Happy birthday, Jim Bouton

Today is Jim Bouton‘s 74th birthday.

Bouton could have been remembered as a footnote of the 1960s end-of-the-dynasty Yankees as a high-kicking power pitcher who when he was most successful (21-7, 2.53 ERA in 1963) would lose his cap after a delivery to the plate. But instead, he is remembered as the 1970 author of “Ball Four,” one of the most important books in sports journalism history.

“Ball Four” was a diary about Bouton’s knuckleballing life with the one-year Seattle Pilots and his experiences with the Yankee stars of the pennant-winning years, particularly America’s idol, Mickey Mantle.

In a 2010 WSJ articleAlan Barra wrote about the book’s impact, “I wrote some about Mickey’s drinking and carousing,” says Mr. Bouton, “things that everyone in baseball knew about but that were never discussed in public. The funny thing is that most of what I said about Mickey was mild compared to what he and Whitey Ford and other players later admitted in their own books. If I had a hand in opening up discussion of what a professional athlete’s life is really like, I’m proud of that.”

Yes, Bouton wrote about Mickey Mantle playing while hung over, guys popping “greenies” for a little extra energy, teammates criticizing their manager or sleeping around while on road trips. Much of it seems tame by today’s standards, but it wasn’t at the time. Bouton was referred to as “Benedict Arnold” and a “social leper.”

“I still have every scrap of paper I wrote on,” Bouton told Barra. Considering their impact, they should be in a glass case in Cooperstown. “I’m not holding my breath waiting for that phone call,” Mr. Bouton says with a laugh. “Bowie Kuhn, who was the commissioner of baseball at the time, summoned me to his office to sign a letter stating that most of ‘Ball Four’ was fiction. I made it very clear to him that it was most certainly not fiction and I had no intention of saying that it was. The funny thing is that Bowie was living in such a dream world that I think he thought most of it was fiction.” Denied a statement from the author, Kuhn issued an official statement that “Ball Four” was “detrimental to baseball.”

In 1995, the book’s 25th anniversary, “Ball Four” was the only sports book to be selected by the New York Public Library for its “Books of the Century” exhibit.

The esteemed Rob Neyer wrote for ESPN.com on the 30th anniversary of the book: In this writer’s opinion, the lasting impact of “Ball Four,” more than anything else, is that it’s a great book, wildly entertaining and worth reading every two or three years. How many books about anything can make the same claim?

Happy birthday, Jimbo.