Because of the drama built into it, because of its endless potential for interpersonal conflict, and because of its generation-spanning popularity, baseball would seem—on paper and in theory, at least—to be a can't-miss subject for a scripted TV series.
And yet, as Fox prepares to launch Pitch, its new drama about the first woman to reach the big leagues, it's jarring to note that TV series about the National Pastime have usually whiffed, and whiffed badly. In fact, with the exception of HBO's Eastbound and Down, which ran for four seasons from 2009 to 2013—and CBS' awful, blessedly forgotten TV adaptation of The Bad News Bears, which ran for two seasons in 1979 and 1980—it's hard to think of a baseball series that's lasted on TV for longer than the proverbial cup of coffee.
Perhaps the most instructive example of the difficulty of adequately translating baseball into a TV series is Ball Four, which first hit the small screen on September 22, 1976, four decades to the day before Pitch's debut. The series was based upon the controversial (and bestselling) 1970 memoir by Yankees/Pilots/Astros pitcher Jim Bouton, which caused a massive stir with its true and expletive-enhanced tales of its skirt-chasing, amphetamine-popping ballplayers, and soul-crushing contract negotiations—accounts that gave the public new (and not necessarily welcome) insight into the lives of their diamond heroes. The book is a classic, in large part because of how rudely it dealt with baseball's sentimentality about itself.
Though many of the hijinks recounted in Ball Four now seem rather tame, Bouton's book flouted the clubhouse omerta so egregiously that baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and numerous players, managers and even baseball writers felt compelled to publicly condemn the book at the time—many without even bothering to read it. Some opposing players burned copies of Ball Four while Bouton was pitching against them; Bouton himself would later vividly recall noted literary critic Pete Rose yelling "Fuck you, Shakespeare!" at him from the Reds' dugout.
For all of the controversy that surrounded it, Ball Four triggered a seismic shift in the way that baseball (and all other sports) would subsequently be written about by journalists and historians, as well as by the athletes themselves. "Ball Four absolutely changed sportswriting," says the sports journalist and historian Peter Golenbock, author of such classic baseball books as Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, The Bronx Zoo (written with Sparky Lyle) and Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin. "So many writers owe Jim so much, because his book let us know that baseball players are a lot more interesting than [Yankees broadcaster] Mel Allen would have us believe. Once I started writing, the idea was that I wanted to write books with the same honesty as Ball Four. If there's no Ball Four, there's no Bronx Zoo—I'm sure of it."
Because of how it scandalized the commissioner and other naysayers, it's easy to forget that Ball Four wasn't an angry, score-settling tell-all at all. It's an honest journal of Bouton's decline as a major league pitcher that happens to be peppered with hilarious character studies. Along with superstars like Mickey Mantle, Bouton populated the pages of his book with some lesser-known but memorably eccentric individuals, like Astros utility man Norm Miller (who drilled holes in dugout walls in order to peer up the skirts of women in the stands), prankish Astros third baseman Doug Rader (who advised kids to eat baseball cards in order to fully absorb their information), and Budweiser-pounding Pilots skipper Joe Schultz, whose personal vocabulary rarely strayed beyond a terse "Ah, shitfuck!"
"When I think of Ball Four, I don't think of my writing—I think basically of keeping notes," says Bouton today. "I'd keep notes all day long on what the players were doing and saying, and when I'd run out of paper I'd write on a popcorn box or an air-sickness bag, whatever was handy. They were all such wonderful characters; now that I was writing things down, I realized that they were fodder for great material, so I began to think about them in a positive way, even the ones I hated at the time. They were not competitors for playing opportunities in games; no, these guys were funny! And that's why Ball Four is so funny—it's not me, it's the players."
Which is why, in theory, Ball Four should have been prime 1970s sitcom material, especially considering the popularity of such ensemble-based mid-70s sitcoms like M*A*S*H*, Barney Miller and Welcome Back, Kotter. At least, that's what Bouton and his Ball Four series co-creators, Newsday TV critic Marvin Kitman and New York Post sportswriter Vic Ziegel thought at the time. "I don't remember who came up with the idea first," says Bouton, "but Vic and Marvin were part of a group of friends that I would hang out with at the Lion's Head bar in [Greenwich] Village, and we just thought it might be a good thing to do. It certainly was fun to listen to all those wonderful characters. So why couldn't a sitcom be just as funny as the real players, the real guys?"
Bouton, who'd retired from baseball midway through the 1970 season, spent several years in the middle of the decade working as a sports anchor for WCBS-TV in New York City. In the spring of 1975, he, Kitman and Ziegel submitted a lengthy sitcom treatment to the CBS brass, who green-lighted the series on the condition that the three men also write the script for Ball Four's pilot episode—this despite the fact that none of them had any professional screenwriting experience. Thus began a year of grueling writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting.
"Our plan was to sit around and write it in the daytime," Bouton remembers, "but since it took us so long to come up with anything, we'd still be writing stuff at two in the morning. The CBS people would come into the writing room, which is a dark place, in many respects; there were many vice presidents—none of whom could write, but they could 'help.' So we'd listen to their ideas, and then they'd leave the room and we'd start laughing about what they were saying. The funniest part about the whole sitcom was the writing of the sitcom," Bouton laughs. "That should have been the show!"
One of the main obstacles Bouton and his co-creators faced in writing the series was the issue of translating ballplayer dialogue to network television in a realistic and/or believable fashion, since Joe Schultz-style epithets were obviously not going to fly on network TV. "You couldn't say 'Horseshit,'" Bouton explains. "You could have 'Horse!', or maybe 'Horse-crock!' There were all sorts of ways they had to neuterize it." But swearing wasn't the only aspect of life in the majors that was deemed off-limits; because CBS had scheduled the show to run on Wednesdays during Family Viewing Hour—the FCC had mandated in 1975 that all network shows broadcast in the first hour of prime time must be "family-friendly" in content—CBS's Standards and Practices department also forbade any spitting, burping, chewing of tobacco, popping of "greenies," or any other potentially offensive behavior from the show's characters. "We were not allowed to put any of the grittiness of life in the majors on the screen," Bouton says. With every network note, Ball Four the sitcom became less and less like Ball Four the book.
If sanitized content was an automatic strike one against Ball Four, then strike two came when the network decided to cast Bouton as the show's lead. Bouton would portray Jim Barton, an aging pitcher who alienates his teammates on the fictional Washington Americans by writing tell-all pieces for Sports Illustrated. Bouton certainly had the real-life qualifications to play the part, and he'd acquitted himself nicely as the creepy playboy Terry Lennox in Robert Altman's 1973 production of The Long Goodbye, but sitcom acting was, well, a whole other ballgame. "They probably thought casting me would be inexpensive, because I was not a real actor," laughs Bouton. "And who knew what a difficult chore that would be?"
"I think too much of it was put on Jim's shoulders," says Golenbock, a friend of Bouton's who was briefly roped into the Ball Four writers' room. "He was a ballplayer, and he was an author, and he was a fabulous sportscaster, but he didn't have a great deal of experience in show business. And my sense was that he didn't get the help that he could have had, either as a TV writer or an actor. But I gave the guy a tremendous amount of credit for having the balls to go out there and be the lead in a TV show. A lot of people would have said, 'I can't do this!'"
While the show's opening credits were shot at Washington, D.C.'s RFK Stadium (and featured a theme song performed by popular singer-songwriter Harry Chapin), the bulk of Ball Four's action was filmed in New York City in front of a live audience, and was set in the team's clubhouse or hotel before and after ballgames. The cast featured some talented actors, including Lenny Schultz as Lenny "Birdman" Siegel (a quacking pitcher who was always in the whirlpool), Jack Somack as the crusty manager "Cap" Capogrosso, Jaime Tirelli as the injury-prone Latin player Orlando Lopez, and David James Carroll as Bill Westlake, a rookie pitcher who was probably gay, though Standards and Practices squashed any overt mention of it. Though Tirelli was erroneously reported at the time to have played minor league baseball, the only other real pro athlete in the cast besides Bouton was Ben Davidson, a three-time AFL all-star defensive end who'd gone into acting after he'd retired from football. The 6'8" Davidson played the hulking catcher "Rhino" Rhinelander, and Bouton says he particularly enjoyed improvising with him on the set.
"Ben was a professional football player from that same era of characters that I played baseball in, so we played off each other very well," he explains. "We accidentally did some really wonderful things, but we often weren't allowed to do them." There was one time, Bouton recalls, when Davidson, himself no stranger to locker-room mischief, went off-script and hung one of the other actors by the back of his shirt from a clubhouse clothes hook. "The CBS guys were like, 'What are you doing? That's not a good idea! We've got a liability here!'"
It didn't take the suits at CBS to realize that they had a much bigger liability on their hands. Critics were not kind to Ball Four's opening episode—Sports Illustrated's review, which cited the show's "mediocrity," was one of the nicer ones—and Wednesday night TV viewers mostly chose to tune in to ABC's The Bionic Woman, instead. "We were having a good time," Bouton says. "We were enjoying ourselves. But the censor wasn't enjoying it, and the CBS vice presidents weren't enjoying it. And apparently, right off the bat, the audiences didn't like it very much, either!"
Strike three came when the network realized that the show was performing so badly, it was actually bringing down the ratings of Good Times and All in the Family, the popular CBS sitcoms that ran before and after it on Wednesday evenings. On October 20, just four episodes into its rookie season, CBS announced that it was cutting Ball Four from their fall lineup. Ironically, the show's NBC competition that night was supposed to have been Game Four of the 1976 World Series, between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees, Bouton's former team. The game wound up being rained out, but would-be World Series viewers balked at the idea of checking out Ball Four, instead.
"For whatever reason, the consensus was that it just didn't draw enough of an audience, which is a shame," says Golenbock. "But it was a shame only for those of us who cared enough to start it out and follow it along; once it disappeared, I don't think three people gave it two thoughts. But that's true of any of these shows that don't make it. And I think the attitude of the people who put it together was, 'Well, we gave it a good try.' It was certainly a worthwhile experiment. I don't think the important thing, necessarily, is whether it succeeded or failed."
Indeed, rather than be heartbroken by the bad news, Bouton says that he and his co-creators were ecstatic. "They told us, 'We're going to have to cancel this show.' We said, 'Ohhh, thank you! Now we can live our lives—we can sleep, we can have weekends, we can have friends over. We can be real people again!' It was like, 'God, please don't let me write any more scripts!'"
Freed from his acting and screenwriting obligations, Bouton turned his focus back to his original occupation: Throwing a baseball. In 1977, at the age of 38, the washed-up fireballer-turned-knuckleballer began an incredible comeback journey. "Well, I needed to get out of the TV business by then, for my own safety," he laughs. "I'd been playing semi-pro baseball in New Jersey, amateur baseball, and I was pitching pretty good for a guy who was in his late thirties; I was having a good time, my knuckleball started to move around, and I thought it might be a good idea to go down to spring training and see if I could work out with some minor league team."
Bouton's comeback would see him pitch for the Portland Mavericks—an independent minor league team later memorialized in the wonderful 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball—farm clubs in the White Sox and Braves organizations, and finally, for five games in 1978, in the majors for Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves. On September 14 of that year, Bouton threw six innings against the Giants at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, giving up only three hits and one (unearned) run. It was his first major league victory in eight years.
"Only a real nut, like a Bill Veeck or a Ted Turner, would say, 'Hey, that sounds like fun! Let's see what happens!'" says Bouton, who retired from the game for good following the 1978 season. "It was kind of like a sitcom, only you had more control over it—and I was not humiliating myself on national television!"
Save for the show's opening credit sequences, it's currently impossible to find any clips from Ball Four's five episodes anywhere on the Internet. "And that's a good thing, too," laughs Bouton. "I'm hoping they don't exist anymore, just for mercy purposes." Still, he says, his fond memories of writing the show, goofing with the cast, and having his children Michael, David, and Laurie with him at the live tapings far outweigh any regrets he might associate with it.
"I never think about it as a negative in my life," he reflects. "It's not like, 'Oh boy, we really screwed that up,' or, 'That was terrible!' It was so much fun just to sit there and fail at a very high level."
Forty years later, with cable networks regularly programming the kind of shows that the "Big Three" would have never dreamed of airing in the 1970s—and, specifically, with the success of the gleefully, luridly profane Eastbound and Down—it's tempting to wonder if Ball Four was just several decades ahead of its time. "It might have been," says Bouton, "And it might get there yet, by another route. Who knows?"
Would he want to be involved with a re-booted cable version of Ball Four, should one come to pass? Bouton ponders the question for a second. "Uh, not in an important role," he laughs.