TRUE INNOVATION carries within itself the seeds of its own obsolescence. Our urges to copy when unimaginative, or to improve and extend when more inspired, convert yesterday's rebel into today's ho-hum.
Jim Bouton shined during the closing days of the great Yankee dynasty. He won two games in the 1964 World Series, but could not stop the Cardinals and their Gibson machine singlehandedly. He pitched so hard that his cap, obeying Newton's third law, often flew off as his body lunged forward. Mickey Mantle called him the "bulldog." But his arm went bad and he won only nine games during his last four years as a Yankee. In 1969, he tried to come back as a marginally effective knuckleballer, barely holding on in the bullpen of the hapless Seattle Pilots (now the respectable Milwaukee Brewers), an expansion team that spent its single year of life mired deep in the cellar of the American League West. There he composed Ball Four, an honest and irreverent daily account of a baseball season viewed from within and below. Its candor scandalized a profession that expected to keep its secrets and come before the reading public with traditional books about sexless, Coke-drinking, cardboard heroes. Bouton's book was so successful that honest confession replaced myth-making as a preferred literary genre of the field.
Ten years later, Bouton has reissued Ball Four with a 40-page update, inevitably titled Ball Five. In rereading classics, I am always struck by the contrast between memory and reality. Many of the famous scenes of Ball Four have not lost their impact, but I remembered them as chapters, while they actually appear as paragraphs. Although Ball Four does recount the flaky antics of grown men, such as an unbeauty contest conducted to pick Yogi Berra's successor on the "all-ugly nine" among active players, its real focus is on the anxieties and frustrations of a sore-armed athlete on a third-rate team. Its strength, in retrospect, lies not in its exposes -- tame stuff copared with later works modeled upon it, and notoriously silent on race and real sex, while reasonably explicit about drinking and pill popping. Rather its relentless, even tedious, rendition of daily hopes, pettinesses and pains -- why did they yank me, why didn't they pitch me -- displays a human side of sports that we never discern in baseball books of the pre-Bouton era.
Ball Four is a permanent antidote to the common view that ballplayers are hunks of meat, naturally and effortlessly displaying the talents that nature provided. Excellence in anything is a single-minded struggle, to be valued it only for its rarity. The honest struggles of winners and losers are our sustaining hopes for a species mired in mediocrity -- whether the struggle be expresses in relentless search for a perfect knuckleball, the holy grail or the Great American Novel.
Ball Four recounts Bouton's last decade as broadcaster, actor, divorce, and even comeback pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. It is studded with quotable one-liners. On Billy Martin's reaction to Ball Four (before he wrote his own book in the Boutonian tradition): "Billy Martin . . . came running across the field hollering for me to get the hell out. . . . Because I've grown accustomed to the shape of my nose, I got the hell out." On the high salaries that Bouton never enjoyed: "My position is that while the players don't deserve ll that money, the owners don't deserve it even more." Still, Ball Five is too sketchy tomerit purchase on its own strength; for it is only a little less insubstantial than its title. Yet if Ball Five served as a vehicle for bringing Ball Four back into print, then it has done its part.
Bouton claims in Ball Five: "That books that have come after mine make Ball Four, as an expose, read like The Bobbsey Twins Go To The Seashore." Indeed, we will never again see books in the style of Lucky To Be a Yankee, the heroic account of Joe DiMaggio that set such an unrealistic pattern for my own youth. Maury Allen, author fo a fine post-Boutonian book on the hero of my childhood (Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio), has now written Mr. October, a perfectly adequate, though uninspired, biography of Reggie Jackson. Mr. October is a sports book in the old style. It contains much hackneyed writing in the heroic tradition: "Harnessing all the power in his 205-pound twenty-five-year-old body, Jackson exploded in a flash as the ball moved toward the plate . . ." It tells the heartwarming stories of Reggie's visits to dying cancer patients, old and young. One picture caption reads: "Reggie has extraordinary demands onhis time but always finds time for kids. Here he makes a handicapped lad one happy fellow." Allen even puts in a good word for George Steinbrenner, citing his charitable contribution to underprivileged kids. It purveys quick and dirty conclusions as profundity -- including the psychobabble interpretation of Jackson's relationship with Billy Martin offered by "a leading Bellevue psychiatrist" who requested anonymity because he had never met either man, but only read about them.
Yet, through all this hasty conventionality, Mr. October contains some honestly forthright and controversial material. Its discussions about the sex lives of players on the road is far more extensive than Bouton's was. Allen's account of persistent racism at both ends of the hierarchy -- how many black owners and utility infielders do you see? -- is as serious an indictment of modern baseball as anyone could raise. To make it in the majors, a black man had still better be a star -- like Reggie Jackson. It is Jim Bouton's legacy that even the most ordinary of sports books now outdoes Ball Four in candor.
Yet I wonder. Surely we don't want dishonest books that misrepresent real people. Yet the ballplayer as unadorned hero has a legitimate place in American mythology. To me, Joe DiMaggio looks as elegant selling Mr. Coffee today as he did swinging a bat when I was a kid. As a nation, we are too young to have true mythic heroes, and we must press real human beings into service. Honest Abe Lincoln the legend is quite a different character from Abraham Lincoln the man. And so should they be. And so should both be tresured, as long as they are distinguished. In a complex and confusing world, the perfect clarity of sports provides a focus for legitimate, utterly unambiguous support or disdain. The Dodgers are evil, the Yankees good. They really are, and have been ever since my grandfather assimilated to America by watching Jack Chesbro win 41 games for the Yanks in 1904.
So Reggie, I am happy to know you as bit better as a man. But I will always remember you most for a glorious day in 1977 -- in October, of course -- when you destroyed the enemy with three homers on three pitches. And I'll keep eating those Reggie bars, even though the taste leaves something to be desired, and even though the Baby Ruth was named for Grover Cleveland's daughter.