Book Review: "Foul Ball"

I was just hanging out in Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago, and wandered over, as I often do, to the baseball book section looking for something new to read.

I found the Sporting News Baseball Register, which I buy every year -- and this year, it's been changed into a "fantasy" stat book as well as the usual Register, with many sabermetric stats. I suppose this is a reaction to the Bill James Handbook, which has been doing this sort of thing for a few years now.

Anyway.

Jim Bouton's latest, "Foul Ball", also caught my eye, and having enjoyed "Ball Four" so much (and if you've never read it, what are you waiting for?), I thought I'd give it a shot.

What I found was some amazing and funny writing, a story that made me shake my head and say "What are these people thinking??", and something that is well worth your time.

The basic story is this: Bouton and his wife, who used to live in New Jersey, moved to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts several years ago. The nearest town of any size that had (and you'll see why I used past tense shortly) professional baseball was Pittsfield -- in fact, a Cubs farm team played there from 1985-88; among the future Cubs who played in Pittsfield were Greg Maddux, Mark Grace and Joe Girardi. When the Eastern League left Pittsfield after 1988, their nearly 100-year-old ballpark, Wahconah Park, became home to the NY-Penn League (short-season A) Pittsfield Mets.

After the 2000 season, that club left, was replaced for one year by the Pittsfield Astros, and then it appeared that Pittsfield, after more than a century of pro ball, would have no team in 2002 and after.

That's where Bouton and a couple of his partners came in, proposing to renovate Wahconah Park -- host to baseball since 1892 -- and bring either an affiliated team or an independent league team in the Northern or Atlantic League, to play there.

What they found was obstructionist politics, the "powers that be" lined up against them -- even though virtually the entire citizenry of Pittsfield was behind them, and against a new stadium which would have been built with public money. Bouton and his group were willing to finance the entire thing privately.

After a few months of this, which Bouton writes about with the same wit and good humor you find in "Ball Four", they gave up. The book was originally published in 2002.

Then, something amazing happened. After failing to get a team in Pittsfield in 2002 or 2003, the "powers that be" invited Bouton's group back to try again. They were promised they wouldn't have any political interference. Thus, "Part II" of the book.

What happened at first seemed absolutely wonderful -- SABR member John Thorn, helping them out, stumbled upon a document that you might have heard about in the summer of 2004, a local ordinance prohibiting the playing of 'baseball' near the meeting house, dated 1791, or a full 48 years before the fabricated 'invention' of baseball by Abner Doubleday. This might have made Pittsfield baseball's "Garden of Eden", as they put it.

And then Bouton's group put on a game of "Vintage Baseball", played under 1886 rules, between a Pittsfield team and one from what would have then been their arch-rival from Hartford, televised by ESPN Classic and bringing some national attention and tourist dollars to Pittsfield.

What Bouton's group got for their efforts was basically a big fat razzberry from everyone ranging from the mayor, to the city council, to construction unions (hey, I'm a union member and member of union councils, but these guys slit their own throats and I hate when they do that to themselves), all the way to the Massachusetts Attorney General, even though they weren't asking for a dime of public money (and wound up several hundred thousand dollars in personal debt as a result of three years' work).

Read the book to find out what happened (I'll give you a clue -- Pittsfield still doesn't have a professional baseball team), but there is a remarkable event in which Bouton's wife Paula basically reams them all out. That's near the end of the book, but worth reading 400+ pages to get there.

You can read more, and some updates on what's happened since 2004, at his Foul Ball website -- note! Audio pops out of this site without warning, and no way to shut it off, and I hate websites that do that.

But that's the only negative note about this book. You'll read it and shake your head that people can be so pigheaded.

AYRating: * * * 1/2

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