By CHRIS FOSTER
I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams ...
Thus began the first sentence in the incredible journey that was “Ball Four.” What followed was Jim Bouton’s ode to the game he so loved, a day-by-day diary of his time with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astro during the 1969 season.
The book was laced with stories from his days as a New York Yankee and gave a vivid, occasionally scathing, behind-the-scenes account of players, a counterweight to the “he drinks his milk and loves his mother” biographies that were being churned out en nausea in those days.
For his efforts, Bouton was labeled a “social leper” by one sportswriter.
I could relate. The same tag was applied to me often in life. I learned at a young age to accept that because of Jim.
The Ball Four controversy reached my hometown in 1970.
Dave Neidhardt, a legendary teacher and coach at San Clemente High School, had created a literature of sports class. He wanted to reach teen-age boys, who were not reading books. The original curriculum, including "Paper Lion" and "Instant Replay," had been approved by the district's board of trustees.
Neidhardt wanted to add three books. “Ball Four” was the barbarian at the city gates. School board members threw a hissy fit.
Such a thing can seem silly these days, as tell-all books are the norm, particularly in sports. Back then, this incursion into a young person’s perceived safe space – i.e. innocence – was plastered across the top of the sports section of the Daily Sun Post, our highly-reactionary local newspaper. "Sport Lit Class: What’s Going On?" raged the headline.
One indignant board member told the reporter, the books “show the sordid side of the sports world, not the Horatio Alger side. Sports should be uplifting, but we read books like this and find out that Mickey Mantle isn't all that great.”
News flash: He wasn't.
Coach Neidhardt was far more eloquent in his reply. He personally did not care for the three new books, but said, “they all represent an attack on the hypocrisy of athletics and let's face it, there is a lot of hypocrisy.” He elaborated, saying, “The ideas of, ‘it’s not if you win but how you play the game,’ and the Vince Lombardi philosophy of winning at all cost are conflicting. But they’re used interchangeably in sports.”
In conclusion, Neidhardt said, “these books point out this and other hypocrisies of sport which students either are aware of now or will be aware of very soon.”
The books were eventually approved. Years later, Neidhardt said he had more difficulty getting the board to sign off on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for another class. As Neidhardt pointed out, “the early [1970s] in Orange County was very provincial.”
Even in my house, at least when it came to “Ball Four.”
In the fall of 1970, I mentioned that I would love to read that book. Mom had been pushing me to read more but quickly retreated. She had heard about this book and reacted in that lioness-protecting-cub fashion. In her opinion, a 12-year old kid should never be handed such a dangerous piece of literature.
“Maybe your dad can read it,” was her comment. Dad, as usual, said nothing.
Christmas morning came and, as I tore through my stocking, what to my wondrous eyes should appear but a copy of “Ball Four.” Like “A Christmas Story,” Dad had covertly circumvented mom and presented me with that “BB gun.” And, as in the movie, mom’s thoughts were “I still say those things are dangerous.”
I burned through the pages. Here was a secret world I longed to be a part of, completely with ribald anecdotes about things I, as a 12-year-old, was just beginning to understand – beaver shooting!
Other insights were, at the time, far over my head, like that fly ball that I misjudged in Pony League – I can still hear our catcher, Steve Crapo, yelling at me, “My grandmother moves faster than that.” (It was a fair cop, as they say in Merrie Olde England. I didn’t track flyballs well. He was right. Besides, maybe Steve’s grandma was in the Olympics).
I was better prepared for such admonishments from teammates because of “Ball Four.” Being a “social leper” – as I cast myself – meant accepting and enduring such things in an effort to be “one of the boys,” a status Bouton tried hard to attain in 1969. To a kid navigating the youth sports abattoir, this all made sense.
Dad, to my knowledge, never read the book. There were too many secrets about his beloved Mickey Mantle. He would aid in the sack of Rome but would not carry a sword into battle. Being an accomplice to such baseball blasphemy, which I was driven to absorb, was as far as dad was willing to go.
Those worn and torn pages were an annual read for me, every year when spring training rolled around. A copy remains on the bookshelf. True, it’s more a historical document, a fading echo of another time, but it remains illuminating. And there were many things there that ballplayers still believed, and practiced, when I forced my way into that secret world years later.
Those days were still ahead of me in 1970. The book, back then, was a survival guide.
At school, I clearly was the social leper, a role many kids felt they played as the teen years approached. In Little League, I found the clubhouse pecking order the book described. I, like Bouton, was not a star player. So I, like Bouton, worked hard at being one of the boys.
I’m 12 years old and I have these dreams …
This is an excerpt from Chris Foster's forthcoming book "The Halo Shines Tonight." Foster spent 35 years as a sports writer in Southern California, including 28 at the Los Angeles Times. He covered hockey, college football, college basketball and Angels’ baseball before retiring in 2015. He grew up in San Clemente, where he failed to launch a Major League baseball career and became obsessed with becoming a sports writer. He haunted Anaheim Stadium as a reporter on and off from 1978 through 2015. Chris lives in Cerritos with wife “Lilo” and son “Stitch.”