Keith Hernandez On Baseball, 'Seinfeld' And Being His Own 'Worst Enemy'

Jul 12, 2019

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Jim Bouton, the former big-league pitcher better known for his prose than his fastball, died Wednesday at his home in Massachusetts. He was 80.

In 1970, Bouton wrote the book "Ball Four," a raunchy insider's look at the game that drew heavily on Bouton's seven seasons with the New York Yankees. He wrote about players getting drunk, peeping through keyholes at women and popping amphetamines like candy. The book enraged players and some sportswriters and drew a rebuke from commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but it was a bestseller.

After a respectable baseball career, Bouton wrote several other books, did some acting and sportscasting and was a George McGovern delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention. Bouton spoke with Terry in 1986 and began with a story from "Ball Four" about Mickey Mantle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIM BOUTON: I think the most controversial story in the book was I told about the time Mickey Mantle hit a home run with a hangover. And it wasn't really even so much as a put-down of Mickey Mantle as it was a story of what a great athlete he was. I told about the time we were in Minnesota. And we'd been out the night before a game, having a few drinks - about 2 o'clock in the morning, I guess it was. I don't want to say Mickey was drunk, but he spent about a half an hour trying to make a telephone call from a grandfather's clock.

So he comes into the ballpark the following morning, and he's hungover. And the manager says, you know, sleep it off. Most managers were players themselves. They understand you come to the ballpark once in a while with a hangover.

So Mick is sleeping in the trainer's room. We're playing the Minnesota Twins. We get - stick somebody else in the outfield. And so the game's going on, and it gets tie score after nine innings. And in about the 12th inning, the manager says, I hate to do it, but I need a pinch hitter in the 13th. Go in and wake up the Mick.

So we go in the trainer's room, you know, wake up Mickey Mantle, dress him in his uniform, steer him through the tunnel up into the dugout. Thirteenth inning comes around - he put a bat in Mickey's hands and point him in the direction of home plate. The Mick staggers up to the plate. Fortunately, he's a switch hitter - doesn't matter what side he gets on - steps into the batter's box.

To show you what a great athlete this guy was - and Mickey was the best ballplayer I ever saw - he takes one practice swing and hits the first pitch into the center field bleachers, a tremendous blast 450 feet away. We win the game. The crowd is going nuts, and the players are going crazy in the dugout. We're laughing and pointing and screaming and slapping each other on the back. And suddenly, it occurs to us he still has to round those bases.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

BOUTON: There's a rule in baseball that you must touch the bases in order. Fortunately, he heads off in the right direction. The minute he hits first base, the entire dugout goes, make a left - goes around, touches second, touches third, comes across, misses home plate - we have to send him back for that - comes over to the dugout.

And, of course, the fans are giving him a standing ovation. And as he's waving to the crowd, he looks at us in the dugout, and he says, those people don't know how tough that really was. I went over to his locker afterwards, and I said, how did you do that? You couldn't even see up there. He said, it was very simple. I hit the middle ball.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOUTON: So if this destroys America's illusions about baseball or Mickey Mantle, then I don't know what you do with all the literature that's come out since then where each player tries to top the next in terms of what he can tell or how far he can go.

GROSS: Pitching careers are subject to more problems than other careers are, I think, because your arm is so vulnerable. And your career depends on your arm, and it's what you're abusing all the time.

BOUTON: Sure. And pitching is not a natural motion. Throwing a ball as hard as you can 120 times every four days is not natural.

GROSS: Did you have to change your pitching style because of injuries you were getting?

BOUTON: Well, I had to change my pitching style when I wasn't able to throw hard anymore. See, what happened was I threw very hard when I first came up. I was a overhand fastball pitcher. And then when I hurt my arm, I wasn't able to throw hard for a while. And then when I did, it - the ball didn't have that zip on it anymore. It didn't have that snap. Even though the ball was traveling as fast, it wasn't moving.

So it's like taking a rubber band and stretching it too far, and then it never gets its elasticity back again. And that's what happened to my arm. So I had to change from being a fastball pitcher to a knuckleball pitcher.

Fortunately, when I was a kid, I threw a knuckleball, which is not a pitch that requires very much strength. It's a skill pitch. You push it off with your fingertips. The idea is to get the ball to go through the air without any rotation, and then it jumps around all by itself. And so I became a knuckleball pitcher to compensate for the fact that I couldn't throw hard anymore.

GROSS: How hard are knuckleballs to hit?

BOUTON: They're almost impossible to hit when you throw a good one. The difficulty is throwing a good one. When you don't throw a good one, anybody can hit them. That's the problem with a knuckleball. Nobody can hit a well-thrown knuckleball, and almost anybody can hit a poorly thrown knuckleball.

GROSS: Say it was a full count, and there were a couple of men on base. What would you throw? Would you throw a knuckleball, knowing that if you made one more - one wrong move, it might be a home run 'cause...

BOUTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...It's easier to hit?

BOUTON: I would throw a knuckleball. I would throw a knuckleball because my feeling is I would rather live and die with my best pitch than take a chance with something that wasn't my best.

GROSS: Did you have any gestures that you had to do before you threw a pitch and, like, rub your hand on your side three times or (laughter)...

BOUTON: Nothing that was superstitious. Sure, I went through the same sort of little rituals before I threw the ball because it's important to do that. And athletes need to do that and many performers need to do that because those are the little steps that are really part of the process.

Throwing a ball is not just throwing a ball. Part of it starts when you walk out to the mound - how you walk out to the mound, how you feel about yourself and the fans and the batter and the whole - I mean, all of that - the rosin bag in your hand, how the ball feels. And you want to start playing with that ball in your hand so you get that feeling, and you want to recreate the memory - the muscle memory that brings you back to the last time you were really throwing well. And that whole process starts long before you actually throw the ball.

GROSS: Why do pitchers like to chew when they're on the mound?

BOUTON: Part of it is because of the nervousness and the tension. And it's sort of - chewing relieves that. But the spitting part is different, OK? Spitting - and also all this crotch grabbing and spitting back and forth that you see in Major League Baseball - there's a real reason for that. There's a behavioral reason for that. And that is that what these are is macho displays, OK? It's a man-to-man challenge out there, the pitcher versus the batter. And it's very much like two cats squaring off where they both have to sort of urinate on the shrubbery, saying, OK, this is my yard. I own this space. And the other cat's saying, yeah, but I own my space, and then they're fighting.

You see, what the batter is is - he steps into the batter's box and he spits all over the place. He's saying he's - that's his turf. The pitcher is saying, oh, yeah? Well, (imitating spitting) this is my turf out here, and now we'll see who's the best. And so that's why you have that. It's that mano-a-mano challenge situation, you know? And that's what they are. They're animals marking their territory.

GROSS: Jim Bouton, I want to thank you very much.

BOUTON: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Jim Bouton spoke with Terry Gross in 1986. Bouton died Wednesday at the age of 80. Coming up, we'll remember actor Rip Torn, best known for his role as Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.