The Story Behind My Jim Bouton Interview In 1983
Coming on Thursday, December 3, as part of our acclaimed SSTN Interview series, we will bring you one of the most special interviews ever – my exclusive and very original interview with Jim Bouton.
This is the wonderful story behind that interview.
The year was 1983. It was the late winter or early spring. I was just fourteen years old. I was crazed about the Yankees. I lived and breathed the Yankees. I wore a different Yankees shirt to school each day. I didn’t care much about anything other than the Yankees.
As a freshman in high school, I was very fortunate. My little school, Midland Park High School, located in Bergen County, New Jersey, was years, even decades, ahead of its time. One of the elective courses offered at the school was this wonderful class titled “Cable Television Workshop.”
This was not an ordinary class where one learned through books and such. No, we learned by using our hands. Each week we produced an hour-long television program that aired on the local cable TV channel. We scripted the shows, filmed them, mixed them, and edited them. We added graphics and sound. (The theme song for our program was Turn It On Again by Genesis.) Under the direction of a great man named Mr. Cannon who wasn’t a teacher, but who had worked for the BBC, the students worked the cameras, microphones, mixing board, lighting, and were also the on-air talent. This was a full-scale state-of-the-art recording studio that was built in an empty classroom in our little high school.
We did this week-after-week-after-week.
The shows were original, fun, sometimes quite funny, and often silly. I was, absolutely, in my element.
As I went through high school, I was convinced that my future would be in broadcasting. (And if life didn’t take me in a different direction, one I was very proud to take, I am sure it could have been.)
If that hour-long show was all we did, that would have been amazing. But, we didn’t just produce that television program though. In time we also did live sports and a weekly live news show. For the live news show, I was the sports anchor. Just like Warner Wolf, I “went to the video tape” to show highlights of the week’s sporting events from the school.
But, best of all was the live sports. For three years, I was the voice of Midland Park JV (and sometimes Varsity) basketball. I called all the games, live, on TV. One of the first introductions my girlfriend’s family had of me was watching a live basketball game and listening to me call the play-by-play. All modesty aside, for a high school kid, I was pretty good. I had my own style, my own “catch-phrases,” and, in a small way, my own following. It was amazing.
Looking back, I was so fortunate to have been part of such a special experience. I was part of the television program for the entirety of my high school experience.
In my early years with the show, one of my high school friends and I (he was also named Paul) desperately wanted to get a New York Yankees player on the program. We tried every avenue we could think of – all to no avail. We wrote letters to the players. We called the Yankees. Somewhere along the line, we were told that an interview would cost over one thousand dollars to get a Yankees player. A thousand bucks? I made five or ten cents a house on my small paper route. A thousand dollars for us might have been a million. Or a billion. It was impossible.
The previous summer, my friend Paul and I had read Ball Four and, of course, loved it. It was funny, irreverent, great, and perfect for who we were – two kids who also wanted to be ballplayers and who also saw ourselves as funny and irreverent. In his great biography of Jim Bouton, Mitchell Nathanson compares Ball Four to The Catcher in the Rye. He is right on the money. Both books spoke directly to me (and in a way, they still do. In some ways we are still the kids who we used to be.)
I remember being despondent after hearing that the Yankees wouldn’t help us, but we had one more avenue of hope. Paul somehow knew someone who knew the editor of Yankees Magazine. He had sent us free issues and cool photos, but even he couldn’t help us secure a ballplayer to interview.
With no luck anywhere, on a whim, I started flipping through the Bergen County white pages – a huge phonebook at the time. One of the first names I looked up was “Jim Bouton.”
And there is was… clear as day on the page:
Jim The Corp Bouton, Cedar Lane, Teaneck – with the phone number listed.
Enthused and full of hope, I called the number. The phone rang and rang… and then a machine picked up. The voice on the other end was Jim Bouton’s. After he finished talking he said to leave a message. That might have been the first time I ever left a voice mail on an answering machine. It had to be. I spoke quickly stating that I was a kid who was part of a program in high school where we made shows for cable TV and that I was a big fan and I was hoping that I could interview him. I left my number and hung up excited that I was even able to leave a message for Jim Bouton.
A few days later, the telephone, an old dial phone mounted to the wall in our kitchen rang. I answered it. The voice on the other end was Jim Bouton’s.
He called me back!!!!
Jim Bouton, the former Yankee, the author of Ball Four called me on the phone. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I do know that we made a date for us to visit him at his office in Teaneck (I didn’t drive and had no idea where Teaneck even really was) early the next week (as I recall). All of the details mattered little. Jim Bouton could have said, “Meet me on the moon” and I would have agreed.
After jumping around with Paul, we waited (not so) patiently for my Dad to come home from work. As he walked in the house I said (probably in one breath), “Dad, can you drive Paul and I to Teaneck to meet Jim Bouton? I made arrangements to meet him at his office on Cedar Lane and we need you to drive us there so we can film an interview with him for school.”
After a long pause, and then many questions, my dad thought it all over and agreed. (I think he also wanted to meet Jim Bouton.)
The day finally arrived and we all jumped into my dad’s van and drove to Teaneck. On Cedar Lane, we found the building that housed Jim Bouton’s offices. We rang the bell and he ushered us in with a smile.
Jim Bouton was a superstar, a Yankee, an All-Star, a famous author, a New York sports personality… he was big time – and he couldn’t have been nicer. He helped us set up the camera and the microphone. He listened to us talking. He offered suggestions for broadcasting. He even took our directions. He was patient and kind and friendly and absolutely giving of his time. We weren’t rushed.
Jim Bouton told us all about his career, all about his life, Ball Four, and Big League Chew. He gave us free samples of the gum and told us of another product, one that never made it to final production, that was called Big League Chaw. Rather than bubble gum, it came in a pouch, but was a chocolate-like candy that tasted like a Tootsie Roll. Jim Bouton even showed us how to throw a knuckleball. What a thrill that was!
And, of course, when it was all completed, he gave us autograph after autograph and told us how well we did.
It was all a tremendous experience. Tremendous.
It was a highlight of my life to that point. I had met Jim Bouton and he couldn’t have been nicer.
Together with my friend, we had interviewed Jim Bouton for our high school television show. We succeeded. We did it! How many other kids, in the history of the school, had ever interviewed a former big leaguer?
We were big time!
On top of the world…
I think it was later that night, but it might have been the next day, or even the day after… Paul called me. He said, “I have bad news.”
For whatever reason, our great interview of Jim Bouton didn’t fully record. We had the audio, but no video came through. We couldn’t air what we had. Being kids, we were too scared to call Jim Bouton back to ask him to do it all again.
In our desperation, I was, at least, smart enough to make an audio recording of that interview, of that singular and special moment and time in my life.
I hadn’t listened to that tape for nearly forty years, but I found a tape deck that actually worked and carefully transcribed the interview that Paul and I conducted with Jim Bouton. It was an amazing trip back in time to hear my friend, myself (as a kid), and one of my heroes talking baseball.
I am so glad I thought to make an audio recording of that special interview.
That interview, the first I ever did with a big leaguer, will be published on this site on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. as part of our SSTN Interview series. I look forward to sharing it with you!
(Editor’s Note – The interview that will appear on Thursday is the written transcript of the recording. It is not the actual recording itself.)