Jim Bouton, other Pilots will be honored at event on Saturday.
The most amazing part about talking to Jim Bouton, as I have been privileged to do several times over the years, is the obvious pleasure he still derives from the old “Ball Four” stories.
One can only imagine how many times, over the past four decades, he has reminisced about the prank that he and his Seattle Pilots teammates pulled on Fred Talbot after the pitcher hit a grand slam during the team’s “Home Run for the Money” promotion.
And yet, here Bouton was on Friday, gleefully giggling over the phone about how Talbot fell hook, line and sinkerball for the fake telegram sent by Bouton, purporting to be Donald Dubois of Gladstone, Ore.
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Talbot’s slam had won $27,000 for Dubois, and Bouton’s telegram offered to send a $5,000 prize to Talbot out of gratitude.
As “Ball Four” readers are well aware, no money ever came, to the growing consternation of Talbot and the amusement of the Pilots. It’s just one of a multitude of classic stories that made “Ball Four” — a chronicle of Bouton’s 1969 season in Seattle and Houston — such a seminal piece of baseball literature.
The book is enduring, and so, therefore, are the Pilots, whose fleeting existence in 1969 has become almost mythical, thanks mostly to Bouton’s words. And Bouton has developed a deep appreciation for the teammates he helped immortalize. Even Talbot, his nemesis.
“I have lived with the book for so long now, and had so many conversations with people over the years, that the characters, my teammates, have become like members of my family,” Bouton said.
“I honestly have developed very loving feelings about every single one of them. Even Fred. As a matter of fact, especially Fred. He turned out to be, in my mind, the funniest guy on the team.”
The Pilots played in Seattle 40 years ago, then disappeared to Milwaukee after just one year, lured away by current baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
Several of the players, including Bouton, will be in Seattle on Saturday to observe the anniversary. They will be honored before the Mariners’ game against the Royals, and before that will convene at the Bellevue Hilton for a public reunion (noon to 3 p.m.).
The event is being orchestrated by filmmakers Steve Cox and Brad Powers, who are working on a documentary about the Pilots entitled “The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History.”
It’s a project long overdue. Cox said he plans to film the pregame ceremony as a sort of denouement to the documentary — and use the occasion to conduct several more interviews to add to the ones he already has in the can.
Cox contemplated waiting until the 50th anniversary, but looking at the advancing ages of the old Pilots players — Bouton turned 70 this year — he realized that might not be wise.
“I didn’t want to take the chance of putting it off 10 years,” said Cox, who is based in McMinnville, Ore.
Expected to be in Seattle on Saturday, besides Bouton, are Tommy Davis, John Donaldson, Billy Williams (no, not the Hall of Famer; this guy played 18 years in the minors and got a three-game cup of coffee with the Pilots), Gordy Lund, Larry Haney, Dooley Womack, Jerry McNertney, Dick Bates and Bob Locker, with John Gelnar listed as a maybe.
For “Ball Four” aficionados, it’s a veritable “Who’s Who” of zany characters (though the zaniest, Steve Hovley, Bouton’s spacey friend on the Pilots, is the only team member who declined to cooperate with the project).
Augmenting the Hilton event, which costs $20 at the door for adults and $10 per child (the money goes to pay travel expenses of the players), will be former Pilots broadcaster Bill Schonely, serving as emcee; columnist Art Thiel, speaking about the history of Seattle baseball; and a display of rare Pilots collectibles from Charles Kapner. There will also be panel discussions, Q&A sessions and autography opportunities.
But, of course, the stars will be the old Pilots themselves. Some of them had reservations about Bouton’s book early, but most have come to embrace it.
“Most of the guys who actually read the whole book liked it,” Bouton said. “But most guys didn’t read it. They were basing their opinion on things some of the sports writers said, and they got the wrong impression. If you pick up the book now, they look pretty sympathetic.”
Bouton said he genuinely wanted Talbot to come to this reunion, but he was unable to attend because of health issues. The two haven’t talked since the book came out, detailing in hilarious detail their adversarial relationship — including the time Talbot jumped into a taxi for which Bouton was waiting. Talbot told him, “Wait for the next cab, you communist” as he sped away.
“I would approach him gingerly,” Bouton admitted. “I’d put a catcher’s mask on and go over and give him a hug.”
Bouton said that literally every day of his life has a “Ball Four” connection, whether it be from letters, e-mails or encounters with fans of the book. He has a “Ball Four” alert on his computer, automatically sending him any mention of the book, and the referrals are constant.
“I never get tired of ‘Ball Four,’ ” he said. “Mainly because I know the book so intimately, just thinking about it makes me smile.”
Cox, who grew up in Longview, was just 2 years old in 1969. He didn’t read “Ball Four” until he was about 12.
As with many youngsters, “it was one of those life-changing things. It was more than a baseball book. It was about clinging to your dreams when the odds are against you. It really touched me. I’ve read it dozens of times over the years.”
The documentary, which Cox hopes to have completed by October, will reintroduce those players, and also tell the story of how the Pilots ended up becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. Mostly, Cox hopes to answer the question of why the team remains so popular after 40 years.
“Obviously, a large part of it is ‘Ball Four,’ ” he said. “It’s also the uniqueness of it. In modern baseball, there’s never been another team that played one season in a city.
“There are people in Seattle for whom the Pilots would always be part of their baseball memory. But outside of Seattle, I don’t think anyone would care, if it wasn’t for ‘Ball Four.’ “
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org