Of the thousands of words Jim Bouton used to describe his
28-year exile from the Yankees between the time of the
publication of his controversial book, Ball Four, and his first
Old-Timers' Day in the Bronx last Saturday, only four ultimately
mattered to him: "Laurie made this happen."
Laurie was Bouton's 31-year-old daughter, killed nearly a year
ago in an automobile accident. Her death inspired her
34-year-old brother Michael to try to do the seemingly
impossible: put his father back in the good graces of a baseball
establishment still holding a grudge over the diary Bouton
published in 1970.
In a poignant first-person piece published in The New York Times
on Father's Day, Michael had asked George Steinbrenner to
forgive his father and lift the unofficial ban that had kept him
from the summer gatherings where Joe DiMaggio meets Darryl
Strawberry and Whitey Ford crosses paths with Hideki Irabu.
"Nobody told me Michael's letter was being printed," Bouton
recalled last week. "That day my son David called and read me
what Michael had written. I cried: joy, sadness, pride. The best
Father's Day gift you could ever get."
Writing honestly and powerfully runs in the Bouton family. Ball
Four certainly raised a few hackles. For the first time fans
were told that baseball players--Mickey Mantle included--drank,
fought and chased women. "I was maybe 14 when I read it, and it
was like reading Valley of the Dolls," old-timer Dave Righetti
said in the Yankees clubhouse. "I remember reading about them
boring holes in the dugout walls to look up women's skirts, and
using telescopes to look into hotel room windows." Bouton was
accused by former teammates of violating the sanctity of the
clubhouse, but after reading Ball Four those clubhouses would
never again be thought of as sanctified places.
Michael's letter touched a nerve with the Yankees, though, and
five weeks later there was Bouton, who in '63 and '64 won a
total of 39 games for New York (plus two more in the '64 World
Series), putting on a Yankees uniform just two lockers down from
Moose Skowron and the old Marine, Hank Bauer. There were no
dirty looks. There were no fights. There were no muttered
epithets in Mantle's defense; Mantle and Bouton made their peace
four years ago, when Bouton wrote a note of condolence after the
death of Mantle's son Billy. As Bouton answered questions from a
gaggle of writers never numbering fewer than 10, Bauer calmly
read that day's sports pages, which were probably far more
graphic and disillusioning than Ball Four seemed the day it
rolled off the presses. "They called me up and asked me if it
were O.K. with me to invite him," said Bauer. "I told them, 'I
got nothing against Bouton; he didn't mention my name!'"
After a struggle to find a cap properly sized to re-create his
trademark--the hat flying off his head as he delivered a
pitch--Bouton finally made his way to the field. He ran out
toward rightfield, pausing only to chat briefly with old Seattle
Pilots teammate Tommy Davis, then visited with the fans in
rightfield, including 50 friends and family members for whom he
had purchased tickets.
Any lingering tension lifted before the player introductions.
"Jim's back, Jim's back," Joe Pepitone repeated again and again,
mugging for the cameras. Bouton bantered with Bobby Murcer, Gene
Michael and others of his era, and then sat in the dugout and
visited with former teammate Mel Stottlemyre.
The fan reaction, which Bouton had anticipated with some
trepidation, was warm and supportive. He got the longest
ovation, except for those given to Joe DiMaggio, Ron Guidry and
Phil Rizzuto, and after he tipped his cap, the crowd fairly
As Bouton warmed up to face Jay Johnstone, the stadium
scoreboard flashed, THANKS MICHAEL. LOVE, DAD--his own surprise
for the son who had surprised him. Then came something
unexpected. "Just as I was starting to pitch, I looked up in the
stands and my daughters' friends held up a banner that read, WE
LOVE LAURIE. I was overwhelmed."
On the first pitchhis cap flew off, right on schedule. A
breaking ball bounced well in front of the plate, a reminder
that he is now 59 years old. Johnstone was retired on a
grounder, and Bouton's six-pitch return from exile was over.
"The whole experience was like walking in a dream," he said.
"What a variety of emotions. I feel like I just stepped off one
of those paint-mixing machines."
The strongest of those emotions had followed not the applause
nor even the appearance of the banner with his daughter's name;
it had come in those brief moments with Stottlemyre. "Mel and I
were talking about grief," he said. "He lost his son 11 years
ago, and he understood. I wanted to know how to get through it.
He told me you don't get over it, but it does get a little less
painful each day. You don't want to forget her, you want her to
be there with you always. Today it was as if she was here." A
tear formed in Bouton's right eye, and he made no apology for
it. "She was here."