April 6, 2006

Former Yankee Pitcher Bouton Talks Baseball

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Former Major League pitcher Jim Bouton, the author of the books Ball Four and Foul Ball, came to Cornell for a two-day visit earlier this week. On Monday, he gave a talk at the Alice Cook House about the recent steroid issue and playing professional baseball entitled “Life in Baseball,” and on Tuesday, he had a book signing at the Cornell Store. The visit was sponsored by the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity through the Creating Chapters of Excellence program in conjunction with the Alice Cook House. On Monday, The Sun caught up with Bouton, and in Part II of the two-part installment, the discussion focused more on Bouton’s playing days, which spanned from 1962-1970 and included a comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978.

The Sun: You played all over the country in your playing days, from New York to Seattle to Houston, but where was the one place that you felt like you flourished?

Jim Bouton: My best years were 1963 and 1964 with the Yankees when I went 21-7 in ’63 and made the all-star team, and in ’64 when I won 18 games and two in the World Series, so those were my two best years. If I had done more of that, I would have been a Hall of Fame candidate, because those are Hall of Fame years. But I hurt my arm in ’65, I’m not sure how. I think probably looking back on it now it was too many innings in too short of a period of time – I’m not that big a guy. I think guys like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens and those guys can do that, but for guys like me and Pedro [Martinez] and normal size guys, there’s a different equation.

The Sun: Are you upset that your career tailed off because of an injury [in 1965, when Bouton was 26 years old] when it should have been hitting its peak?

Bouton: Looking back on it now, I don’t blame baseball for overworking me; I wanted the ball. Get me out there. We didn’t know about longevity, or saving yourself or that kind of thing. Counting pitches, forget that. Looking back, I think I would have handled it differently, though. I wouldn’t have pitched 250 innings; I would have pitched 200 innings. I would have pitched on five days rest, not four days rest, or three days rest. It was just a more primitive game back when I played.

The Sun: Is it surprising to you, being that you played for the Yankees, how guys like Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, who are great players, need so much time to adapt to the pressure of New York?

Bouton: I enjoyed pressure. The more at stake, the more fun it was. It got your juices flowing. I liked having a big crowd. And I enjoyed pitching in Fenway Park as a Yankee because it was like being in the Roman Coliseum. You’re out there on the mound and you’re surrounded by such hostility – people screaming things at you. It was so much fun, you just felt like a gladiator and they were going to let the lions loose any minute. I liked that, it just made it more fun.

The Sun: You came to New York the year after Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and it has been well chronicled that Maris was not very fond of all the attention he received. Did you get a sense the following year about how bad it was for him?

Bouton: This whole business with Roger Maris tearing his hair out because of the pressure of hitting 61 home runs. I think back on that and say, “Give me a break.” Pressure is trying to feed your family. Pressure is trying to survive anywhere in the world. Sixty one home runs – who gives a shit whether you hit 59 or 58? You’re on top of the world. This has to be fun. If you can’t have fun and be thrilled every single day you wake up with 50 or more home runs on your back, then you don’t deserve any sympathy at all. And okay, he’s from Fargo, North Dakota. So what? You’re from Fargo, North Dakota, when you’re 19. But when you’re 24, you’re not from Fargo, North Dakota, anymore. You’re now from Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, Arizona, Florida – you’re from all over.

The Sun: What was it like to pitch in the World Series?

Bouton: Before my first World Series game [in 1963], I remember sitting on the bench and I was a little nervous. [The Dodgers had] Maury Wills as the leadoff batter. I figured I was going to walk him, and he was going to steal second, third and then home, and I was going to be humiliated on television. Then Ralph Terry [Bouton’s teammate with the Yankees for three seasons] sits down next to me and he’s a great, veteran pitcher, and he says, “You nervous kid?” And I said, “Yeah, I can hardly breath, Ralph.” And Ralph said, “Let me just tell you one thing kid. When you’re out on that mound today, just remember this – no matter what happens, win-or-lose, 500 million Chinese Communists don’t give a shit. And hey, that’s right, we’re playing baseball, the sun is shining, how bad can it be?

The Sun: Both now and back when you played there haven’t been very many knuckleball pitchers. After your arm injury [in 1965], you were forced to use it as your go-to pitch. How were you able to survive with it for so many years?

Bouton: Thank God there weren’t too many knuckleballers, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it as one. It’s a devilish pitch to learn – you’ve got to learn it when you’re young. I learned it when I was about 10, 11 years old. There’s something in the way in which a child’s fingers learn something, like a musical instrument, and you keep it for the rest of your life. I had a knuckleball you couldn’t catch when I was about 13. I didn’t throw it [at first] in the big leagues, because it didn’t mix well with my fastball. I had a very good fastball. I had an overhand curve. I had so much stuff, I didn’t have room for it all. I couldn’t keep it all at a certain level, so I had to drop something, so I dropped the knuckleball. You’re either a fastball, curveball pitcher, or you’re a knuckleball pitcher, you’re not both. But after I hurt my arm, I could only be a knuckleball pitcher. So, I spent half a season in the minor leagues resurrecting this pitch I threw as a kid and, sure enough, there it came, and it got me more years in the big leagues. But it’s hard to do. …But the beauty of it is, if you threw one correctly, they could not hit it. It was not hittable, because you had no idea where it was going.

Archived article by Chris Mascaro
Sun Senior Writer