Book Review

Foul Ball My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark
Jim Bouton
Bulldog Publishing 2003

The author, of course, is known to many as a great pitcher for the New York Yankees and other teams. In 1963 he won 21 games for the Yankees and made the American League All-Star Team. In 1964 he won 18 and beat the Cardinals twice in the World Series.

His controversial 1969 book, Ball Four, became a best seller and was entered as evidence at an arbitration hearing that led to free-agency in major league baseball. Bouton claims that this writing resulted in a 28 year banishment from the Old Timer’s Game.

The dust cover of Foul Ball notes that he was forced to publish this one himself. It can be assumed that Bouton created Bulldog Publishing which is situated in his current hometown of North Egremont, Massachusetts. A glance at the Table of Contents gets one to wonder if the reason for such was his liberal use of foul language, which might be appropriate considering the title. On the other hand, off-color language has become so acceptable it must have more to do with the author’s frankness and explosive writing style. Whatever the case, once the reader becomes immunized, he will be rewarded with the relating of an intriguing tale.

Foul Ball is dedicated to the citizens of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who gathered signatures, forcing the government to cancel its plans to build a new stadium, that among other things would have doomed their old beloved ball park.

The Introduction does a splendid job of exposing the gross injustices and blunders generally associated with public involvement in the building of grandiose sports facilities. These Bouton refers to as hostage crises, created by professional sports teams who threaten localities to build a stadium or you will never see your team again. He notes that the only ones that truly want them are politicians, lawyers, and the media. Involved is prestige, exposure, patronage, graft, and kickback. He states that the amount of public money spent on sports stadiums in the past 15 years is estimated to be in excess of $16 billion, and that is just what is visible. Why build them if people do not want them, and why are they never allowed to vote on them? Bouton says the fiercest competition in sports these days is between governments and their own citizens.

It is noted that Rudolph Guliani pressured to have New York City build two new stadiums in New York City. And, this was after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the City facing a budget gap of $4 billion. Since 1985, 113 stadiums have been built nationwide, with taxpayer dollars, for major and minor league teams. Needless to say, this raises many questions. What is the justification? And, just who would reap the benefits?

For years the author followed with interest the fortunes of Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, one of the oldest in America, having hosted professional baseball teams since 1892. To attend a game at this historic site was to step back into time. Wahconah has been referred to as a definite old time major league experience, a great baseball cathedral, just a little bit of heaven, reeking of atmosphere with intimacy and character. Bouton notes for emphasis that in 1922 the legendary Jim Thorpe went three for four for Worcester against Pittsfield. Two years later Lou Gehrig played three games there.

Unfortunately, the City of Pittsfield was allowed to rot, while many of the surrounding communities boomed by taking advantage of tourist interest in their history. The plight of Wahconah was similar to that of parks across America. The team owner talked the City of Troy into building him a new stadium for his New York-Penn League. Wahconah was without a team. Then Pittsfield’s Berkshire Eagle began lobbying for a new stadium to be built on land it owned and was joined by a bank, law firm and media news group. They said they were assembling $185 million in state grants, revenue bonds, and corporate donations.

Bouton continued, noting that the people of Pittsfield did not want to say good-bye to Wahconah and in fact they had voted twice to renovate the facility. The elected officials ignored these votes. During the summer of 2000 opponents led a petition drive to counter the new park. Once again the City Council ignored it. Subsequently, they asked the State of Massachusetts to authorize the creation of a Civic Authority to build and operate a new stadium. Among other things such would grant the power of eminent domain to allow for the confiscation and demolition of businesses or homes that might be in the way. The gross abuses of the powers of eminent domain provide fruit for the creation of many other books. Certainly the construction of a facility for entertaining ticket holders and those reaping the revenues for providing such is undoubtedly beyond the intended power. Fortunately, the people of Pittsfield were wise enough to obtain sufficient signatures for overturning the Civic Authority.

Jim Bouton obviously had seen and heard enough. As he said, baseball is my religion and ballparks are the temples. The fear of the tearing down of a treasured structure was too much for him. He wanted to be able to take his grandchildren there one day.

The bulk of the remainder of Foul Ball chronicles, in diary form, pitch by pitch efforts by Bouton, his two associates, and the Pittsfield Wahconah Yes team to stifle the new stadium proposal and perpetuate the historical treasure during the period from June 13 through October 4, 2001. Jim Bouton obviously appreciates the importance of keeping meticulous notes, even in respect to the number of times they eat sushi, when you anticipate having to deal with politicians or lawyers of questionable character. His entries are so vivid that they could not have been drawn from memory.

Bouton and a friend, who is an investment banker, had come up with an in-depth idea to counter the workings of governmental agencies and officials, special interest groups, and the media. Indeed a very noble undertaking. Their alternative called for fixing up the old, existing park, buying an independent team, and even possibly making some money. Starting money would not be a problem, no cost to the taxpayer. The new theme would be private dollars to renovate an existing ballpark for a locally owned team. A third partner, who owns a number of successful minor league teams, was subsequently named.

It would appear that Bouton, in all of his dealings, did not mince his words and was dedicated to telling it the way it is. Undoubtedly, he was confident he could back up what he said. He was very free to suggest the possibilities of bribes and payoffs. He was not afraid to name names. Probably, the impression given that he could have fun with his project and be able to maintain his sense of humor, was rather disturbing to his opponents.

Then there was the matter of whether the proposed site for the new stadium involved a General Electric toxic waste dump and how this matter was, or was not, handled. And as to be expected the trio experienced delays, delays, stalling, no replies to letters, unanswered e-mails, and un-returned phone calls. They nonetheless managed to bring the community together, something that is rarely an easy task. After a while it appeared that the whole town was behind them. Undoubtedly, the fact that Bouton was an experienced motivational speaker helped. They humorously referred to themselves as the pit bull, bulldog, and bloodhound. Incidentally, the bulldog made sure that he gave due credit to his patient, supportive wife.

A public meeting held in the City Council Chamber on August 13th dramatically demonstrated the loyal support of their Wahconah Yes Team, with 60 or so attending. Bouton’s presentation received a rousing applause. The one presentation by a competitor had lost due to a “self-inflicted TKO.” Despite these resounding victories, it was once again a matter of the democratic process versus the usual everybody’s just going to have to live with it.

The last entry in the four month diary is for October 4th, which the author identifies as Decision Day. He reminisces that they had a marvelous time, starting out with a small dream and ending up in a morality play. For the people of Pittsfield, it confirms something that they have always known — the deck is stacked against them. The Parks Commission, which is characterized as being afraid of the big boys, voted 5 to 0 against the common sense approach.

There then follows a section entitled “A Year Later” in which he notes that he and his investment banker friend are in a different place. It is called home. They take pride in knowing that they turned a crumbling, decrepit dump, not worth saving into what the Parks Commission now refers to as a national treasure, and a jewel that must be protected. Further information had been revealed on the wheeling and dealing that had been going on among the cast of characters. The reasons for his decision to publish this book himself are detailed. On a positive note, a ray of hope was provided by the 2001 election, which resulted in a change in mayors and six new council members.

In the “Author’s Note” section Bouton recognizes that he was blessed with a marvelous cast of characters and a story that told itself. All he had to do was watch, listen, and take notes — three cartons of them. Foul Ball also includes a 38 page appendix of pertinent documents.

Jim Bouton’s suggestion that www.foulball.com provides the latest update was heeded. Entries retrieved include a January 13, 2004 letter from Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto to Jim Bouton and his aides saying “on behalf of the City of Pittsfield, we invite you to bring minor league baseball back to the city.” What a turn of events. The trio and their Wahconah Yes supporters should be given a rousing applause. Perseverance, patience, and the tolerance of a lot of grief certainly paid off. On January 20, 2004, Bouton replied to the mayor with a letter saying “we accept” and “we are ready to move forward.” He stated that he and his partners have always believed that there is no limit to what can be accomplished when people work together.

Incidentally, in the process Bouton’s services have been sought by others confronted with similar monsters. Recently there was a piece in the New York Daily News relating his appearance at a church in Brooklyn preaching the evils of publicly funded stadiums. This had to do with plans for an arena for the New Jersey Nets. Shortly thereafter he appeared on WRGB television out of Albany announcing that the new mayor in Pittsfield had welcomed them with open arms. Albany, of course, should be fully aware of the pitfalls, with the demise of Heritage Park.

It will be interesting indeed to follow the progress of the restoration of Wahconah. Hopefully, a splendid example will be set by the parties involved. Expectations should be high since the fate has been taken out of the hands of losers and delegated to true winners.

Nate Dickinson
February 6, 2004

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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