Midway through his under-appreciated follow-up book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, published in 1971 and also edited by Shecter, Bouton pauses to reflect on the damage that Ball Four may have caused:
There’s a song written by David Frishberg that appears in an album called Oklahoma Toad. The title of the song is “Van Lingle Mungo.” The words are, basically, just the names of ballplayers out of Frishberg’s childhood and they’re sung one after the other in a kind of lilting refrain: Whitey Kurowski, Johnny Sain, Eddie Jost, Johnny Pesky, Ferris Fain, Van Lingle Mungo. It’s a very pleasant song, sad and haunting. Here is a man reliving his childhood through the names of old baseball players, men he admired and respected, maybe loved.While listening, Bouton admits to twinges of regret about having written Ball Four. “I felt that perhaps a kid reading it would be so turned off to baseball heroes that he would never want to write songs about them when he grew up, that he would never feel nostalgia about them,” Bouton writes. “I wondered if I had really smashed heroes, whether I had ruined the game for the kids and ruined it for baseball fans.”
Chastened, Bouton acknowledges going through fanish stages when he was a kid, adoring the New York Giants, Alvin Dark, Dusty Rhodes, Sal Maglie. “Even now, thinking back, I can remember exactly how I felt about those men,” he writes. “There is still that same rush of good feeling when I think about them and what they meant to me,” adding, “my memories of them are still so happy that if I could write songs I’d write one about them.”
And yet, Bouton insists, there are two sides to everyone. “There’s the Dusty Rhodes who won a World Series pinch-hitting and the Dusty Rhodes who drove a bus in the World’s Fair. I could write a song about one of them. But I’m writing no songs about the Alvin Dark who ignores kids who want his autograph. And I’ll write no songs about Sal Maglie, the pitching coach, my pitching coach, who did me more harm than good.” He acknowledges that it’s possible to see people as both heroes and as flawed creatures, “imperfect, narrow sometimes, even not very good at what they do. I didn’t smash any heroes or ruin the game for anybody. You want heroes, you can have them. Heroes exist only in the mind anyway. David Frishberg has his heroes. I have mine. I just wish I could write songs.”
Bouton worries that Ball Four may have affected the game’s presumed innocence and its roster of burnished heroes, but nostalgia is very forgiving; that’s why we talk about the “good old” days, not the bad ones. When we’re nostalgic for the game of baseball we’re usually recalling isolated moments, images, still-frames from memory: a coveted Topps baseball card; a sun-warmed glove in the backyard; a favorite player rounding second; an enemy player overthrowing first, allowing your team to score the winning run; your dad’s moist eyes in the rec room. Nostalgists, all of us, prefer the close-up, not the wide-angle, the soft-focus, not the harsh realities.