Jim Bouton died last Wednesday after a long battle with the effects of a 2012 stroke. He was 80.
As you have likely read over the past week, Bouton meant a lot to a lot of people. I was one. Our paths crossed a few times, but his importance is always going to be about his book.
My first run-in with Jim Bouton was with his 1968 Topps card, pictured up top. I was seven that summer and my card collection was limited by my meager finances. But when the final series came out in August I must have had nickels bursting out of my pockets, because I ended up with dozens (says my memory) of this card (#562).
I had no interest in doubles even then (I would have gladly traded you my extra Henry Aaron if you had Dick Dietz), but, let’s be real, who was Jim Bouton anyway? I knew nothing of baseball prior to … maybe a year earlier? He was not in the Yankee box scores or in the Yankee games I was able to watch — because (I later learned) in June he had been demoted to the minor leagues (which might as well have been Mars). He was a minor leaguer?
Bouton had been a star a few years before, but whatever. I remember watching Eddie Mathews pinch hit in the 1968 World Series and being flabbergasted that the announcers claimed he used to be a good player. This guy?
So anyway, I suspect that one or two of the 1968 Bouton cards ended up in my bicycle spokes at some point. He would never appear on a Topps card again.
The next year Topps — who gave absolutely everyone a card — did not give one to Bouton, who in March was a non-roster invitee by the expansion Seattle Pilots.
Topps gave a card to Fred Newman, who had not pitched in the majors in 1968 and threw just six innings in 1967. He was a spring training invite for the Red Sox, and quickly released, but Topps gave him a Red Sox card anyway. He never pitched in the majors again.
Let me be clear: none of this is meant to criticize Topps. Card selection was a tricky business, with multiple series allowing for delaying identifying the last series or two until April. What I love about Topps cards in this era is that they tried to include everyone, even guys who (with the benefit of hindsight) seem like extreme long shots to play, so it looks wrong when someone is missing. Most of the 1969 set was printed before the Pilots even got to camp, and Topps made an educated guess that of the dozens of available options Bouton did not warrant a late series card. His brief demotion to Triple-A in April might have sealed the deal.
In 1969 Bouton pitched for the expansion Pilots and then the Astros. I watched a handful of Red Sox – Pilots games, and I am sure I saw Bouton a few times. But he was just a guy in the bullpen, the guy whose 1968 cards were spread all over my room. I gave him little thought.
Although Bouton pitched essentially the entire season in the majors in 1969, he again did not get a Topps card in 1970. This case seems particularly odd, and makes one wonder if he had an issue with Topps. He was a strong union guy, but the union had settled their Topps dispute in late 1968, which is why the 1970 set is so spectacular. A mystery, to me at least.
He pitched briefly (and mostly poorly) that year before again being exiled to the minors, but 1970 ended up being the most pivotal year of his life. His book — Ball Four — came out and caused quite a stir, and his cards would never be commons again. Forgive me, 1968 Bouton card — I didn’t mean it!
I was an early devotee of his book, reading it age 10 and then reading it continually thereafter. The baseball, the humor, the writing, the politics, the self-doubt — there is something on every page. But enough self-examination …
I didn’t really start buying older cards (cards issued prior to my collecting) until I was in high school and especially college. I picked up a few Bouton cards when I ran into them. And I kept up on all things Bouton — his other books, his occasional magazine article, his comebacks in the minors (and briefly, the Braves). You can read all about it in other places, I am sure.
Early in my sophomore year, Bouton came to my college (Rensselear, in Troy NY) to speak. I had not packed Ball Four with me that year (I would never make that mistake again), but I did have a few of his cards in my dorm room. Bouton signed my 1964 card, and it remains the only baseball card I have ever asked anyone to sign. (I have received a few signed cards over the years from friends.)
It has been said that once a player’s career is over and time fades, he is judged by his statistical record. This is not true of Bouton, who finished 62–63 (albeit with great seasons, World Series heroics, and historic comebacks mixed in) but who retained his fame and remained newsworthy until the very end of his life.
My point, and I have a point: collect his cards. They are fairly inexpensive for 50-year-old cards, and it’s Jim Bouton for heaven’s sake. If you collect cards from the 1960s, by all means you should look for Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, just like everyone else, but save a few dollars for The Bulldog. (And Curt Flood.)
My collection is 100% about the history, and very few people are a more important part of the baseball story than James Alan Bouton. There will be never be another like him.