Interview with Former New York Yankees Pitcher Jim Bouton

Jim Bouton was a 21-game winner for the Yankees in 1963 and a delegate for George McGovern in 1972. He’s mastered ballroom dancing and starred in his own sitcom. But in the three decades since playing with the Bronx Bombers, the renegade knuckleballer still hadn’t been invited to Old-Timer’s Day at the Stadium. Until 1998.

Jim Bouton 63 Topps cardAt the 1998 Old-Timer’s Day, Bouton stood alongside other Yankee alums and acknowledged the cheers (and jeers) from the fans. It marked the end of one of the most ridiculous baseball grudges in history; the one the Yanks had against Bouton after the publication of his pitch-and-tell baseball expose, Ball Four in 1970.

How did that all come about? In June of 1998, Bouton’s son Michael penned a guest column in the New York Times. He wrote of the tragedy of losing his sister Laurie in a car accident the previous year, and how Old-Timers Day holds some sort of healing power for wounded families.

The column must have touched a nerve in the Bronx, because Bouton was finally invited back to Yankee Stadium, 30 years after his last Yankee win, and just a year after his retirement from Momma’s Pizza of the Albany Twilight League, his final, semi-pro farewell to baseball.

In the spring of 1998, Bouton sat down with me for an interview for a zine on NYC I was publishing at the time. Here is how it went.

Shawn Collins — What’s your take on the whole Clinton Sexgate thing?

Jim Bouton — Well, if Clinton can run the country this well and maintain such popularity, even if he uses questionable judgement in his private life, then maybe we should make adultery a prerequisite for the office. (Pause) I guess my point is this – adultery doesn’t really affect anybody except Bill Clinton’s relationship with his wife. But the witch-hunt affects all of us.

First of all, because it discourages other people from running for public office who have anything in their past that they might be embarrassed about. And secondly, it establishes the precedent that the government can simply go after people. It’s sexual McCarthyism.

SC — Do you think, as Hillary Clinton said, there is some sort of “right wing conspiracy” going on here?

JB — Oh, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy where they sat down and said here’s how we can get him. But they’re certainly enjoying communicating with each other. You know – (Kenneth) Starr and (Linda) Tripp and Paula Jones’ attorneys, etc. etc

SC — Would you want to change anything about how you were raised?

JB — No, I wouldn’t change anything.

SC — Did you follow those kinds of principles with your own kids…however you were raised?

JB — No. I don’t think I was as good a father to my kids as my father was to me, because I was traveling a lot. I would say that I was more focused on my career — be it either as a baseball player or a TV sportscaster — than my father was. I had a job that took me away from my family and my dad didn’t.

SC — If you had it to do over, would you change it?

JB — I might. Yeah, looking back on it, I wished I had spent more time with my kids. I’ve always had a great relationship with my kids. I’ve always felt like I was a good father and I did the best I could.

SC — Who would you say is the most important person in your life?

JB — This sounds like a “10 Best . . .” interview (laughs). The most important person in my life? Right now, it’s my wife.

My American Legion baseball coach gave me a chance when nobody else would. My dad was always there to encourage me, when I was a kid and I was sitting on the bench in high school. Johnny Sain, who was the pitching coach of the Yankees, who taught me a lot about pitching and how to live your life. Leonard Schechter, the guy who edited Ball Four, taught me a lot about writing, living.

SC — So, I guess you would consider yourself a Democrat?

JB — No, not really. I voted for Ralph Nader. He’s not a Democrat.

SC — So you’re not affiliated then?

JB — I’m not affiliated with any party.

SC — Well then, what’s your perspective on the issue of capital punishment?

JB — I’m against capital punishment. I don’t see that as a Republican or a Democratic idea. I’m against it for moral and for political and for practical reasons. I think when we kill somebody, we say that it’s all right to kill people under certain circumstances, because we’re killing them. Everybody else is going to have their own opinion on who should be killed and who shouldn’t. So it’s a bad precedent, number one.

Number two – once you’ve killed somebody — if they really are a deranged enough person, a twisted enough person to have committed murder — once you’ve killed them you’ve lost the opportunity to learn anything about them.

SC — OK. You’ve said that once in a while you tried the “greenies” (pep pills). Did you ever touch that kind of stuff after you got out of baseball?

JB — Yeah, it was when I was playing baseball.

SC — Did you ever have any bad experience with them, or any great experience?

JB — No, the experience I had with “greenies” I already wrote about in Ball Four.

SC — So that was the extent of it there?

JB — Yeah, I tried pep pills, I tried a couple of pep pills and I didn’t like them. They just made me jumpy.

SC — OK, here’s a little hypothetical thing for you. If your house was to catch on fire and after saving everybody, saving your loved ones . . .

JB — I’m not one for saving momentos. My trophies are in boxes. I don’t live in the past; I live in the present. I’d try to grab my calendar and my laptop so I wouldn’t lose my files.

SC — So you don’t even wear a World Series ring or anything?

JB — No.

SC — Did you pass them on to your kids or something, or do you just have it boxed away somewhere?

JB — They’re in a safety deposit box.

SC — Do you have any biggest disappointment in your life?

JB — Biggest disappointment in my life? I don’t have too many disappointments. I’ve been very fortunate at this point. I would separate that from tragedy, including my daughter. Awful tragedy.

SC — What happened with that?

JB — Well, that’s something I don’t want to talk about. It’s too recent and too raw. I just didn’t want you to write that Jim Bouton says he doesn’t have any disappointments and didn’t mention his daughter. I just wouldn’t put that in a disappointment category. You know what I mean? I hate to get into the notion of who’s your best this and who’s your best that. It’s too superficial.

SC — I just thought in terms of any goals or anything.

JB — I have goals, but when I set out to do something I focus on the process, not the result. I do things for their own sake, not because what it’s going to get me, how much money it might make me, or that I might win as a result of it. I do it because I want to do it.

SC — OK, so what kind of stage are you at with the screenplay that you’ve mentioned?

JB — Just at the treatment level.

SC — What is it going to be about?

JB — It’s a romantic comedy.

SC — Is it autobiographical?

JB — No, but there are some aspects of me in there. It’s about a knuckleball pitcher that gets kidnapped by the Chinese, who want to win a gold medal in the Olympics, so they kidnap this knuckleball pitcher.

SC — You making that up?

JB — No, that’s really the story. Sounds like it’s made up, doesn’t it?

SC — Is this going to be your first script?

JB — No, actually the first script I ever wrote became the pilot for a TV sitcom.

SC — Oh, that show that you were on?

JB — Yeah, Ball Four. And the second script I ever wrote became the third episode. There were six episodes. We aired four before it got cancelled.

SC — Were you happy with the way those came out?

JB — I didn’t think my script writing was that great. I said to the producer, “How good is this show going to be if I can write the script? I’ve never written a script before.” And he said, “It’s no worse than the other stuff that we’re getting. It’s no worse than the rest of the stuff that’s on television.” And unfortunately he was right.

SC — Are there any plans for a 30th Anniversary Edition (of Ball Four)?

JB — Yeah, I’ll probably do a Millennium Edition. It first came out in 1970, and I did updates in ’80 and ’90, so I’ll probably do one for the Millennium.

SC — Do you think there will be a big stir about it again when it comes out?

JB — I hope so.

SC — Are you working on anything besides the screenplay? Any new books?

JB — Ah, no. I wrote a novel three years ago called Strike Zone. I enjoyed that.

SC — Did you ever encounter a situation where you thought something was really funny, but somebody took it wrong and got pissed off at you?

JB — Well, I thought Ball Four was funny and some people got pissed off at me for it, so there’s an instance where something I thought was funny somebody else didn’t like. Again, distance is the key. I think that people that were upset about Ball Four got less upset as time went by.

SC — Do you consider yourself a fan of any team now?

JB — No.

SC — So you don’t really follow it?

JB — No, I don’t follow it that closely. I couldn’t tell you which guy is playing for which team. My only interest in baseball over the last 10 or 15 years has been playing it myself.

SC — Were you a fan of the Yankees when you were growing up in Rochelle Park, NJ?

JB — No, no I didn’t like the Yankees. I was a fan of the Giants, who played in the Polo Grounds. I rooted for the Giants, the old Giants, before they moved to San Francisco in the days of Monte Irvin, Whitey Lockman.

SC — Did you ever have a chance to meet any of those guys after you got into baseball?

JB — Yeah, actually one of my heroes when I was a kid was Sal Maglie, who became my pitching coach with the Seattle Pilots.

SC — Was that exciting to you to be sort of a peer with him, and meeting him for the first time like that?

JB — It was, until I got to know him as a pitching coach. And then, to me, there were two Sal Maglies – the one I thought so highly of as a kid, and the one I couldn’t understand how he got to be a pitching coach. Two different ones, you know?

SC — Did you ever consider going into coaching?

JB — Nope, never.

SC — Who do you think makes the best coaches? Do you think they have to be former players?

JB — I think a coach has to be a good teacher and there aren’t too many players who are good teachers. I think the best teachers are people who have to work hard at it.

The best batting coaches, for example, have never been star players. Charlie Lau, and you know, guys like that. They’re the batting coaches. Ruth was never a good batting coach. Mickey Mantle was never a good batting coach. Whitey Ford was never a good pitching coach.

Occasionally, you run into somebody like Johnny Sain who was a great pitcher and a great pitching coach, but that’s rare. You know, most nuclear scientists are not teaching science. Most ballet dancers are not teaching ballet. The ones who are teaching ballet are the ones who had some ballet, but did not achieve greatness.

SC — So do you think that once they achieve greatness, they can’t really relate as well to the people who are just learning?

JB — I think that’s part of it. They can’t relate and a lot of them don’t know how they do it. You know when Yogi Berra was named batting coach for the Yankees, I saw his first clinic that he conducted in the batting cage during spring training. He couldn’t explain what he did. He started saying, “Well, your hands have to be…ah, forget your hands. Your feet, make sure that your feet are, um…because when the ball comes, you turn and you have your hips…ahh just watch me!”

He was a perfect example of a great hitter, but not a great teacher. Because you have to not only know what to do, but you have to know how to explain it to somebody else.

SC — Do you think that you would be a good teacher at anything that you don’t think that you’re great at?

JB — Umm . . . I’ve been helping some beginners with ballroom dancing.

SC — And that’s easier than teaching somebody to pitch a knuckleball?

JB — Yeah.

SC — So, do you think that I’m more likely to do become a ballroom dancer than to pitch a knuckleball?

JB — Yeah, ballroom dancing is easier than throwing a knuckleball. And you do a lot better with girls. I’ll tell you, if young men understood how the ability to dance would help them with young women, there would be a lot of people dropping out of baseball and learning ballroom dancing.

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