Some reviewers recognized the poignant tension in Bouton’s tale; in The New Yorker, for instance, Roger Angell described “Ball Four” as “a rare view of a highly complex public profession seen from the innermost inside, along with an even more rewarding inside view of an ironic and courageous mind.”
“And,” he added, “very likely, the funniest book of the year.”
But for most readers, Bouton’s personal predicament was overwhelmed by what he revealed about life in the major leagues.
Cheaters and Drinkers
In his telling, players routinely cheated on their wives on road trips, devised intricate plans to peek under women’s skirts or spy on them through hotel windows, spoke in casual vulgarities, drank to excess and swallowed amphetamines as if they were M&Ms.
Mickey Mantle played hung over and was cruel to children seeking his autograph, he wrote. Carl Yastrzemski was a loafer. Whitey Ford illicitly scuffed or muddied the baseball, and his catcher, Elston Howard, helped him do it. Most coaches were knotheads who dispensed the obvious as wisdom when they weren’t contradicting themselves, and general managers were astonishingly penurious and dishonest in dealing with players over their contracts.
At the time, the reserve clause, a part of every contract that bound players nearly irrevocably to their teams, was still in effect; free agency, which multiplied the earning power of players by many orders of magnitude, was still in the future. Bouton signed a contract with Seattle for $22,000, and his account of the annual petty wrangling over three- and four-figure sums, discomforting at the time, seems incredible today, when the major league minimum salary is $555,000 and players are earning an average of more than $4 million a year.
Over all, Bouton portrayed the game — its players, coaches, executives and most of the reporters who covered them — as a world of amusing, foible-ridden, puerile conformity. Not surprising, the baseball establishment frowned on Bouton, his collaborating editor, Leonard Shecter, and the book.
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