SSTN Interviews Dr. Mitchell Nathanson
SSTN: Today we are here with Dr. Mitchell Nathanson the author of Jim Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original and God Almighty Hisself: The Life and legacy of Dick Allen among other books. He’s a professor at Villanova University.
Dr. Nathanson, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Thanks for having me.
Please begin by telling us a little about your books and where they can be purchased.
You can get them wherever you purchase books – Amazon, Bookshop.org, your local bookstore, wherever.
I love the fact that you chose Jim Bouton to chronicle. What made you decide to write a book about him?
I always considered him a fascinating character. When I’m looking for subjects to write about I’m looking for people I’m going to want to spend 3-4 years with. I don’t have to love the person but I do have to find them compelling enough to want to spend a significant amount of time with. And Bouton was certainly such a character. There was so much about him that I found interesting that I figured I’d never get bored researching or writing about him. And I didn’t.
A long time ago, when I was a high school kid, I interviewed Jim Bouton in his offices in Teaneck, NJ. He was extremely kind to me. As you researched and studied Bouton’s life and career, did you have the chance to talk with him?
Yes, he cooperated with me on the book. He didn’t have editorial control over any part of it but he was open and available whenever I wanted to speak with him. We even went to a Yankee game together, which was a thrill. And I’m not even a Yankee fan (please don’t hate me).
Ball Four was a revolutionary book – one that I have read many times. It is probably my favorite baseball book ever. What is your favorite baseball book?
Well, Ball Four would certainly rank at the top. Of course, that was perhaps the primary reason I was interested in Bouton in the first place. I have read that book so many times I can’t count. I try to read it every year just before spring training – in February when the weather is terrible and I’m missing baseball more than at any other time of the year. That book just warms me from the inside. Other baseball books I love are Arnold Hano’s “A Day in the Bleachers,” which puts the reader in the Polo Grounds even today. It’s an amazing book in that it appears to be simple but as a writer I can tell you that it’s not easy to make a book read as easily as Hano’s does. Another book I love is “The Glory of Their Times,” which I was surprised to learn was influential in the creation of “Ball Four.” Both Bouton and Len Shecter (his editor) loved Larry Ritter’s book and Bouton got the idea for allowing the Pilots and Astros to speak authentically from Ritter’s book. If you love “Ball Four” because it shows you just how a real big leaguer talks, then you owe a debt of gratitude to “The Glory of their Times.”
Jim Bouton’s life changed, dramatically, after writing Ball Four. Can you share some insight on how that book changed him and his life forever?
Well, he was done with big league ball pretty soon after that. Not forever, as we know (he came back in ’78) but after “Ball Four” came out he would have had to been a helluva pitcher to stick with the Astros given all the tumult it caused. He wasn’t and he was gone. On a larger scale, the book transformed Bouton into something of a voice of the counterculture, even though in reality he was hardly countercultural. People sought him out whenever they were looking for an alternative take on something sports-related, figuring that he wouldn’t spout the company line. Most of the time they were correct but sometimes he’d surprise them. For all of the non-judgmental discussion of “greenies” in “Ball Four,” Bouton was not a supporter of Jose Canseco, who blew the lid off of the steroid era in his book. Canseco, for one, was surprised by that. As were a lot of other people.
Also, after “Ball Four,” Bouton became a national celebrity, as opposed to just a baseball celebrity. He loved that. He liked to say he enjoyed being a “medium celebrity,” where people recognized him but he could still live his life. I spoke to a lot of people who commented on how the Jim Bouton of the 1970s was a guy who loved being Jim Bouton. That turned more than a few people off, I should say. But Bouton didn’t care. Remember the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld, when Elaine asks him who did he think he was and he said “I’m Keith Hernandez”? That was Jim Bouton in the ‘70s, post “Ball Four.”
I believe that one of Bouton’s proudest moments came when he was finally invited back to Old Timers Day. Can you share with us some aspects of that big day for him?
I would push back on that just a bit. I devoted an entire chapter to that day (in 1998), speaking with not only Bouton and his friends about it, but the people inside the Yankees who made that happen. It’s a fascinating story that I won’t get into here (hey, buy the book!) but there were such somber overtones to that day given how it came about that (i.e., the death of his daughter, Laurie, a year earlier) it was hardly a happy day for him. And I believe the coverage of that event got it all wrong. A lot of the articles I read in the NY press spoke of the Yankees have “forgiven” Bouton, but that was hardly the case. And Bouton certainly didn’t forgive them for anything. Even after the event Bouton and the Yankees remained at something of a remove. He wasn’t banned or anything like that (in fact, as I learned, he wasn’t officially banned even before ’98), but there were (and still are) some members of the old guard Yankees who thought the worst thing in the world was “Ball Four,” even decades later. They’ll never get over that.
Fantatstic work on that!
Did you have to edit out any stories about Jim Bouton that you wished you had kept in the book? Are you able to share a story with us here?
There was one I left out because I thought it would suck up all the oxygen in the room when it came to my going around talking about the book. And I didn’t think the story was all that relevant (more of a red herring than anything else), so I left it out. But perhaps I’ll add it in as an afterward to the paperback. It is interesting, I will say that, if ultimately not as revelatory as some might make it out to be. But that story is going to have to wait. Hey, I need something new for the paperback, right? That’s what Bouton did with his “Ball Four” updates, so I’m just following protocol here.
Well, you have me very interested now.
When we write and research, we learn. What was the biggest lesson you learned in writing this book?
I learned that, for the most part, even the people who had difficult relationships with Bouton ended up admiring him in one way or another. He had a lot of relationships – personal and professional – that didn’t end well and you’d expect a lot of bitterness on the other side of those stories but while the people I spoke to were very open about what happened that caused the falling-out, they still very much wanted to stress that they retained a measure of respect and admiration for Bouton, despite some of his personal peccadillos. It was important to them that I know that, was the impression I got. The one exception to this was Peter Osnos, his editor (for a time) at PublicAffairs when Bouton was working on Foul Ball (a book he’d end up self-publishing). The fallout with Osnos was particularly ugly and it’s clear to me that Osnos still bears some scars from it.
It seems you like to write about controversial players, men who had big personalities. One of your other books was on Dick Allen. Please tell us a little about Richie Allen.
Allen was in some ways very similar to Bouton and in others his polar opposite. Allen could be outspoken when he wanted to be and the thing I learned while writing that book was just how vocal he actually was, at least occasionally. He had a reputation for not talking but if you looked hard you’d find that he did speak a lot, albeit only to certain people. The Dick Allen presented in the Black press was completely different than the Dick Allen presented to the readers of the White press. That was really something to see, and I focused a lot on those diverging portraits in my book. So his outspokenness was how he was similar to Bouton but whereas Bouton was an extrovert Allen was an extreme introvert. Allen needed his alone time and baseball in the ‘60s didn’t provide much of that to players (especially star players) who were expected to be at the beck-and-call of the writers. That’s really what he rebelled at – this idea that he was subservient to the writers, who were profiting off of him and making names for themselves while he got nothing in return. Remember back then that the writers typically earned more than all but a few players. And then there was this idea that Black players, even stars like Allen, weren’t supposed to have a voice at all, whereas White stars like Mickey Mantle could pretty much say whatever they wanted or do whatever they wanted, and the press would cover for them. Allen saw all of that and considered that unfair (which of course it was). Why shouldn’t he receive cover by the press just like Mantle? So he rebelled against that. Allen was certainly no angel but then again neither were most players. A lot of them drank, a lot of them didn’t always show up when and where they were supposed to. But you only heard about it when it came to Dick Allen. Tying this in with Bouton, we see that a lot of the blowback he received from “Ball Four” when it was published in 1970 emanated from his revelations concerning the true nature of Mickey Mantle. Very few people knew that Mantle had a drinking problem and could be a jerk. But everybody had known that about Allen for several years by that point. The question we need to ask is why did people know everything about Allen but nothing about Mantle prior to “Ball Four”?
Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall-of-Fame?
Does syrup belong on pancakes? We can go back and forth on his numbers or the length of his career but he had 11 top-drawer seasons, which very few players other than the all-time greats have had. If we’re talking stats, it’s the fact that he didn’t have enough mediocre seasons that has kept his lifetime numbers a touch below some others who are in the Hall. Really, do we want to keep Allen out because he didn’t have a half-dozen so-so seasons where he would have boosted his career home run totals a bit? That doesn’t make sense to me. He’s also been kept out because he didn’t get along with some members of the press but, really, who cares. Is “making the beat writer’s job easier” one of the qualifications for enshrinement? Last time I checked it wasn’t. Allen had the courage to stand up for himself during an era where Black ballplayers were treated terribly. He spoke up and put his career and reputation on the line when he openly told a NY Times columnist (in 1964!) that the racism in Little Rock was hell. Throughout his career if you asked him a question he’d give you an answer from the heart, no matter what. In my book that’s called courage. That’s a reason to put him in, not keep him out.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
I would like to see a really good biography of Frank Robinson but, alas, that won’t happen, I don’t think. He was a difficult guy to deal with and now he’s gone and, as Howard Bryant recently said, he took his stories with him. That’s a shame. I guess one could still do a good biography of Robinson even though he’s no longer with us but his family would have to freely and openly cooperate and I don’t see that happening. It’s a shame because even now Robinson is fading into the background, and he really shouldn’t. He was one of the greatest players in the history of the game and he played in baseball’s golden era and still shone. Beyond the field, he’s one of the most significant people in baseball history in so many different ways. People should know more about him and he should be a name that every baseball fan knows even if they never saw him play. Yet he’s hardly remembered by people outside of hardcore fans. That’s just wrong. But it’s up to Robinson’s family to turn that around. And I don’t think they have much interest in doing anything about it.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Mike Schmidt. I think he’s in that group of HOF’ers that stand above even the other HOF’ers. And I got to experience his entire career. I was there on Opening Day 1974 when Schmidt – hitting 8th! – won the game in the bottom of the 9th with a three-run blast off of future Phillie Tug McGraw. I was eight-years-old when that happened and when stuff like that happens when you’re eight, you’re hooked. So I’ve been a Schmidt fan all my life. And nobody can convince me that any third baseman is even close. So don’t even try.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Who was your favorite player?
Schmidt, but also I loved Dave Cash. I loved his swagger.
What is your most prized collectible?
I don’t really collect baseball memorabilia. I did get a program and a yearbook every year and I saved all of them so I’ve got every Phillies program and yearbook from 1972 onward, which is cool. So maybe I do collect some memorabilia. But I won’t go out and purchase a signed ball or anything like that.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Gotta say the Good Ole’ Grateful Dead.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I grew up in Trenton, which is the only place that can challenge New York for pizza supremacy. DeLorenzo’s in Chambersburg (the original one – without the bathroom) is the best pizza I’ve ever had. Philly pizza sucks, by the way.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience – I think we’ve about covered it. I always enjoy talking about both Bouton and Allen. Going back to the beginning of this interview, I think I chose wisely in my last two subjects because even now I enjoy spending time talking about their lives. Now on to the next project…
Thank you so much Dr. Nathanson. This was so fun to do. Thanks for your great opinions, honesty, and fun discussions.
I look forward to talking again soon.