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BRONX BANTER INTERVIEW: JIM BOUTON
2003-08-22 13:29
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Jim Bouton is the author of perhaps the most famous baseball book of all, "Ball Four." He also pitched for the New York Yankees, was a sportscaster and an actor, and also helped create "Big League Chew" bubble gum. Mostly, he's an author and a motivational speaker. His latest effort, a self-published book called "Foul Ball" is about Bouton's crusade to save a minor-league ballpark in the Berkshires. I had the opportunity to speak with Bouton last month. He speaks in a raspy, soft voice, and he laughs often. Here is our conversation.

Enjoy and have a great weekend.

Bronx Banter: In your new book, “Foul Ball,” you write that there have been two experiences in your life that you’ve felt compelled to write about. One was your time as a player, which you wrote about in “Ball Four.” The other one was your campaign to save a minor league ballpark in the Berkshires, which resulted in “Foul Ball.” What drew you to this story?

Jim Bouton: Well it was a story I hadn’t intended to write about. My partner, Chip Elitzer and I simply had a plan that we thought was a revolutionary plan to resurrect an old ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with our own money, private money, and have a locally owned baseball team so that Pittsfield would never again be faced with the situation that they’ve always faced which is: Build us a new stadium or lose your team. They’ve been running up against that for years. The people have voted three different times against a new stadium. So our plan to save Wahconah Park, we thought would be embraced by the community, and we would have a lot of fun. But then when we started running into opposition from the leadership in the community, not the people, who were a hundred percent behind us, but the leadership of the community, which is to say Berkshire Bank, The Berkshire Eagle—the local newspaper--, a Law firm, and General Electric, well, I started taking notes. And I’m glad I did because as our fortunes got worse, the story got better.

BB: How does Pittsfield differ from the other towns in the Berkshires?

JB: It’s a town that’s in decline. It used to be the home of General Electric until they pulled out. Then of course, they pulled out a lot of population with that when the jobs dried up. It’s an older community and it’s struggling to regain it’s footing. The city is $9 million in debt. About the only claim to fame in this city is the fact that they have a ballpark there. They erwere in jeopardy of losing that and they still are by their own newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle, which has threatened to either build a new stadium in Pittsfield, whether the people want it or not, or even worse, build it in a nearby community. Pittsfield would then lose its natural baseball monopoly, which they’ve had since the turn of the century.

BB: What part did General Electric play in this story?

JB: When my partner and I discovered that the local newspaper and the power guys were insisting on building a new baseball stadium on property owned by the newspaper in the middle of town, we tried to figure out why they would insist on doing that when they could have spent their $20 million in tax dollars on another kind of a building. A civic center, an indoor arena, a concert hall; another reason for people to come to Pittsfield. When we saw that their opposition made no sense, we tried to figure out why. I guessed, correctly it turns out, that they were trying to cover up toxic waste on that property. One of the last documents in my book is a release notification form, which confirms that the newspaper knew this property was polluted before they tried to “donate” it as a site to the city of Pittsfield for a new stadium. Now, we don’t know whether General Electric has polluted that site in addition to the pollution that we DO know about. There have been a number of test borings done on that site that have never been made public. Since the property used to be junk yards many years ago, and General Electric was using junk yards as PCB dumping grounds, there may be worse chemicals down there. But people don’t know about these things because they’ve been kept secret. It’s a very secretive town, and people don’t have all the information they need to have to make decisions about their lives. In any case, that’s how General Electric got involved. They were a back-story. Is this polluted by General Electric or what’s the story? I still don’t know if there is PCB pollution on the proposed stadium property, but I do know that the publisher I had signed a contract with to publish my book [Public Affairs], “Foul Ball,” sat down and said that I would need to get balancing comments from General Electric for whatever I was saying about them in the book. I said I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t get balancing comments from major league baseball about “Ball Four,” and I wasn’t going to do it with General Electric. Then the president of the publishing company told me that one of his friends is the top lawyer for General Electric and that this lawyer was going to be investing in the publishing company. A week after that, I was told by the editor who I had been working with on this book, that I had to remove all references to pollution and General Electric. And I refused to do that, and as a result I terminated my contract with Public Affairs. During which time, by the way, the publisher’s lawyer told my agent that I could keep half of my advance if I promised not to say why I was leaving Public Affairs. I don’t know what my price for silence is but I know it’s not $25, 000.

BB: In writing a book that was certain to make local political enemies in Pittsfield as well as much bigger enemies with a company like GE, did you ever feel that you or your family was at risk?

JB: I didn’t, but my wife did, and still does. Other people have warned us about angering powerful people who have a lot of money at stake. I mean if they find out that there are PCBs on this property the clean up could run into the tens of millions of dollars. So, who knows? I haven’t been threatened by anyone. I tend to brush it off but I think others are more concerned than I am.

BB: One of the most endearing parts of the book is how you and your partner in crime, Chip Elitzer, had the begrudging support of your wives.

JB: I’d say they were reluctant warriors. They were with us in the beginning but then we turned it into a daily campaign. This became a 24-hour crusade for Chip and I. The more we were opposed by this power group and the more nonsensical their opposition became, the more we pressed. We went to the people, we took to the streets: we had petitions and e-mails and faxes and posters. You name it. Chip and I would send each other e-mails and instant messages at three, four o’clock in the morning. We would read one of the newspaper editorials’ attacking us on-line, and we would have an answer for it before the newspaper hit the stands the next morning. We were nuts, you know. It was like a great buddy flick thing. I remember at one point I said to my wife, I said, “Paula. Who else but Chip and I could do a thing like this?” And my wife said, “Single people mostly.”

BB: You talk about having known Chip for only several years before you started this mission. You talk about building a tree house together and I know you have to get along pretty well with a guy to undertake a project like that. I think that male companionship is the emotional theme of the book. On some level, the book is really about how guys get along, even when they are married. What they do together, how they interact. You built the tree house together; you rallied around the ballpark together.

JB: Yeah, the tree hut that was fun. But we really bonded on this one. We went through this campaign together, and we now greet each other like old war buddies. Like, “Hey, we’ve been through some real traumatic experience together.’ We have a certain kind of a bond. You’re right. It’s a rare opportunity to go through something like this, and come to know another human being in a way that you wouldn’t have known him otherwise.

BB: Yeah, it’s like an a-sexual marriage.

JB: Well at one point my wife Paula said, “You know you and Chip---“ this is earlier on when she didn’t mind it so much---“you and Chip really work well together, you make a good team, you anticipate each other’s moves. It’s almost like dancers, the way you work together. And I said to her, “You know we’re getting married in August.” Paula said, “Well, you make a lovely couple.”

BB: At some point in the book it seems that you guys are aware that your chances to get your plan passed were remote, but the competitor in you seemed compelled by the challenge. It’s like you got off on testing yourselves, and recognized that the results were well out of your control.

JB: Yeah. When it became obvious that they were not going to give us a license to play in Wahconah Park, which would have been the key that opened the door to us renovating it and putting a locally owned team in there, no matter what, we began to sweeten our offer to see how far they would go. What would they turn down? We decided to plum the depths of their unreasonableness. It turned out that there was no bottom to it.

BB: I understand the ethical motivation behind your campaign, but on a personal level what was in it for you? The challenge?

JB: Yeah. Our original goal was to do something fun. We thought it would be a fun adventure to restore an old ballpark and put a locally owned team in there. We would get a big kick out of that, and that was our original goal. But after a while the goal changed, “Let’s see who these guys are. Let’s see how far they will go.” So it was a challenge to stay in the game. Besides people were begging us on the streets. They’d stop us and say, “Don’t go away." Please don’t be discouraged. Keep fighting. That’s what they [the powers at be] they always are. They discourage people and then they go away.” We said, “Nope, we’re not going away, we’re staying here ‘til the end.” Don’t worry about it. So we felt we had a compact with the people of Pittsfield. We owed it to them to stay in there and hang in there and fight this battle. In the process, turn over all these rocks in the pits of these dark caves. It was like turning over one rock after another, and you’d see all the bugs running. That’s really what it was like. So our pleasure then, at that point became in exposing the system. The beauty of it was we paid no penalty for this. Chip and I don’t work in Pittsfield, we don’t need the bank, we don’t need the law firm, the newspaper. So this is the first time anybody got inside who didn’t need the leadership in the community. As Chip said, “We don’t owe them any favors, they don’t owe us any favors, therefore they’re scared of us.”

BB: This brought out the old ‘60s Idealists in you.

JB: They didn’t know how to deal with us because we weren’t a political entity. We had to be dealt with on the merits of our arguments. They were totally at Sea with how to deal with something like that.

BB: I found it poignant that this crusade helped energize you in a way that you hadn’t been since the death of your daughter, Laurie, several years ago. Was that something that you were aware of while it was happening?

JB: I wasn’t conscious of it. I wasn’t conscious of it at all. But I do remember at some point in the summer, on the anniversary of Laurie’s death, I said to Paula, “You know this is the most alive I’ve felt since Laurie died.” Which was in 1997. And Paula said, “I’ve known that. And I’ve been watching that, and I’m glad to see that this adventure has made you come alive again.”

BB: Is that one of the reasons why you think she put up with it and supported you?

JB: It might be. Yeah, I think that was part of it. Seeing me smiling and enthusiastic and totally absorbed in something.

BB: Waking up at four in the morning to write letters to the editor.

JB: Right. Here I was acting like a kid again. She liked seeing that, so even though it was a burden on our time together, it certainly was good to feel that energy level back again.

BB: Your wife served as the editor of the book too.

JB: Well, she’s a wonderful editor. She reads all the time. She knows when she likes something and when she doesn’t. She would be the editor of the first drafts of stuff that I would write. And of course she was in the story, so she knew all the characters. She was also a fact-checker and she provided valuable assistance. And she’s not one of these little shy editors who puts a little note in the margin that says, “Open this up a bit more here.” Her comments were more like: “Boring!” “Get Rid of This.” Or one of my favorites, “Out, Out, Out!!!”

BB: Did you find that it was a difficult book to write?

JB: No, it wasn’t a difficult book to write at all. As a matter of fact, it was an easy one to write because it was such a great story. All I had to do was keep notes. It was difficult in the sense of having to pay attention every single day. At one point I decided, “You know I need to start keeping notes here.” I kept notes every single day: phone conversations, meetings, transcriptions of video taped council meetings, parks commissions meetings. Plus, I had e-mails and newspaper articles, etcetera. I had very good notes of conversations, with quotes. So I had about seven piles of papers, all dated that I drew from in order to recreate the season day-by-day. Not one single person has come forward and said they were misquoted.

BB: Getting back to your buddy relationship with Chip. Since you guys are both irreverent '60s guys, there were times when you reminded me of Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in “M*A*S*H.” Then I remembered that you acted in Altman’s movie version of Raymond Chandler’s last novel, “The Long Goodbye.” The movie happened to be one of the inspirations for the Coen brothers’ movie, “The Big Lebowski,” which I happened to work on.

JB: That was with Elliot Gould also.

BB: How did you get the job?

JB: I had run into Elliot Gould at a fundraiser in New York of some kind. I forget. Afterwards he was going to be going off to play some pick-up basketball, and I joined him. So we played pick-up basketball together, and I said, “This was fun. Let’s get together next week.” And he said, “Well, I’m going to be in California making a movie. I’ll be there for about a month, I’ll give you a call when I get back.” I said, “OK, fine.” Anyhow, three days later, I get a call at three o’clock in the morning. It’s Elliot Gould. He and Robert Altman are at a party somewhere in California. Stacey Keach just got sick and he can’t play the role of the killer. Elliot told Robert Altman that he thought I’d be good for that role. I don’t know what that says about me. In any case, Altman and Elliot are on the other line and I said, “You guys know what time it is?” They said, “It’s midnight.” I said, “Well, it’s thee o’clock in the morning in New Jersey.” Anyway they said, “Get on the next plane. Bring a toothbrush; you’re going to play the part of Terry Lennox. You’ll be perfect for the part.” I said, “Well, OK.” Flew out there. Did a little screen test, which took about two minutes, and I was in the movie.

BB: How was Altman with you?

JB: Well, Altman was great. He’s considered an actor’s director and I can see why. I had taken a couple of acting courses from Lee Strasburg at the Actor’s Studio.

BB: This was after your playing days?

JB: This was after I had retired, but before I made the movie. So it was a coincidence when he asked me to make the movie that I had taken a couple of acting lessons. The great thing about Altman was he said, “You read the script?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “OK, well then just forget about it. Here’s the story: you haven’t seen your old friend Phillip Marlowe for a couple of years, and now you need a ride to Mexico cause you’ve just killed your wife, but you’re not going to tell him that. But you want him to drop you off at the border. So I don’t care what you say to each other. You’re two guys, you haven’t seen each other in a long time. At some point in the conversation you gotta tell him you want him to give you a lift down to the Mexican border. Other than that, I don’t care what you say.” So that was great, even though in my mind I was trying to stick close to the script. I didn’t want to just have an adlib conversation with Elliot Gould. I didn’t know what that would be like. I guess as sort of a rookie actor trick, Elliot comes over to me, just before they’re ready to shoot the first scene and he says to me, “Did you get the changes?” Of course, there were no changes, but he just wanted to see the look on my face. The funny part about it is that they shoot the scene and I walk into his apartment, and the way he started talking and acting real casual, hardly paying much attention. And he was distracted, doing something else. I thought the camera wasn’t rolling because it didn’t seem like he was acting. Of course that’s what real acting is: to make it seem like you’re not acting. At some point I said, “Hey, is the camera rolling here?” “Yes. Cut! Try it again.”

BB: There was an amusing exchange with you and Moose Skowron at the Yankees Old-Timer’s Game in 2001 where he took exception with your feeling that the modern players are superior to the one’s you played with. What makes the current generation of players better?

JB: In terms of the quality of play, the players are just better than we were. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster. They are better trained, they have weight training, and personal coaches, they have computers, they have videotapes now to help them with their motions and their batting swings. There are just all sorts of advances that are way ahead of us. But Moose believes, still, that the 1960s were better. I said, “Moose, don’t you remember the Old Timer’s days in Yankee Stadium when we would sit there, in 1962, for example, and Bill Dickey would come in from the 1930s and tell us how much better they were back in the ‘30s. We used to think the guy was an old nut.” I said, “That’s what you look like to player’s today.” There is no way that Bill Dickey was better than Yogi and Mickey and Whitey, and there’s no way that guys today aren’t better than Mickey and Whitey.

BB: What about the argument that is usually put forth by the old guys that the modern players have terrible fundamentals and can’t do the little things to help their team win?

JB: Well, the game has changed. It’s not a bunting game. It’s a home run game. So they have big, strong guys who hit home runs. That’s the way it is. The games are now 14-10. You don’t have as many 2-1 ballgames. So if we walked off the field in 1962 and onto a baseball field today, 40 years later, we would probably be able to score three or four runs by bunting, and hitting and running, and hitting the cut-off man, and moving the runner over, and then we’d lose 14-3.

BB: Why are the old guys so threatened by the modern players? Is it because on some level they feel that they won’t be remembered?

JB: No. I don’t know that they feel threatened. But everybody thinks that their era was the best. When you were in high school that was the best music of all-time, no matter what went before or came afterwards. I feel that way about my music when I went to high school in the ‘50s when Rock’n’Roll was just coming out of R&B. When black artists were just beginning to be played on the radio. To me that was the birth of real music in America. But I hear people who grew up in the ‘70s think the Doobie Brothers invented music. It’s just that we tend to think our era is the best. Your high school was the best. Our high school was better, our state was better, our religion was better, our skin color was better: we’re better. That’s the way we think I guess.

BB: Do any of your old Yankee teammates still have hard feelings about “Ball Four?”

JB: Oh, I’m sure there are. I don’t really pay attention to that anymore. I mean, most players who play in the big leagues today read “Ball Four” when they were in high school or college or the minor leagues. I don’t feel any resentment at all from today’s players. Occasionally, some old coach in his ‘70s will be sitting over in a corner, thinking, “There’s that Bouton guy, who wrote that book.” But they probably never read it in the first place.

BB: Sounds like the kind of criticism Michael Lewis has encountered this summer with his book, “Moneyball.”

JB: Oh yeah, who is criticizing him?

BB: Stodgy old sportswriters, TV guys, and general managers who haven’t read the book.

BB: Yeah, right. I can see that. They hate it when somebody comes in from the outside and exposes something. That was the resentment Chip and I found going into Pittsfield and it is the resentment that Michael Lewis has found in baseball. But this kind of work has to be done by an outsider. Somebody who come in with fresh eyes, somebody with no axe to grind, and somebody who can’t be compromised by the political winds.

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