoclast," which dictionary.com defines as "a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition." In terms of my journalistic career, I prefer the word "skeptic" over "cynic" - but you get the point. "Ball Four" made Bouton famous - even more so than when he'd won 39 games for the New York Yankees during the 1963 and 1964 seasons. It also made him something of a pariah. He was criticizing for telling the truth about the men who played and ran the game of baseball, warts and all - including himself. It wasn't until 1998, the year after his daughter, Laurie, died in an auto accident, that Bouton was invited back to the Yankees old-timers' game, and even then, it took a letter from his son to warm the heart of George Steinbrenner and company. "Ball Four" is, among other good things, one of the funniest books I've ever read. Hardly a diary entry goes by in which Bouton does not find something humorous in the behavior of teammates, coaches, fans and himself. With the help of co-author Leonard Shecter (who seems to have served primarily as editor), Bouton introduced the world to such terms as Baseball Annies (groupies), greenies (amphetamines), and beaver-shooting (the activities of Peeping Toms). Perhaps most important, he humanized athletes. Bouton wrote that he didn't go in for hero worship; that the worshiper must inevitably stoop to do so. However, I chose not to take that piece of advice when it came to Jim Bouton. Several years ago, I wrote a fan email to ol' number 56. Darned if he didn't call me back. It was Aug. 1, 2001, the day massive Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer collapsed and died during practice. We talked about that, and I'm pretty sure I complained a bit about the state of my then-chosen profession; how, in my humble opinion, I was paying something of a price for trying to be a journalist at a station where a consultant told me not to hang the "Golden J." We had a good chat, one I concluded by telling him that if he and his wife were ever in this neck of the woods, I'd be happy to serve as tour guide. Not long afterwards, I replaced my dog-eared and water-stained paperback of "Ball Four" with a new hardback sold online by Bouton. Buyers were given the option to have Bouton write an inscription, and I chose the punch line of a story he told about the day he approached a favorite big-league ballplayer for an autograph. The player looked down and said, "Take a hike, son." At my request, that's what Jim Bouton wrote on the inside cover of my copy of "Ball Four." After Renfro told me about his conversation with Bouton, I immediately did a Google search with the words "Jim Bouton" and "stroke." A July 1 story in the New York Times said that Bouton has had two strokes and suffers from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease linked to dementia. It is not easy for him to communicate, but Bouton did what he could to help Renfro, a man he'd never met. That's my ol' buddy Jim. I wonder how many other strangers he's corresponded with over the years. Perhaps thousands. At the end of "Ball Four," long before Bouton knew how the book would be received, he wrote, "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 Times article noted, among other things, communication issues aside, that the 78-year-old Bouton can still throw a baseball for a strike. That was nice to read.