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June 5, 2012

Jim Bouton on Bringing BALL FOUR to Life

Jim Bouton was a pitcher for the New York Yankees from 1962 to 1968. In 1969 he played for the Seattle Pilots. In 1970 his book BALL FOUR detailed the inside story of the sometimes unruly life of professional baseball players. The book caused a sensation, and Bouton was severely criticized by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In 1978 Bouton made a brief comeback with the Atlanta Braves. He has written books and screenplays and appeared in movies and on television, and is credited with developing Big League Chew, bubble gum that resembles chewing tobacco. Here, he talks about bringing the book to life by reading it aloud.
Reading your own book is strange enough. Reading it aloud is even more so.  And it's not an easy thing to do. For example, I thought my first few hours of taping had gone pretty well, until it was played back to me.  
To my surprise, it sounded as if I were delivering a speech to an auditorium full of people. At the same time, I didn't want to sound like a professional actor. I'm an old ballplayer talking about events that happened a long time ago.
Fortunately, I had a great coach with me, my wife Paula, who had once been an actress. Her advice was to have me share (not tell) my stories as if I were talking to a friend, late at night, in the dark. 
Somehow this new level of intimacy brought me back in time, and reading was no longer an abstraction. I was now in the bullpen, or on the back of the bus, or on the roof of the Shoreham hotel. I saw faces and body language. I could almost smell the beer. 
And I discovered that saying something funny is funnier than reading something funny. Memories were elevated to a new level. In my head I could see Fred Talbot and Merritt Ranew arguing about which part of the South was dumber --- and I couldn't help laughing out loud.
There were a number of times I laughed so hard I couldn't continue. In one instance, I tried at least half a dozen times to read a passage I had never thought was that funny. Sometimes I had to take my headphones off and go for a walk down the hall.
Other times, when arguing with General Managers about the pitiful salaries we were paid, I found myself getting angry all over again. I'd cool off during a break by reminding myself that Ball Four was part of the legal evidence that led to free agency.
Early on, I considered altering my voice and speech to imitate different players, but there were too many to keep track of. Once in a while, without my trying, a player's speech pattern would creep into my reading and I'd leave it in. Or I'd unconsciously adopt an arrogant tone when quoting officious types like a certain bullpen coach. If it came naturally, I went with it.
One thing I worried about was singing the country western song that Larry Dierker and I had written in the Houston Astros dugout. Our goal had been to combine every country western cliché we had ever heard into one song. My singing just might be bad enough to be good.
Sometimes I found myself re-writing, actually editing on the fly, when I felt a listener needed to be reminded which character was speaking, or to whom he was speaking. I'll definitely keep that in mind the next time I write. And no more convoluted sentences! They're hell to read out loud.
The hardest part was reading the section that described the loss of my daughter Laurie. Especially the letter that Paula's daughter Hollis had read at the funeral. I almost had Paula read it for me. I'm not sure how much crying they edited out, but I don't think I can listen to it anytime soon.
What I didn't expect was that the emotions that rose with my spoken words were far more powerful than my very same written words. So that now, when I think of BALL FOUR, I hear my voice. The book seems much more alive. That's probably why children like to be read to. They want their stories to come alive.