OUTSIDE GREAT BARRINGTON — A half-century ago, Jim Bouton threw so hard that his hat routinely flew off his head.
Today, the Bulldog is still lean and trim at 75, and he throws knuckleballs that dance through the sweet Berkshire air. Last year, he even started for the Whately Pioneers in a Vintage Base Ball game.
“I pitched against 35-year-old guys,” says the former Yankee All-Star. “I’m still competitive.”
He keeps in shape by tossing baseballs against a cinder-block wall he built in the backyard. Cocoa, the housekeeper’s dog, retrieves the baseballs as Bouton laughs at the spitball-producing border collie.
Bouton is forever in motion.
“I call him ‘Twitchy,’ ” says his wife, Paula Kurman, who wears Bouton’s 1962 World Series ring. “He’s always moving.”
There are no neighbors in sight here on his 22 acres of paradise, just the soft greens of the mountains, which rise steeply like the old upper deck of Yankee Stadium.
Bouton is eager to show off the stone walls he has built from scratch on top of the shale he has unearthed.
It’s ironic that the man who knocked down walls in baseball with the 1970 best-selling book, “Ball Four,” is now building them up.
“I think my inner soul is a crafts person,” he says. “I really liked spending time with ‘Ball Four’ shaping the sentences and the pacing and everything.”
Building a stone wall is similar, he says.
“I like placing the stones just right, so they can look right,” he says.
He says he crafted “Ball Four” just for fun. In 1969, his fastball gone, he hooked up with the Seattle Pilots as a knuckleballer and kept a diary. He scribbled in little notebooks, on popcorn bags, bar coasters, and air-sickness bags. He also included stories from his eight-year Yankee career.
“Ball Four” changed sportswriting and perceptions of heroes forever. Secrets were spilled, and a sacred code was violated. Bouton was alternately praised and vilified for telling us that Mickey Mantle drank too much and looked up women’s skirts with his teammates.
George Frazier of the Globe called the book a “revolutionary manifesto” while Dick Young of the New York Daily News called Bouton a “social leper.” Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanded that Bouton apologize, but Bouton refused.
“Ball Four” wound up being chosen as one of the Books of the Century by the New York Public Library.
Bouton, who won 39 games for the Yankees in 1963-64 and beat the Cardinals twice in the 1964 World Series, was rooting for the Red Sox in 2004 to beat the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
“At that point, yes, I was rooting for the ‘Sawx,’ ” he says, switching to a Boston accent. “I root for the underdog.”
And he enjoyed pitching in Boston as a visitor.
“I loved pitching at Fenway Park,” he says. “When the Yankee team bus pulled up at 3 p.m., there would be 200 people screaming at you, ‘Hey, we’re going to beat you!’ ’’
But one day Bouton pushed his luck with Hub fans when he imitated Red Sox closer Dick Radatz.
“One Sunday afternoon, I pitched a shutout and right after the game, I thought it would be a good idea to walk off the field hands up over my head, just like Dick Radatz, the Monster,” he says. “Why not?
“That place went nuts. They were throwing stuff, food, and I had to dodge bottles, cans, you name it.’’
Bouton still loves baseball. Perhaps he’d be a good choice to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner.
“Why not? ” he says. “Throw my hat in the ring.”
The man who revealed the widespread use of amphetamines (“greenies”) by baseball players says he has the solution to the PED problem in the game.
“It boils down to this: One strike and you’re out,” says Bouton. “So I’m calling myself Kenesaw Bouton Landis.”
He wants a blue ribbon panel of trainers, coaches, and doctors appointed to determine what impact PEDs have on baseball and then adjust the statistics accordingly.
Bouton promises more details in an updated “Ball Four: The Final Pitch,” which will soon be released in trade paperback, he says. Told that the book has already been updated numerous times, Bouton laughs.
“I promise this will be the last time,” he says.
As commissioner, Bouton also would cut down the times of games.
“I would eliminate Velcro — that would eliminate 45 minutes right there,” he says.
He’d also make batters stay in the box.
“Get into the batter’s box for Chrissakes and stay there,” he says. “If you want to step out, fine, but the pitcher can pitch the ball. If the batter chooses not to step in, that’s his problem.”
He’d curtail ballpark noise.
“They’re pounding you with advertising from the moment you walk in the stadium,” he says. “You can’t even think anymore. When I went to ballparks like the Polo Grounds, it was like a holy place. Quiet. You could hear the crack of the bat at batting practice.”
Return to Yankee Stadium
What Bouton is most proud of is the role “Ball Four” played in the 1975 Andy Messersmith arbitration case, which ended the reserve clause and started free agency.
“Marvin Miller [executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association] called me up,” he says, “and said, ‘We’d like to have you put “Ball Four” in as testimony against the owners.’ It had all these stories about ballplayers being taken advantage of by the owners. Almost every player had a story.”
Doesn’t that make him partially guilty for the spiraling ticket prices in today’s game?
“Not guilty,” says Bouton (as a woodpecker does an impression of a gavel-pounding judge on a nearby tree). “Players are now allowed to bargain for their talent in a free market like anybody else.
“Nobody screams and hollers at investment bankers.”
Bouton never got rich in baseball.
“My average salary was $19,000 for eight years in the big leagues,” he says.
In the offseason, he bought and refurbished old houses in New Jersey.
“We were ordinary people working for a living,” he says.
But after “Ball Four,” the fallout was extraordinary.
The Yankees banned Bouton from Old-Timers’ Day for 28 years. The rumor was that Mickey Mantle would not appear if Bouton were invited.
Bouton loves to tell the story of a seriously hungover Mick being called on to pinch-hit in extra innings, only to smash a home run. In the locker room, Bouton asked him how he did it.
“It was simple,” Mantle replied. “I hit the middle ball.”
“Mick would tell that story on himself,” Bouton says.
Bouton sent Mantle a condolence note when his son Billy died of cancer in 1991. He also wrote, “I hope you’re feeling OK about ‘Ball Four.’ ”
Mantle later left a message on Bouton’s answering machine, and Bouton saved it.
“It’s his Oklahoma twang,” says Bouton. “He said, ‘Jayem, I’m not the one who said you shouldn’t come back to play on Old-Timers’ Day. I never said anything like that.’ ”
Still, Bouton was on the outside looking in.
But then, in 1997, his daughter Laurie, 31, died in an automobile accident. His son Michael, a philosophy student, wrote a Father’s Day letter published in The New York Times that was a tear-jerker.
“I see this as an opportunity to get my father some extra hugs at a time in his life when he could use all the hugs he can get,” wrote Michael.
The Yankees relented, and weeks later, No. 56 took the mound at Yankee Stadium. The Bulldog was back.
“It was amazing,” he says.
Bouton threw one pitch, and his cap fell off, to the delight of the crowd.
“Mel Stottlemyre told me to do that,” Bouton says. “He said, ‘If you’re going to be in the game, your hat has to fly off. Just prop it on your head, and when you throw, jerk it off your head.’ ”
Irons in the fire
Bouton’s career was always diverse. He was a sportscaster in New York, appeared in a few movies and television shows, and was a George McGovern delegate in 1972. He helped invent Big League Chew — shredded bubblegum in a pouch — as an alternative to chewing tobacco. Dentists everywhere loved him.
In 2001, Bouton headed a group that wanted to renovate Wahconah Park in Pittsfield and bring an independent league team back to the classic 1919 wooden stadium. He then wrote and published a book about his bitter battle with the Berkshire Eagle and local politicians called “Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark.” A hornet’s nest of charges and countercharges followed.
Bouton, meanwhile, is joyfully gliding through his 70s. He has taken up ballroom dancing with his wife, and the Bulldog has some sweet moves, too.
“I’m not good enough to enter competitions,” he says.
But he is continually forward looking.
Recently he was featured in the documentary “Knuckleball” and will be in the upcoming “Battered Bastards of Baseball,” which documents the Portland Mavericks, America’s only independent baseball team in the 1970s.
He was commissioner and CEO of the Vintage Base Ball Federation, which uses 19th-century rules, uniforms, and equipment. Currently, he says, it is “on hiatus.” But he is not giving up on it. It’s baseball in its purist form, he says.
“There’s no chest pounding and pointing to the sky and kissing jewelry,” he says. “I’m an old-fashioned guy.”