Jim Bouton, Author and Former Pitcher, Struggles With Brain Disease


Bouton nodded. Turning the notes into a book, he said, was the best thing he ever did.

“I didn’t know the value of it,” he added. “I was just really sharing the nonsense. Every once in a while, I would transfer the notes to audio and send in my tapes. I’d call Shecter and say, ‘Is this interesting?’ And he’d say: ‘Are you kidding? Keep going!’”

The book was a smash. Often cited as the first “tell-all” book by an athlete, it was really so much more — a coming-of-age journey, of sorts, described by an insider who thought of himself as an outsider. It was the only sports book named to the New York Public Library’s list of Books of the Century.

It also launched a new life for Bouton as a kind of rebel-celebrity. Released by the Houston Astros in August 1970, he attempted a comeback with an independent team — he visited Carson on a day off — and made five starts for the Atlanta Braves in 1978. His book was spun off into a short-lived sitcom, and Bouton also starred in a Robert Altman film, “The Long Goodbye,” with his friend Elliott Gould.

For a few years, Bouton worked for WCBS in New York.

“I was a TV guy; I did the news with sports and stuff,” he said. “And then one day, I’m in the newsroom, getting my script ready to go, and Geraldo Rivera walked in with John Lennon!”

Bouton paused, changed the subject briefly, and then picked up the story again.

“So Geraldo was hanging out with — what’s his name again?” he asked.

John Lennon.

Bouton shook his head.

“John Lennon. Isn’t that ridiculous, that you can’t come up with it?”

Life is like that these days for Bouton and Kurman. She calls his condition a pothole syndrome: Things will seem smooth, his wit and vocabulary intact, and then there will be a sudden, unforeseen gap in his reasoning, or a concept he cannot quite grasp.

Photo

Bouton’s unique knuckleball grip makes use of three fingernails, instead of two.

Credit
Tyler Kepner/The New York Times

Rote memorization remains: Yes, the author of “Ball Four” can still tell you how many balls are in a walk, he can still recite his Army number — BR18609797 — and he still proudly states that he once won 21 games in a season.

But Bouton does not know the year — he recently guessed 1982 — or his age. His major league record was 62-63, but he could not process a question about whether his career win total was closer to 50 or 300.

“The blessing is there’s no physical pain,” Kurman said. “The awful blow is the very thing which enabled him to write ‘Ball Four’ is mangled — something he prides himself on, and he’s not going to get back to that level again.”

Bouton has written other books, including “Foul Ball,” in 2003, about his efforts to save a ballpark in Pittsfield. Now his brain damage has eroded the communication skills that once came so naturally and vibrantly.

“I can’t write a simple sentence,” he said, before Kurman pointed out that he could.

“But it’s garbled,” Bouton continued. “It’s not interesting. I almost have to explain why it sounds so flat.”

Kloman said he sees more and more such cases now, in people from Bouton’s generation and the baby boomers born a few years later. It is staggering, he said, and sobering to deal with conditions that cannot be prevented or cured. The cost of care can be crippling to families.

In her work with brain-damaged children, Kurman said, her boss would tell her to think about what remains, not what is lost. It is a lesson she applies now. Her husband can still make her laugh, still make her think. He has taken up painting again; he once studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

And he can still pitch.

“You need to learn that the person is still that person, and you have to focus more on what he can do, rather than what he can’t do,” she said. “And then you adjust.”

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