CBS will have baseball on prime time this fall, which is a startling turn of events, because the last time anyone looked, the other two networks had a $92.8-million hammer-lock on the rights to televise the sport. That was before former Yankee pitcher, sometime sportscaster and best-selling author Jim Bouton conjured up a team called the Washington Americans and created a locker-room comedy called Ball Four. Starting this week the Americans will perform every Wednesday night at 8:30. Don't expect to be dazzled by a no-hitter, mainly because no pitches will be thrown. The show's action, like most of the events in Bouton's book of the same name, takes place before and after the game.
In Ball Four's premier episode, Jim Barton, portrayed by Bouton, is given the cold shoulder by his teammates, who are fearful that his soon-to-be-published series of articles for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will embarrass them. The script is overloaded with predictable punch lines, and the result is typical sitcom silliness. Only Ben Davidson, the 6'8" former Oakland Raider, towers over this foolishness; his debut in a TV series is one of the show's bright spots. Fellow ex-jock Bouton delivers his lines blandly, but his presence does give Ball Four a touch of authenticity.
The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series. Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover. With fewer than one-third of this season's new prime-time shows likely to survive until spring, the odds seem slim that Ball Four will last long enough to fully explore baseball's other side. And those chances were further reduced by the well-publicized uneasiness of some CBS executives about the series before it premiered.
In fact, Ball Four had to beat some pretty long odds just to get on TV. When Bouton decided to try putting the show together, he corralled two friends to help. Marv Kitman, Newsday's TV critic who wrote a story about Bouton when he was a sportscaster for WABC-TV in New York, signed on first. Bouton next recruited New York Post sportswriter Vic Ziegel while they were both covering a Muhammad Ali press conference. None of the three had ever written a TV show. "We knew our chances for succeeding were less than 1,000 to 1," says Ziegel.
September 26, 1976
Bouton has no intention of ever releasing his control of Ball Four. Earlier he had refused movie offers of $25,000 just for the right to use the title. Instead of turning over the idea for a TV series to a production company, the trio brainstormed characters, drew up plots and wrote a 45-page proposal. "It was 41 pages longer than it should've been," says Ziegel, "but that is what happens when three writers get together."
When the time came to sell the show, Bouton had moved to CBS' New York station and, to save a dime, he decided to call that network's programming director first. CBS was interested, but wanted an outline of an episode. Bouton, Kitman and Ziegel sorted through a dozen of their plot ideas and settled on one about a player-representative election, a situation Bouton had described in his book. "I declined [the nomination] on the spot. I refuse to give them another chance not to vote for me." he had written. In the TV pilot Barton is not only nominated but also campaigns and wins.
Last fall Bouton, Kitman and Ziegel wrote the script for the pilot and, following a series of rewrites requested by CBS, the network decided to shoot it. The show was videotaped three times in front of live audiences and finally bought by CBS.
Its creators envisioned the televised version of Ball Four as a character comedy—√† la M.A.S.H. and All in the Family—rather than a mere sitcom. One problem in presenting authentic baseball characters was finding allowable homonyms for some favorite locker-room words. Bullpimp was bleeped, horse-crock and bullhorse survived and horsespit is pending with the censors.
But the ban against dirty words cannot be blamed for the lack of a convincing jock raffishness in the Americans' locker room. After all, M.A.S.H. does nicely without them. And so, only on occasion, does Ball Four, as when Westlake, the rookie pitcher with the golden arm, is having girl trouble and Pinky, the coach, gives him a bit of advice. "Women are like buses," he says. "If one is crowded, you wait for the next one."
Pinky's line and a few others have a bit of clubhouse ring to them. And Ball Four has some apt casting. Davidson is excellent as a catcher named Rhino, and Jack Somack (who won a Clio award as the inept actor in the spicy-meatball commercial of a few years ago) is good as the pot-bellied manager Capogrosso. Jaime Tirelli, who played three seasons in the minors, also performs well as a Latin player named Lopez.
But those plusses are not enough to sustain a TV series, and with Ball Four's premiere its creators can claim only partial success. They got the show on the air, but it is neither the character comedy nor the inside look at baseball they once planned. And the series, for however long it survives, is now largely in the hands of professional television people. Ziegel has returned to sportswriting, and Kitman is doing a series of articles on TV writing for his old newspaper. Meanwhile, Bouton, who at the moment is neither a pitcher, a sportscaster, an author nor an actor who appears to have a big future, is dangling on the outside corner with Ball Four.