Jim Bouton called the News & Record one morning and asked an odd question.
There were only a few of us in the office: Wilt Browning, Larry Keech, Bill Hass and maybe one or two others. Getting a call from the former Yankee out of the blue was strange enough, but what he wanted to know sent a chill down my spine.
I took the call and quickly started looking around the office for someone to talk to him. I wanted no part of it.
I looked at Wilt, who I figured probably knew Bouton from his days as a baseball writer for the Braves. I didn’t tell him who was one the phone. I just transferred the call and watched his expression.
Now before we get too deep into this, it should be noted that Wilt didn’t care much for Bouton. But being the nicest man I’ve ever known, Wilt took the call and calmly listened to Bouton’s questions.
“Is there anybody there who was at the paper when I was in Greensboro?” he wanted to know.
Bouton passed away this week at 80, a pitcher who won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963, bounced around the majors for a few more years before his arm went numb, then learned how to throw a knuckleball. That’s the short version of his major-league career.
He’s best known for writing the code-breaking, tell-all novel about the secret side of baseball, which is why he became a pariah among players and sportswriters of his era. “Ball Four” was a game-changing book.
It also changed the way sportswriters covered professional sports from then on. Wilt did write a column about that.
You will excuse me if I didn't break out in measles when word came that Jim Bouton was comin…
But back to the call. Bouton played in Greensboro in 1960, one year with the G-Yanks. He had a pretty good season, but that wasn’t why he was calling. He asked Wilt the same question he asked me.
“Did I have a girlfriend there?”
Baseball in the minors now is really no different than it was in the '60s, and “baseball Annies” are a part of the game. I can remember going to the final game at old War Memorial Stadium, where Bouton played. I was there to write about the last game of the old park in 2004 before we built the downtown park.
What I’ll never forget was the girls waiting outside for the players, many of them holding letters and asking me to deliver them to the guys packing their bags and preparing to leave Greensboro for the last time.
It’s a scene played out at every minor-league ballpark across the nation every year. And apparently, in 1960, there were a lot of young Yankees trying to steal away without having to face the girls they were leaving behind. But this was different. One of the girls in 1960 was pregnant.
Bouton had no memory of it, and I have no memory of what came of that call, if anything. I know we didn’t write it. But years later, when Bouton returned to War Memorial as part of a group trying to save old ballparks around the country, I drove over to Yanceyville and Lindsay to talk to him.
After a brief tour of the old park and a press conference of sorts, I pulled the old pitcher aside and asked if he remembered calling the newspaper that morning. He said he didn’t. I told him what he’d asked, and the color went from his face.
Bouton quietly put his hand on my shoulder and we walked away so no one could hear us.
“I remember that,” he said. “I’ve thought about that a lot through the years. All of us did. She was trying get in touch with more than just me.”
He looked at me to make sure I understood him.
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “I know that now. But we don’t know whose kid that was.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds before he shook his head.
“It’s a sad story,” Bouton said. “I’ve never spoken to her, but I know a few of my teammates have.”
He said he had no idea how it turned out.
The kid would turn 59 this year.
Baseball, like all professional sports, is more than just a game. And there is indeed another side that few of us know about.
Bouton pulled the curtain back for everyone to see when he wrote his book in 1970.
I stepped through that curtain with him in 2004. He allowed me to look around just for a brief second. But there was no one there.
Jim Bouton’s 1960 was gone forever.