There are two 50-year anniversaries that are approaching of considerable significance: On July 20, it will be Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, and on Aug. 15, it will be the start of the Woodstock music festival, the event that set the anything-goes standard for the crazed ‘70s that were to follow.
In between, there is also a 50-year anniversary that is significant in Twins’ history: Early on the morning of Aug. 7, 1969, manager Billy Martin decked pitcher Dave Boswell outside the Lindell AC, the bar for sporting types in downtown Detroit.
This came a couple of hours after the second game of what would be a 16-day, 15-game, five-city road trip (Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Washington, Boston) for the first-place Twins.
There will be more on this as the anniversary approaches, undoubtedly, but what has fascinated me in previous looks back at the Twins’ version of Detroit Hit Men is that it was initially covered up by reporters and TV-radio crews traveling with the team.
Apparently, there was a plea from the team to not report this event, and the silence held for three days. I was a kid covering high schools in 1969 and suspect that my reaction to such a plea would have been the same at that moment.
What I also suspect is if such a fight occurred one year later, the reporters on that trip would have dismissed out of hand a plea not to reveal the fight because it would “hurt the team.’’
That’s how much I believe Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four’’ (published in June 1970) changed the way we covered teams and any obligation felt to defend the home team in controversial situations even when that team didn’t deserve the defending.
Ball Four was revolutionary. Bouton’s diary of his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros (with look backs to his World Series-winning Yankees days) gave more than enlightenment to readers on real goings-on with the occupants of clubhouses and locker rooms.
Ball Four also created an expectation from readers that sports writers were going to provide anecdotes, a smile here and there, and the truth as they knew it. In other words, if a manager had a duke-out with a pitcher, it would be a story to relish – to seize upon instantly, to rush into print, and a request for a cover-up would have been an added detail and further embarrassment to the team.
Ball Four changed us. We might be changing back, thanks to an internet age filled with the “home team-in-white hats’’ coverage of the pre-Bouton era, but Ball Four changed sports writing for decades.
Yes, there was great and irreverent sports writing before Bouton’s book. I mean, you read Red Smith way back to his baseball beat-writing days in Philadelphia, and there is hilarity in the finest style.
The Red passage that always comes to my mind was written before World War II. He was covering the Phillies, and believe it or not, they were playing a game at San Quentin prison on a preseason barnstorming trip, and Smith suggested this:
That the Phillies had committed more crimes in their line of work (playing baseball) than had most of the occupants of “this home for wayward boys.’’
San Quentin. A home for wayward boys. Red didn’t need Jim Bouton’s permission for irreverence. I think a lot of us did, though, and Ball Four gave it to us.
As mentioned, I still was a high school writer. My locker rooms had been Duluth East and St. Cloud State and Aldrich Arena for doubleheaders on a Saturday.
So, yeah, I might have been a sports writer, but Ball Four was an eye-opener for me as well as fans.
Example: Before Ball Four, Dick Radatz was “The Monster,’’ the side-arming, hard-throwing reliever of the Red Sox. In Ball Four, there was a Radatz tale from his days of small wages and with a family to feed, when he was paid $200 by a gent to come to a hotel room and throw a crate oranges at the pain-lover’s bare buttocks.
“And that’s when I could bring it,’’ Radatz added.
Five decades later, when coming across any reference to The Monster, two things come to mind: Harmon Killebrew saying later that Radatz was the pitcher that he most-hated to face, and the crate of oranges.
Speaking of Harmon: Ball Four includes a grand tribute to Killebrew as the American League’s most-feared slugger of the time. Turned out, he was “Brew’’ to most of the league’s players, but he was “the Fat Kid’’ to pitcher Fritz Peterson and the Yankees of the 1960s.
There was this exchange as Peterson returned to the clubhouse, where Bouton (a starting pitcher then) was hanging out in-game:
Bouton—“How’d you do, Fritz?’’
Peterson—“The Fat Kid hit a double with the bases loaded.’’
You saw that as a writer covering high schools and thought, “I want that quote. I would give $5 for that quote, and I’m broke.’’
Ball Four. It changed the way people looked at sports, and to a large degree, wrote about sports.
I’ve told this story. Probably self-serving more than anything, but here goes:
In the mid-May of 2005, I received a call at home from Glen Crevier, the Star Tribune sports editor. The Strib’s Kevin Seifert was breaking a story that Onterrio Smith, a Vikings running back, had been detained recenty at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for having a device in his possession that could hold clean urine and was devised to beat a drug test. It even had a great name: the Original Whizzinator.
Crevier explained the details of Seifert’s scoop as best he could, and said there was no column scheduled for the next morning’s edition, and would I like to produce one?
I had Crevier run through the details again and then said: “Glen, I would pay you $500 to write this column.’’
I credit Jim Bouton, who died on Wednesday at age 80, for my workaholic attitude in that situation.