DANBURY -- The Danbury Westerners kicked off their season in hilarious fashion on Friday morning at their Celebrity Breakfast at the Amber Room Colonnade.
The keynote speaker at the 18th annual event was former Yankees pitcher and acclaimed author Jim Bouton, and he had the crowd of several hundred roaring with laughter as he told story after story from his career in the major leagues. Many of those stories were documented in Bouton's groundbreaking and controversial 1970 book, "Ball Four." The book provided a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the lives of professional ballplayers and talked about topics that had previously been considered off-limits. It included stories about players drinking and carousing, and other late-night shenanigans.
And in telling these stories, Bouton -- whose 10-year big-league career included seven seasons with the Yankees from 1962-68 -- ruffled quite a few feathers. At the time it was published, ballplayers led fairly secret lives. It wasn't like nowadays, where a player's every move and misstep are fodder for radio talk shows and splashed all over the internet. The book shined a light on America's childhood heroes and revealed them as far more.
"I had so much being a baseball player. I thought the characters were great, and it was just a marvelous experience. I had to write about it. ... So I kept notes," Bouton told the crowd at the Amber Room. "The notes eventually became a book called `Ball Four.' It was very controversial. It was front-page news in every newspaper in the country -- not just the sports section, but the front page of the newspaper -- that this guy Bouton had written all of these locker-room secrets and behind-the-scenes stories."
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted to ban the book.
"He wanted me to sign a statement saying that the book wasn't true," Bouton recalled. "And, of course, this was a wonderful thing for him to do, because now everybody in the country wanted to read the book that the baseball commissioner didn't want them to read.
"I'm happy to say, that after 40 years, `Ball Four' has sold nearly five million copies," Bouton said. "And I owe it all to the baseball commissioner, which is why I dedicated my second book to him."
Bouton won 21 games in 1963 and 18 in 1964, then beat the St. Louis Cardinals twice in the 1964 World Series, which the Yankees won. He recalled a particular story about his first game as a Yankee rookie in 1962.
"Fifty years ago last month, I pitched my first game in the big leagues. Yankee Stadium. All my family was there, uncles, cousins, brothers, neighbors. I must've left about 40 passes," he began. "My first chance in the big leagues. I go out to the mound and I walk the first batter. I walk the second batter. They're warming up in the bullpen already. I walked the third batter. I got the bases loaded, nobody out. My brother was so distraught, my dad said, that at one point he had two cigarettes going. Bases loaded, 3-1 on the batter, and I throw a fastball a little bit above the belt. And (Yankees manager) Ralph Houck steps out of the dugout to come get me. The umpire calls it a strike, and he steps back into the dugout. The next pitch, the batter pops it up. I get out of the inning, and I end up pitching a complete-game shutout. I walked seven guys, and I gave up seven hits. Fourteen runners I stranded. I pitched the whole game from the stretch. After the game, Ralph Houck came over to me and said `Any more shutouts like that and we're going to need a new bullpen.'
"After the game," Bouton continued, "I was delayed in the dugout to do an interview with Red Barber. By the time I got to the locker room, it was about five or 10 minutes later. I open the door to the clubhouse, and I see a path of white towels leading from the clubhouse door over to my locker. Standing in front of my locker is Mickey Mantle, laying down the last towel. I will never forget Mickey Mantle giving me the white-carpet treatment after my first start in the big leagues."
Bouton, who signed autographs and posed for pictures with the fans in attendance, had a simple message for the Westerners players in attendance:
"One day, you guys will be signing autographs when you get to the big leagues, and I'll tell you what that experience is like. Kids will come up to you and they will say `Are you anybody?' That's what happened to me, and I'd say `Yeah, I pitch for the New York Yankees.' And they'd say `You pitch for the Yankees? Could you get me Mickey Mantle's autograph?'"
Bouton also shared his opinion on the current state of affairs in baseball.
"I know a lot of people think that baseball players make too much money," he said. "The way I look at it, for 100 years, the owners (took advantage of) the players. For 30 years, the players have (taken advantage of) the owners, and they have 70 years to go."
Among the local dignitaries in attendance Friday morning was Gilbert Hernandez Black, a Danbury resident and a former Negro Leagues player. Black will be lecturing at the Danbury Museum on August 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. about his experiences playing segregated baseball. The event is free to the public. Check out the museum's website (DanburyMuseum.org) for details on its summer-long display entitled "Covering all the Bases: A Pictoral History of Danbury Baseball."
Great minds think alike
This past offseason, Westerners Director of Baseball Operations Jack Deering met with many of the best baseball minds in the area, including youth, high school and college coaches. The topic of discussion was furthering the careers of the talented young players who come through the many local programs and helping them advance.
"The main goal is to create a database of high school seniors and where they go to college so we can track them, and also the talented seniors who are not college-bound," said Deering, who has spent more than 60 years in baseball and was once a scout for the San Francisco Giants. "I can get them looked at."
The eighth annual Westerners Charity Golf Classic is set for July 18 at Richter Park Golf Course in Danbury. Celebrity guests scheduled to appear include former big-leaguers Howard Johnson and Tommy John.
Those wishing to participate in the event, either as a player or a sponsor, should contact Westerners president Paul Schaffer at 203-241-4655. Check out the Westerners website (DanburyWesterners.com) for details.