Fifty years ago next month, word started leaking that Look magazine would publish two excerpts from Jim Bouton’s diary about the 1969 season, Ball Four. The leaker was the sportswriter who edited the book, Leonard Shecter. In the early ’60s, Bouton was a young, smart, offbeat pitcher with the New York Yankees who stood out in a locker room of jaded, old-school, future Hall of Famers like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. Shecter was the beat guy for the New York Post and one of a group of young sportswriters—Robert Lipsyte, George Vecsey, Phil Pepe, Larry Merchant, and others—who cared less about godding up the old stars than writing interesting stories.
According to Mitchell Nathanson’s excellent new biography, Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, [ed. note: We’ll have an excerpt from this on UTSB tomorrow] the older writers covering the team were dismissive of their younger colleagues. Spotting Phil Pepe, whose teeth stuck out, and others at Bouton’s locker one day, columnist Jimmy Cannon called the reporters “a bunch of chipmunks.” They adopted the name as a badge of honor. Bouton wasn’t even in the starting rotation yet, but he was willing to have genuine conversations with the Chipmunks, to provide thoughtful answers to their baseball questions, and talk about societal issues, too. By contrast, Nathanson writes,
Mantle was unquestionably a superstar on the field, but in the locker room he would turn his back on the writers, offer one-word responses to their questions, or simply stare right through them. Despite all of his talent, there was only so much they could write about him, given how little he was providing them. So they turned to Bouton.
Shecter liked and respected Bouton, and vice versa. So when Shecter was approached in 1968 about collaborating with a player on an “inside baseball” book, Nathanson reports, he immediately thought of Bouton. The pitcher’s Yankees career had foundered amid injury and he had been traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots. Bouton told Shecter he had already been taking notes for a possible book, and they went to work. Shecter advised Bouton to think about salaries, baseball’s nascent labor movement, his personal feelings about MLB. But also, Nathanson writes, “the fun of the game—the funny nicknames, amusing anecdotes, clubhouse meetings, conversations on the mound.” Shecter told Bouton, “We ought to try to keep the tone fairly light.”
Bouton did not disappoint. When the book was done, Shecter was a senior editor at Look. For the first excerpt he went, of course, with the most explosive stuff, chief among it Mickey Mantle. Shecter leaked the juiciest quotes to his sportswriter friends, among them the head Chipmunk, Phil Pepe of the Daily News. Under the headline “Bulldog Bites Old Buddies”—Bulldog was Bouton’s nickname—Pepe wrote that Bouton respected Mantle “for his talent, his occasional charm and wit.” And then he quoted all of the damning Mantle bits from Ball Four, including the one anecdote that would become infamous:
I remember one time he’d been injured and didn’t expect to play, and I guess he got himself smashed. The next day, he was hung over out of his mind and was sent up to pinch hit. He could hardly see. So he staggered up to the plate and hit a tremendous drive to leftfield for a home run.
Mantle’s only response to Ball Four was a sarcastic “Jim who?” But he felt betrayed by Bouton, who in addition to the hungover homer story told about the Mantle who would “slam a bus window on kids trying to get his autograph” and was “snotty to reporters, just about making them crawl for a minute of his time.” According to Nathanson, Mantle instructed his ghostwriter of his 1985 autobiography not to mention Bouton at all, and it wasn’t until a few years later, after Bouton wrote Mantle a condolence letter after the death of Mantle’s son Billy, that Mantle said he was “okay with things now.”
Mantle died in 1995. Bouton died last year. I first read Ball Four when I was around 14 and, in addition to adding “fuckshit” and “shitfuck” to my vocabulary, the book changed how I thought about athletes and sports and kinda made we want to write about them someday. I’ve probably read Ball Four eight or 10 times, and I’ve talked about Bouton a bunch. Nathanson’s biography does justice to Bouton and his outsize impact not just on sportswriting but also the shifting power dynamics of sports, to players from owners, in the 1960s and ’70s.
I wasn’t planning to write about Bouton and Mantle today. But this is how the synapses sometimes fire. Mickey Mental is a college football coach in Ohio. He was also the No. 6 seed in the Sithole Regional of the Name of the Year Tournament. You don’t have to be a Scrabble expert to see that Mantle is composed of the same letters as Mental. Even without the baseball history, Mickey Mental is a fantastic name. With it, it’s pure genius. The coach’s dad is Mick, a star high-school athlete himself, and I can’t imagine what it was like to be a kid named Mickey Mental at the same time that Mickey Mantle was patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium.
The younger Mental’s Twitter handle seems to pay homage to his anagrammatic forebear. (And we at NOTY were fools not to give him a 7 seed.) Mental’s feed urges his players to “Set the Standard!!” and #TrustTheProcess. I would have run through a centerfield fence for Mickey Mental. Alas the NOTY voters were not with me, and I lament his first-round demise.