Sunday, August 4, 2019

Jim Bouton's Seattle Pilots: a Tale of Two Yearbooks

THE SEATTLE PILOTS published a yearbook in 1969. It's a handsome document with a navy blue cover wrapped around 40 glossy pages of standard fare biographies and statistics punctuated by color and black and white photos.

But that's not how most people came to know or why they remember Major League Baseball's one year wonders and why they'll never be forgotten.

The incendiary unofficial yearbook
The Pilots, an oddball collection of players and coaches stationed in a decrepit minor league ballpark, gained inadvertent immortality courtesy of Jim Bouton, a one-time New York Yankees phenom who lived through and chronicled the team's lone season in Ball Four the greatest baseball tell-all ever written.

Bouton died last month from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 80. He'd suffered from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which causes blood vessels to burst. It also causes a dementia and long before it killed him, the disease -- and a 2012 stroke -- robbed Bouton of random words, facts and correlations.

That had to be a particular type of hell for a man best known by recent generations for what he said about baseball rather than what he did with one.

A young flamethrower, Bouton won 21 games for the 1963 American League champions. He won 18 the next year, plus two more in a World Series he, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was the end of an incredible 18-year run for the Bronx Bombers during which they won 15 pennants and 10 championships. It also capped a flicker of time when Bouton was among the game's best pitchers before arm trouble reduced him to a knuckle-baller barely hanging on to his career.

Despite sunshine and great promise...
(from the 1969 Seattle Pilots yearbook)
It was in that debilitated state that the former standout hurler for a legendary team came to be acquired by the American League expansion Pilots, who lasted just the 1969 season, before failing as a business and moving to Milwaukee.

An iconoclast who never missed a chance to clash with authority, Bouton chose that year to keep a diary. The resultant book, Ball Four, blew the lid off baseball's wholesome image, revealing that Mantle drank heavily, amphetamine use was rampant, players chased girls and spied on them whenever and wherever they could, owners were petty and management was often hidebound and stupid.

It was a literary yearbook and highlight film the likes of which had never been seen, a personal memoir and log book from a doomed voyage.

The less well-read official yearbook
With an ear for dialogue and an eye for human foibles, Bouton immortalized men like Gene Brabender, the Pilots' gentle giant of a pitcher. A 13-game winner, Brabender hailed from a place called Black Earth, Wisconsin, and once ended an argument with the author by telling him he was lucky it was just that. "Where I come from, we just talk for a little while. After that we start to hit," he said.

And men like pervy shortstop Ray Oyler, who sprung an erection on the team bus and offered to buy it from the driver, outfielder Steve Hovley, whose eccentricity earned him the nickname "Orbit," and pitcher Gary Bell, whose best advice for confronting any batter was simply "smoke 'em inside."

Bouton had a special affection for the Pilots' beleaguered skipper, Joe Schultz, whose favorite profanities were "shitfuck" and "fuckshit." His best advice for dealing with any situation was "pound that old Budweiser."

Bouton's ex-Yankee status gave his book gravitas and credibility. People had to take it seriously, whether they liked it or not, and many inside baseball's crumbling old order did not.

Pilots pitcher, author, idol smasher.
(from the 1969 Pilots' yearbook)
He was denounced as a Judas, a man who broke a raft of unwritten rules, an apostate unwelcome for decades at Old Timer's Day.

Ball Four also revealed something more about human nature, something that transcended baseball and applied more universally to anyone capable of independent thought but trapped in an organization ruled by group think and conventional wisdom.

Bouton was an outside-the-box thinker. Baseball wasn't ready for him, but late 1960s-early 1970s America was and remains so to this day. So Ball Four remains a testament to one man's struggles against the establishment. The New York Public library deemed it one of greatest books of the 20th Century.

Just as importantly though -- within the realm of baseball -- Ball Four was a testament to the Pilots' travails, a history of people and events that surely would have been forgotten but for Bouton's decision to make their year the year the faded former fireballer recorded for posterity.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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