Into the Dugout
Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, by Mitchell Nathanson, University of Nebraska Press, 409 pages, $34.95
The best book ever written about baseball is Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s irreverent look at the 1969 baseball season. Over the course of the year, Bouton bounced from the New York Yankees, his club of seven seasons, to the minor leagues to the short-lived Seattle Pilots to the Houston Astros, trying to hang on as a big-league pitcher several years past his prime. Edited by sportswriter Leonard Shecter and published in 1970, Ball Four is a work of genuine iconoclasm, the first widely read account of life in the Major Leagues that was not written in hushed tones.
By the time Bouton’s book was released, Major League Baseball had spent decades as the grand dame of American professional sports. Perhaps no aspect of American life was written about as reverentially as the “national pastime,” a term that the sport’s thoroughly sentimental partisans had been using to describe it since the Buchanan administration. The elevation of baseball stars to the simultaneous status of celebrity and role model became particularly pronounced during the 1920s, when sportswriters like Grantland Rice and future baseball commissioner Ford Frick turned Babe Ruth into a cultural icon of virtually unprecedented stature. The baseball heroes of subsequent generations were cast in a similar guise, presented in all forms of media as figures of towering cultural significance and characteristic of all that was good in American life.
Bouton’s book was radically different—a sports book for an era when institutions of all kinds were coming under skeptical scrutiny. Instead of a familiar, c
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