The Jim Bouton Interview (circa. 1983)
In (or about) 1983, when I was a freshman in high school, my friend Paul and I had the opportunity to meet Jim Bouton in his offices in Teaneck, New Jersey and conduct an interview with him.
The story of how that interview came about was featured on this site a few days ago.
This, now, is the interview.
(After a short introduction… “We are here with former Major League pitcher, All-Star, and author, Jim Bouton…”)
US: Who taught you the knuckleball?
Jim Bouton: I learned the knuckleball by myself. I had a box of cereal with a picture of Dutch Leonard on the back. He explained how to throw the knuckleball. I followed he instructions on the box trying to throw the knuckleball to my brother in the back yard. We were playing catch for about an hour, but I could never get the ball to move without any spin on it.
(That’s how you throw the knuckleball, you throw the ball so it doesn’t spin.)
Finally, I accidently threw one correctly. The ball didn’t have any spin and the air currents caused the ball to jump around and when my brother reached out to get it, it suddenly hit him on the knee cap. He was on the ground writhing in pain saying, “What a great pitch. What a great pitch!”
I spent the rest of the summer tying to maim by brother as I learned how to throw the pitch.
What made you want to throw the knuckleball in the Major Leagues?
I had hurt my arm in 1965 and I couldn’t throw a fastball anymore. So, in order to get by I had to come up with something that was easy on my arm and that was the knuckleball.
(Note – At this point in the interview, Jim Bouton paused to ask us if we were set up properly, if our microphone was working, and such. We had a discussion about camera angles and the knuckleball. The interview then continues with Jim Bouton showing us the grip he used with his knuckleball.)
Phil Niekro, who is probably the greatest knuckleballer ever, uses two fingers on top of the ball.
They call it the knuckleball because the knuckles, I guess, are what you see, but you throw it with your fingertips.
You don’t want anything to cause the ball to spin.
I used three fingers because as a kid my hands were too small to grip it with two fingers, so I use three fingers and that feels most comfortable to me.
I think I am the only three-finger knuckleball pitcher around.
Any way you can throw the ball so it doesn’t spin is a successful way to throw the knuckleball.
In November 1958, you were signed by the Yankees. How did that feel?
It was a tremendous thrill for me. I was 19-years-old. Here was a chance for me to be completely independent from my parents and be self-sufficient financially which I enjoyed.
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to have my own money. I used to have a paper route and a lemonade stand so I could always have walking around money so I could go to the store and buy something without having to ask for permission if I could buy it or not.
Here I was, 19-years-old, and I just signed a baseball contract.
What made you want to sign with the Yankees?
They were the only team interested in me.
I was not a very good player when I was in high school. As a matter-of-fact, in high school, I was known as “Warm-Up Bouton” because all I ever did was warm up. I never got into the games.
No scouts scouted me. They didn’t have me on their cards.
When I got out of high school and went to college, I started getting a little bit of attention, but not much because I was never as big and strong as the other guys. Plus, I didn’t have a high school record of 25-0.
What happened was I played for this team that won the Chicago Championships and we got into a national tournament, the National Amateur Baseball Championships and the way it worked out, I ended up pitching against the best team in the tournament on the day when the scouts came from everywhere because they wanted to watch the hitters on the other team. They were scoring 18 to 20 runs a game.
I pitched a two-hit shutout against them. We beat them 2-0, and now they all wanted to know who this skinny kid was – who just threw a shutout against this heavy hitting team.
So it was really based on that one game that teams became suddenly interested in me.
I flew to Philadelphia to workout for the Phillies.
I flew to Detroit to workout for the Tigers.
And they decided I wasn’t strong enough and I didn’t throw hard enough.
Eventually, only the Yankees were interested and they signed me to a contract.
You were called up by the Yankees in 1962. How did you do in your first start?
In my first start, I threw a shutout 7-0 against the Washington Senators, but it was the world’s worst shutout. I walked seven guys and gave up seven hits so in the course of nine innings, I had 14 runners on base. The guys in the bullpen said I wore out the bullpen for a week.
It was a terrible shutout, but it was a lot of fun and after the game was over, when I came in from the field, Mickey Mantle had laid a trail of white towels from the door over to my locker as if I was some royalty or something. And I walked in on a carpet of white towels. It was fun.
What was it like to play with such stars as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford?
It was great. I walked around with a silly grin on my face for the first two years. I was there trying to pinch myself, wondering, “Am I really here doing this?”
I think I had more fun than most baseball players mainly because I did not expect to get there so when I arrived in the big leagues it was like some kind of bonus in my life. I didn’t expect it.
I saw the game from the fan’s point of view.
In fact, my roommate, Steve Hovley, said I was the first fan to make it to the Major Leagues.
Do you still stay in touch with them?
Yes. Christmas Cards kind of thing. We don’t really hang out together. My best friends are scattered around the country: Gary Bell in Tucson, Arizona… Steve Hovley in California. And I made good friends with the Atlanta Braves guys who are minor league players…Roger Alexander and some other guys who are Christmas Card buddies.
Your career had its high and low points. Did you ever feel like quitting?
Did I ever feel like quitting? Never.
I never felt like quitting anything because I wasn’t successful at it.
The only time I felt like quitting was because there was another opportunity that I liked more and so I would leave to go take on a new opportunity not because I was unhappy where I was.
In October 1968, your contract was sold by the New York Yankees to the Seattle Pilots. What was your reaction?
My reaction from going from the Yankees to the Seattle Pilots? (Laughs.)
Well, I was disappointed. And that was one of the low points, but I have always seen the low points as an opportunity.
When I went from the Yankees to the Seattle Pilots, I decided that I wasn’t a great pitcher anymore and probably would never be and maybe it was time to keep a diary of my experiences and write a book. And it was the diary of my year with the Seattle Pilots that became the book Ball Four.
Did the success of Ball Four encourage you to write your other two books?
Yeah. There would have been no second book if it hasn’t been for Ball Four.
The follow-up was titled I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally which was a reaction to the first book.
And the third book was not written by me entirely. I wrote a couple of chapters. It’s really an anthology of collected stories about baseball managers.
I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad…
Yes. That was a quote from Rocky Bridges who was a long time manager in the minor leagues. He was a character. He once said, “I am 6’3”, handsome and debonair – at least that’s what I told them at the Braille Institute.”
After a many years absence, you worked your way through the Atlanta Braves system. In 1978, you returned to the Major Leagues. What inspired you to make your comeback?
What inspired me to make my comeback was a couple of things:
I needed a challenge in my life. I felt like climbing a mountain. Having been retired for eight years, it seemed like a sufficiently challenging mountain to climb.
I also wasn’t happy at home and wanted to get away from things.
And the voices in the back of my head said I could make it.
During your retirement before you decided to make your comeback, what did you do?
When I retired, I became a sportscaster in New York working for six years for ABC and CBS.
Also, I created, wrote, and played the lead in a situation comedy based on my book called Ball Four and it actually got on the air for four weeks before it was cancelled.
That was basically it. Television work.
1978 was your final Major League season. What gave you the idea to start the Big League Corporation and what does it do?
The Big League Corporation began in a bullpen in Portland, Oregon when I was making my comeback. In 1977, I was pitching out in Portland in the Class-A Northwest League for the Portland Mavericks.
I was sitting around the bullpen one night and everyone was chewing tobacco, the young kids I was with. I was 39 at the time and they were all in their 20’s and the tobacco was making them sick. So I said, “Why do you chew this stuff if it makes you sick?” They said, “We need it for our image.” We all sort of laughed about that.
A couple of innings later, this kid sitting next to me, Rob Nelson, who is now my partner, said, “It’s too bad there isn’t something that looks like tobacco, but tastes good like gum.”
I said, “That’s a great idea, shredded gum. You can put it in a pouch and call it Big League Chew and sell it to every kid in America.”
We laughed about it. We didn’t think much more about it. The game ended. The season ended.
A couple of months later, I was sitting at home in the winter thinking about it and I finally decided it was a marketable idea, so I called this kid up and I said, “Listen, let’s go places on that idea. You make some gum in your kitchen and shred it up and I’ll design some pouches and we’ll see if we can sell it to one of the gum companies.”
So that’s what we did. We made up pouches of Big League Chew and took it around to all the different gum companies to see if we could get them to buy the idea.
They all turned it down except for one company – Amurol in Naperville, Illinois. They liked the idea. They licensed the idea. They gave us a royalty and Big League Chew went out and captured 8% of the bubble gum market.
So it does very well – about fourteen million dollars a year.
Do you do anything else beside the gum business?
Yeah. Big League Corporation started in 1980. It still does very well. And because it is Big League Corporation, I was able to use to royalties to invest in a business that creates a number of Big League products all of which provide the consumer with the reward of feeling like a big leaguer.
So, what kind of products make you feel like a big leaguer? Being on your own baseball card! And it would also be practical. You can use the card as an invitation, a party favor, as business cards, or whatever.
But the question was how can we make cards, high quality cards, authentic, just like baseball cards inexpensively enough?
I developed a system for computer type-setting, then located a printer, and signed a contract with him. We put the printing technology with the type-setting and that became Big League Cards.
The company is two years old now and we’re beginning to grow and take off.
Are there any ideas in the making with Big League?
Yeah, a few others that I am not about to reveal at this moment. These are corporate secrets.
I don’t know if Mike Wallace could dig that out of me.
Jim Bouton became a successful businessman. He overcame tremendous odds to become successful.
He still plays semi-pro baseball for a local team in Emerson and Westwood. This past season he led them to a division title in the Metropolitan League.
We’d like to thank Jim Bouton for spending this time with us today. Thank you Jim Bouton.
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.