Remembering Jim Bouton, Yankees Pitcher and Tell-All Author of “Ball Four”

In our June 1994 issue, Bouton—who died this week—talked about his then-new novel, "Strike Zone," a tale of baseball and gambling.

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[Editor’s note: Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who was born in Newark and grew up in Rochelle Park and Ridgewood, died this week at the age of 80. Bouton, whose notorious tell-all memoir
Ball Four, published in 1970, made him a baseball outcast, spoke with New Jersey Monthly correspondent Tom Wilk in the spring of 1994 upon the publication of his first novel. Here’s that story, from our June 1994 issue.]

As a pitcher who played with four pro ball clubs, Jim Bouton knew the value of trying something new. When a sore arm robbed him of his fastball, he turned to the knuckleball to extend his career.

Now, 24 years after publication of Ball Four, his best-selling diary of the 1969 baseball season, Bouton is following that same philosophy with the release of his first novel Strike Zone, co-written with Eliot Asinof. “I never thought I could write a novel,” says Bouton, a resident of Teaneck. “But I found it more liberating than straight reporting.”

Asinof wrote the book Eight Men Out, the story of the Chicago White Sox players accused of fixing the 1919 World Series. Gambling also plays a pivotal role in Strike Zone.

The novel’s premise is an intriguing one. The Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies are tied for a playoff spot on the last day of the season. With a pitching staff wracked by injuries, the Cubs turn to Sam Ward, a journeyman knuckleballer, to get them into the playoffs. Unbeknownst to Ward, home-plate umpire Ernie Kolacka, in his final game before retiring, has agreed to fix the outcome so the Cubs lose, as a favor to a friend deep in debt.

Through the characters of Ward and Kolacka, respectively, Bouton and Asinof tell the story in alternating chapters, in a narrative propelled by the game’s increasing tension.

“We sat down and mapped out the game, batter by batter, but we wrote our chapters by ourselves,” says Bouton. “We served as each other’s editors.”

While Strike Zone is unlikely to rival Ball Four’s mammoth sales figures (5 million copies to date), Bouton felt a kinship with Sam Ward. “I saw myself as Sam Ward, if it had taken me ten years to make the majors instead of three. It was hard to tell where he left off and I began.”

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