Return of the Bulldog

If there’s one subject of this site which I’ve been truly lazy in dealing with, it’s books. I’m a voracious reader, and in addition to whatever else I’ve got going, there’s always a baseball book that I’m currently reading — new, old, or a revisited classic. I buy at least a dozen a year; alas, it seems as though I rarely get around to reviewing any of these for this blog.

Well over a year ago, I received a free book (which shall remain nameless) from a small publisher. It was extremely well-researched, but poorly written, and in dire need of a strong editor. On top of that the design was abysmal, right down to the garish cover art. In short, aside from the raw details it conveyed, it offended just about every sensibility I have when it comes to a baseball book. Not being in the mood to make an enemy — I do just fine at that without reviewing anything — I never did a writeup for the book.

Not that there’s any guarantee I would have finished it had I started. I tend to dig myself a hole when it comes to book writeups, one I’m often unable to climb out of. When I scooped up a copy of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in November 2001, I churned out about 4,000 words grappling with it, 4,000 words that stayed on my back burner so long they were charred beyond recognition. I’ve still got a half-finished Moneyball review rattling around on my iBook like a grizzled AAA slugger in search of a major-league roster spot.

I’ve resolved to change my ways in this area, even if it just means a few paragraphs here and there — at least they’ll be a few timely paragraphs. I already wrote a few words about it last month prior to reading it, but what follows here is my take on Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark.

• • •

Foul Ball is not a sequel to Ball Four. Those who come to Jim Bouton’s new book expecting a lighthearted story sprinkled with scandalously entertaining anecdotes about Whitey and the Mick or choice quotes along the lines of “Let’s pound that old Budweiser!” will be disappointed. Foul Ball isn’t even a baseball book, really. It’s the story of an underdog fighting for a cause. This (Bull)dog discovers not only that the deck is stacked against him, but that he’s stumbled into the midst of a silent war.

In the summer of 2000, the owner of the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) entry in the New York-Penn League announced that after the 2001 season he would move his team — the city of Troy, New York had agreed to build him a stadium. Shortly afterwards, Pittsfield’s only daily newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, began pushing for a new stadium of their own to replace Wahconah Park, the oldest minor-league ballpark in the country. This new ballpark would be built on land owned by the Eagle, at taxpayer expense, of course, and despite the fact that the city now had no team.

The citizens of Pittsfield weren’t buying. They resisted the efforts of the Berskshire Sports & Entertainment group (BS&E) formed to ramrod the stadium through. The BS&E bullied area residents with a “no stadium, no team” mantra, presenting their plan as if no alternatives existed and promising that the stadium would trigger “economic devlopment.”

Enter Bouton, a resident of North Egremont, a nearby Berkshires town, and not one to suffer such bull and bullying gladly. Taking his cue from the locals’ sentiment, Bouton siezed on the idea of restoring Wahconah Park and providing a team to play there. Joining forces with an investment banking friend (the amicably named Chip Elitzer) and an experienced minor-league franchise owner, Eric Margenau, Bouton put forth a proposal to save the park and baseball in Pittsfield as well.

The essence of his proposal was to provide 100% private financing to restore Wahconah, purchasing a team in either the Northern League or the Atlantic League (both independent leagues) and selling 51% of the team as stock to local owners, giving the city a ballclub that could not be moved and reversing “America’s newest hostage crisis” — the disturbing trend of franchises holding their cities hostage over new taxpayer-funded stadiums. Bouton could have called it the Field of Dreams Corollary: “If you don’t build it, we will go.”

Bouton and Elitzer took their cause to the people, building a grass-roots following in Pittsfield — one so strong that the new stadium proponents (the Eagle, the City Council, the Parks Commission, and the Mayor) refused to hold public hearings on their proposal, preferring back-room dealings, editorial-page innuendo, outright lies, and a mayor who confided that “the fix is in.” A succession of the mayor’s flunkies made their own plays to bring franchises to Pittsfield, all with the goal of using Wahconah only as a stepping stone to a new ballpark.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good story. If conflict is the essence of a good tale, this one has it in spades. Nearly every day (the book is written in diary form) features some clash with a figure of authority who’s trying to thwart the “Wahconah Yes” plan. Seldom does one hear a tale of public officials acting with such “naked disregard for the public good” (Elitzer’s term) on such a consistent basis. At one point, Bouton wearily summarized his campaign’s position:

The mayor says, “the fix is in.” The City Council president says he’s getting “an unbelievable amount of shit” from new-stadium councilors “and others.” A mayoral candidate says state officials told him “the city was lying about not having to put up money.” A state senator says he “knows” decisions are being made at a bar. And the Parks chairman is going around telling people we’re “out” before the Commission has voted.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Even worse than the above might imply. As Bouton persisted, he unravelled a tale much larger than a simple story about a ballpark. At some point he reallized he’s stumbled into the midst of a silent war between the people of Pittsfield and their small-minded “leaders,” a morally bankrupt power elite that literally sold Pittsfield down the Housatonic River when General Electric was discovered to have contaminated the local waters with carcinogenic PCBs.

Bouton’s intrepid pursuit of the GE trail carried deep ramifications. Bouton terminated his contract with PublicAffairs, the book’s initial publisher, after a top GE lawyer invested in the company and subsequently demanded removal of certain passages. Of course, this battle only provided more fodder for the Bulldog, by then revelling in his refashioned role as an knuckleballing iconoclast.

With the thirtieth anniversary of Ball Four, its republication with a new epilogue, and its placement as the sole sports book on the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century List, Bouton has reportedly closed the book on that chapter of his life. No longer rehashing familiar tales of his playing days to get his point across, the author has done an admirable job of adapting his style and format to suit his more grown-up exploits. In a story that’s alternately amusing, maddening and gut-wrenching, Foul Ball marks a welcome return for a legendary voice. Go, Bulldog, go!

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