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A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
Frank Deford
July 03, 1978
Jim Bouton, the former World Series hero, best selling author and TV star, is back pitching in Double A. At 39 years old, he has junked his other careers to knuckleball his guts out in the game that he loves
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July 03, 1978

A Magnificent Obsession

Jim Bouton, the former World Series hero, best selling author and TV star, is back pitching in Double A. At 39 years old, he has junked his other careers to knuckleball his guts out in the game that he loves

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"People have got to understand—I want to get to the highest level of competition I possibly can, but I swear I am not trying to get to the majors. It's sort of like Zen. I don't want to aim for the target. The way to hit it is not to aim for it. All I know is that this experience has been satisfying in every respect. It was even satisfying last year when I couldn't win a game. So I know I've made the right decision whether or not I ever get any higher. I've been happy most of my life, but never more than now. Of course, the minors are not as good as the majors, but the question to me is whether the minors are better than much of the rest of life. And to me, they are.

"I remember when I first quit TV to go back and everybody said I was crazy. There was a producer at CBS named Eric Ober, and he said, 'Hey, I know why you're doing this.' I said, 'Yes?' and he said, 'Because when you die, you're dead for a long time.'

"Dead for a long time. That's the truth. And they say I'm old now. That's funny, because when I really am old, I'm going to have a lot of fun. I'm going to have some stories to tell. All the kids on the block are going to want to come over and listen to strange old Jim as he sits in his rocker and talks about the old days. And professionally, when I get to be an old man, I'm going to be a terrific actor. I know that. All this stuff is just getting me ready to be an old man. I am going to be one great old man."

In fact, at this juncture, Bouton is a very youthful middle-aged man, towheaded and shiny-faced, with a countenance and form belying his four decades. He is not quite six feet tall. When he starred with the Yankees in a previous generation he weighed 185 and threw with such velocity that unseemly grunts—backfires—emanated from his throat, and the force of his delivery kept knocking off his cap. He appeared stocky and blurred, whereas now he is lithe and defined, with pectorals and biceps bulging out of a 165-pound body that never, never knows the backslider's joy of tasting refined sugar. As a young Savannah teammate said in the dugout one evening, "There's no fat on him except in his head." Or, as Bouton's wife says, "Have you seen those thighs? Aren't they something?"

Yes, besides the mistress baseball, there is indeed a wife—Barbara Bouton, usually known as Bobby. Her husband identifies her as a good scout, inasmuch as she tabbed him as a husband prospect when he was still a homely and insecure little fellow who was hoping to make the freshman squad at Western Michigan University. Bobby is pretty, sweet and fun, and not so very long ago she had a husband in the 50% bracket who came home nights, and did fine handiwork on weekends about their 20-room mansion, which stood upon a choice acre of land with a kempt lawn, flourishing trees and a swimming pool. Now her husband resides in an efficiency in Georgia, and her days in New Jersey have been filled with trying to fix up a turn-of-the-century house that they picked up from a widow, because they sold their estate to pay the food bills while Daddy pursues his search for temporary happiness. To put up with this, Bobby Bouton is obviously either a saint or as nutty as a fruitcake. Notwithstanding, she explains quite evenly, "I'd feel terrible if we held him back. I agreed he needed a break at this point in his life. Of course it's been tough on me. I miss him very much. It's hard. But whether or not what Jim is doing is fair to me or the children doesn't matter, because for now he's doing what I want him to do."

THE KNUCKLEBALL

Bouton is not merely indulging some quixotic daydream. He is a 39-year-old athlete with a knuckleball; Phil Niekro, of Savannah's parent team, the Atlanta Braves, is a 39-year-old knuckleballer who leads the big leagues in innings pitched. Hoyt Wilhelm labored successfully in the majors till age 49. A knuckleball (in fact, it is thrown with the fingertips digging into the ball, so the knuckles loom over it like a parapet) is shoved plateward with little stress on the arm, and even the most cursory inspection of the American League's premier knuckleballer, the corpulent 36-year-old Wilbur Wood of the White Sox, shows that the knuckler does not require a well-honed body. Sexy thighs are quite optional. Moreover, Bouton first tamed the pitch at age 12, and although he shelved it when he got his arm, he actually won a handful of games with it in the major leagues after he lost the arm. So, theoretically, Bouton can make a comeback at 39.

In fact, the Zen business and the testimonials to inner happiness in Double A are probably delivered as verbal waste pitches. It is difficult to believe that Bouton, who in his Yankee days was called the Bulldog, is not striving to go back up, even if he knows that the odds are against him—geriatrically and culturally. Of the latter: for having written Ball Four, he remains a pariah to many of the higher-ups in the national pastime. Though Bouton volunteered to pay all his own expenses, only two major league teams would so much as agree to cast eyes on him. Seattle, which has a team ERA of 4.41, tendered the most thoughtful turndown: "If we gave you a chance, we'd have to do it for everybody"—and thereby handed Bouton a title, even if he doesn't have a book.

It is instructive that the only ones who would permit Bouton, at his own cost, to soil their practice diamonds were those two prize eccentrics. Bill Veeck and Ted Turner. Veeck's White Sox organization released Bouton last year, and Turner's farm director, one Henry Aaron, released him earlier this season. Bouton survived only because Turner in a gesture of noblesse oblige ordered his underlings to take Bouton back. "I already had a 39-year-old knuckleballer [Niekro] and, besides, Bouton's entertaining just to have around," Turner says with a chuckle, just as the lord of the manor might explain why he had added another dwarf or concubine to the castle manifest.

But Bouton is undeterred. Despite the fact that The Netherlands is only an owner's whim away, he possesses an unholy belief in his ability to thrive by rising to the occasion. "I can pitch with my stomach," he declares proudly. Is i magen, the Swedes call it—ice in the belly. While Bouton believes that he has always had this super quality, now he knows he is almost impregnable to failure: win, he goes up to major league baseball; lose, he goes up to major league television.

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