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Remembering Ball Player Jim Bouton And 'Ball Four'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I'm 30 years old, and I have these dreams is how Jim Bouton opened his 1970 book "Ball Four," which a lot of young fans read under the covers by flashlight, laughing instead of sleeping and learning colorful new language. I dream my knuckleball is jumping around like a ping pong ball in the wind, Jim wrote. When the game is over, take a big bow on the mound in Yankee Stadium with 60,000 people cheering wildly, which I think is much like the dream of a lot of young fans.

"Ball Four" became a bestseller, a controversy and ultimately a classic. A lot of baseball people didn't like Jim Bouton's diary of daily life playing for the new and now defunct Seattle Pilots, the minor league Vancouver Mounties and then the Houston Astros. They felt he violated the code of the locker room by telling stories about ballplayers pulling pranks, swearing, carousing and joking. But readers, not just baseball fans, found he made the game lively, profane and engaging.

I got to know Jim a little interviewing him and in occasional phone calls. His own family was blessed by adoption, and he encouraged our family. He signed "Ball Four" for our daughters, writing don't tell your daddy where you learned some bad words. He had a huge sentimental love for baseball in all its ironies, rituals, artistry and even tedium.

A lot of it is foolishness, he wrote - grown men being serious about a boy's game. He goes on to say, I admit that sometimes I'm troubled by the way I make my living, but I don't think there's anything so great about selling real estate or life insurance or mutual funds or a lot of other things that people do with their lives.

When Jim Bouton died this week at the age of 80, I thought of the graceful final words of "Ball Four." You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball. And in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "VISION QUEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.