As a teenager in the 1970s, my favorite book was Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues”. I had not read the book from cover-to-cover in over 30-years. As a 49-year old man, I am pleased to report that “Ball is still as humorous, insightful, and relevant today as when it was published in 1970. It is the best book ever written by a baseball player and the best account of a player’s day-to-day travails during the long baseball season.
After Jim Bouton had hurt his arm and lost his ability to throw his signature fastball, he turned to the knuckleball in desperation. Ball Four, written in diary form, is Jim Bouton’s account of his struggle to hold onto his career, literally and figuratively, by his fingertips. Jim Bouton had spent 1968 in the minors and was not even sure that he would play major league baseball in 1969. He was signed by the expansion Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers) and was used as a mop-up relief pitcher. Towards the end of the season, he was traded to the Houston Astros, who were in a five-way pennant race.
Ball Four was a best seller in 1970 and probably still is the best selling American sports book of all time. It was named as one of The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century. Roger Angell attributed to the success of the book to Jim Bouton’s ability as a “day-to-day observer, hard thinker, marvelous listener, comical critic, angry victim, and unabashed lover of the sport”.
Ball Four gained notoriety, because it exposed baseball players as girl chasing, drug taking, and beer drinking guys with stunted emotional maturity. The players entertained themselves with juvenile pranks, hilarious antics, and insults. The book depicts team owners and general managers as being selfish misers. The Seattle Pilots’ coaching staff are cliché spouting incompetents, hypocrites, and petty tyrants. “Pound the old Budweiser” was the favorite expression and all-purpose advice of the manager of the hapless Seattle Pilots.
Sports writers and the baseball establishment hated the book, because they thought it was their self-appointed job to protect the wholesome, milk and cookies image of baseball players. Fellow players thought that Jim Bouton had violated locker room sanctity, as embodied in the familiar clubhouse sign stating: “What you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here when you leave here”. Of course, many of the players who criticized the book would eventually write their own kiss-and-tell memoirs.
Jim Bouton attracted the most attention and criticism for his stories about Mickey Mantle. Jim Bouton revealed how Mickey Mantle once hit a homerun while drunk. It wasn’t Jim Bouton’s intent to destroy heroes, but to humanize them. Why couldn’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time? Mickey Mantle would later capitalize on his reputation as a drinker by appearing in a series of Miller Lite commercials.
The real significance of Ball Four was that it was written on the cusp of the players successfully challenging the reserve clause and winning their right to become free agents. Jim Bouton addresses how players were grossly underpaid by the team owners. When the minimum salary was raised from $8,000 to $10,000, the owners acted as if they were granting rookies and marginal players a raise.
The players tolerated this one-sided economic relationship, because the status quo is all that they that had ever known. Jim Bouton’s New York Yankees teammates in the early 1960s laughed when he proposed that the players should request that the minimum salary be increased to $25,000. The fact that players were property of the owners, to be underpaid, sold, traded, and released on a whim, was ingrained by a 100-years of organized baseball tradition.
The book recounts his one-side salary negotiations with the Yankees. He embarrassed the Yankees by telling reporters how much he wanted, so everyone knew that he was being reasonable and the Yankees were being unfair. After winning 20 games in 1964, the Yankees agreed to pay him $30,000 in 1965 on the condition that he not disclose his salary.
Team owner’s tightfistedness had not improved by 1969. Ballplayers roomed together on road trips, the team flew commercial flights, and the coaches kept track of baseballs during practice. The Seattle Pilots refused to reimburse Jim Bouton for a $50 case of Gatorade that he had purchased for the players during spring training.
Jim Bouton’s disdain for the monopolist owners and their treatment of players should be viewed in the context of rampant anti-establishment culture of the Viet Nam War era. His attitude towards authority is mirrored in the counter-culture films of the era, such as M*A*S*H, Alice’s Restaurant, and Easy Rider.
This version of Ball Four contains updates written in 1980, 1990, and 2000. Jim Bouton’s emotive narration places the listener in the moment. He laughs when telling comical stories and repeating the manager’s absurd one-liners; and he cries when describing the tragic death of his daughter. He also sings the country western parody song that he co-wrote in the bullpen and the Houston Astros’ bawdy fight song.
Dumb Money is the best book I have read about the last financial crisis. It explains in layman's terms how the events in the U.S. pushed the world economy to the brink of collapse and caused the Great Recesison. Daniel Gross sets forth a step-by-step analysis as to how lax mortgage lending practices in the U.S. mortgage industry, coupled with low interest rates, led to this calamity.
If you want to understand what caused our economy to malfunction and the roles played by home buyers, mortgage companies, rating agencies, government regulators, Wall Street, and Fannie Mae, Dumb Money is a good place to start.
I haven't seen Adam Carolla since the Man Show ended years ago. I am pleased to report that he is sharper, wittier, and funnier than ever. He defends his provocative positions with humor and insight. Throughout the book, his improvisational skills are used to improve his manuscript. This added material is the cherry on top of the pie.
Kitchen Confidential receives my highest rating for being entertaining as well as a delicious read, even if I am not a food or restaurant connoisseur.
Usually books about road trips are about misadventures and self-discovery. Instead, this book uses a trip to pick-up a used BMW bought on ebay to rehash in flashbacks the narrator's past year of family medical emergencies, the deaths of family members (people and pets), and the falling apart of his marriage. Although the author tries to be humorous, the book sinks under the weight of its whiny tone. If this book were a movie, it would have gone straight to DVD.
Robert Frank writes with clarity and insight about all aspects of our economy, including risk, consumer spending, taxes, wealth, and healthcare reform. Some of Robert Frank's most fascinating analyses concerns consumer spending and the effect of relative income. He explains in simple, non-economic terms why people are incurring excessive debt to buy luxury vehicles and oversized homes. Anyone interested in understanding our economy as well as whether legislative proposals are effective in acheiving the desired result will find this book to be highly enjoyable and educational.
The super rich are truly not like us. Richistan explains how and why. The premise of the book is that the super rich live in their own insular world of household managers, executive chefs, nannies, private jets, multiple vacation homes, and yatchs. Richistan offers a candid examination of how a new generation of Americans have become super wealthy as well as how they spend their newly found riches.
Wendy Spero's first book, of which I hope many more will follow, is a genuine gem. With a well honed narrative, she has unfailingly captured the humor of her obessesions, the strangeness of her family and friends, and the absurdity of her school and work life. As her life unfolds in a series of chronological stories, I smiled, laughed, and cried as she touched my soul with both her humanity and humor. By the end of the book, I wanted to thank Wendy Spero for having shared so much of her unusual experiences and keen insights.
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