Dreaming in Baseball
JACK KEROUAC, JERRY GARCIA…AND JIM BOUTON?
In 1969 the Grateful Dead released "Live/Dead," The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was held at Max Yasgur's farm, Jack Kerouac died, and Jim Bouton started writing funny things on air sickness bags and dry-cleaning receipts. Nearly five decades later the imprints left by all of this remain. Why they remain is something people have been trying to figure out for nearly as long. I think I know the reason.
A couple of years ago, the baseball cognoscenti, otherwise known as the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) focused on one of the above, toasting and celebrating the life of Jim Bouton, author of perhaps the greatest sports book of all time, Ball Four. Culled from the hundreds of notes Bouton jotted down whenever and wherever he could throughout the season and published in 1970, Ball Four told an insider's tale of baseball's Brigadoon, the 1969 Seattle Pilots – a team that appeared and vanished all in the blink of an eye. Along with the funny anecdotes, Ball Four presented Bouton's takes on baseball and life as he saw them. Not surprisingly it was immediately demonized by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Kuhn, who liked to think of himself as baseball's moral conscience, called Bouton into his office and ordered him to, in effect, renounce the book and take back all of the stories within – the ones about "beaver shooting" on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, popping "greenies" before games, and all of the ones that painted Mickey Mantle as anything other than St. Mick. Bouton refused, the media covered the summit breathlessly, and in the process the book went from a minor release by a minor publisher (all of 5,000 copies were ordered initially by World Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio) to a literary sensation. To date Ball Four has sold over five million copies and still sells – the Kindle version is typically Amazon's #1 seller in baseball books. Bouton liked to call Kuhn "the Ayatollah" but the better comparison is to Pat Boone, an out-of-step arbiter of taste whose palate was no longer reliable.
Ever since the Beats bent the consciousness of America's youth there had been those who understood that things didn't have to be as they were simply because that's how they'd always been. The lines between the performer and his audience didn't have to be as firmly drawn or even exist at all. What Kerouac's On The Road ignited was a sub-culture of Dean Moriarities in search of the existential It. Within a few years Moriarity took the form of Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead shows became the embodiment of It, with the erasure of the demarcation between the band and their followers. Forget the studio albums, the Deadheads insisted, it was the live shows where It resided.
Keep on dancing through to daylight
Greet the morning air with song
No one's noticed but the band's all packed and gone
Was it ever here at all?
But they kept on dancing
It was this spirit that infused Woodstock, never mind that the Dead played a sloppy set and were cut out of the movie. It was their ethos that permeated the festival, where the audience was as much the show as the musicians on the stage. "The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom" this was not. It was the fusion of the two that transformed Woodstock from a rock show into a cultural touchstone. Out of the disappearance of the lines It emerged.
And so it was with Ball Four. Spitting in the eye of those like Kuhn who cherished and protected the barrier that separated the athletes from those who paid to see them, Bouton brought the ethos of Kerouac and the Dead to baseball, inviting everyone inside so they could see for themselves just how much goddam fun it all was and be as much a part of it as the guys in the locker room.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of tell-all sports books published in the wake of Ball Four, but none similarly resonate or have become essential reading after the publication hype faded away. Ball Four no longer shocks and doesn't tell us anything about the game's iconic stars that we can't read nearly every day on the Internet. Yet it still matters like no other sports book does. On The Road hardly offends and the Grateful Dead stopped shocking the nation's conscience by the mid- '70s. And yet they're no less relevant today either.
As for why I'll offer this: in the end it's all about the connection, the blurring of lines, the creation of community. There's a Facebook group of "Ball Four Freaks," as they call themselves, who are, in essence, Ball Four's Deadheads, trading Bouton stories and Fred Talbot quips as passionately as Heads trade show tapes. As long as the bonds exist their benefactors will never die. On The Road was published 60 years ago. The Grateful Dead haven't played a show since 1995. And the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970 and became the Brewers, leaving little beyond Bouton's Ball Four to mark their time on this Earth. No matter. Because of the genius of their creators the connection never severed. The Music Never Stopped.